The Assault on Reason, by Al Gore (Penguin Press, 320 pp., $25.95)
The most surprising thing about The Assault on Reason, Al Gores current bestseller, is that for a little while it actually makes some sense. The first few dozen pages, while hyperpartisan, mainly excoriate a dumbed-down, trivia-and-celebrity-obsessed culture, and in the age of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan who could disagree?
But Al Gore is like one of those guys at a party with whom, once you get a few drinks in him, you never know whats coming. Hes liable to strip to his underwear or start spewing expletives or waddle over with an outstretched hand and ingratiating smile and suddenly go for your ear like Mike Tyson. For just beneath that aging prep-boy facade, theres an unmistakable anger and bitterness; where Bill Clinton has always seemed too comfortable in his skin, Gore has often seemed inclined to burst out of his, like some demented political version of the Incredible Hulk.
For me, the defining Al Gore story is the one that Ward Connerly, the longtime crusader against racial preferences, tells in his autobiography Creating Equal. Having been invited to the Clinton White House as part of a group of largely black conservatives to counter criticism that Clintons vaunted Initiative on Race was getting input from only one side, Connerly held forth on the great damage that he believed affirmative action and other well-intended policies had done to the ideal of a colorblind America. Clinton, he says, listened attentively, even sympathetically, and later threw his arm around him in brotherly solidarity. But Gore visibly seethedand afterward, when Connerly offered his hand, he seized it in a vicelike grip and, smiling coldly, kept squeezing, until there was no doubt in Connerlys mind that he was trying to hurt him.
The Assault on Reason is like that. Yes, its logically inconsistent and self-serving and unbelievably sanctimonious, but theres a lot of that going around. What ultimately makes the book so disturbing is that something pretending to be a brief for reason and comity is so unbelievably small and mean-spirited. It is less an argument than an extended tantrum. Reading it is often like being locked in a room with a madman.
Even more than most partisan commentators today (and of course there are more than a few on the right), Gore is blind to how recklessly he abuses facts and applies double standards, not to mention to his own viciousness. He continually rails, for instance, against those who use fear and simplistic nostrums disguised as solutions to sway an inattentive and emotionally malleable public, causing it to overreact to illusory threats and underreact to real threatsthis from the man behind the global-warming frenzy, who consistently downplays the menace of international terrorism.
He describes his conservative adversaries as nothing less than monsters, who hold their views not out of genuine conviction about whats good for the country but because they are wholly indifferent to the general good. Moreover, he piously adds, the Right often manifests a complete lack of empathy toward other Americans whom it identifies as its ideological enemies. Yet a little further on, hes applauding the special-interest groups on the left as advocates of a broad and effuse public interest who rely mainly on the force of argument and the rule of reasoning, regretting only that they lack access to the same supplies of concentrated wealth as those on the right. He bemoans hatred as entertainment, reserving special venom for the Limbaugh-Hannity-Drudge Axis, yet cites the likes of Paul Krugman and Joseph Wilson as decent and fair-minded commentators.
Most bizarre of all, he insistsindeed, this is his main pointthat the public sphere is simply no longer as open to the vigorous and free exchange of ideas from individuals as it was when America was founded (this on page 26), and then manages not to discuss the Internet for another 230 pages. When he finally does, he blithely contradicts almost all of the alarmist claptrap that came earlier, proclaiming that broadband interconnection is supporting decentralized processes that reinvigorate democracy.
That The Assault on Reason has sold well is surely because Al Gore is now a name brand with whom a certain stripe of leftist is eager to identify. One is reminded of a recent marketing survey of Prius owners, which revealed that as many as 50 percent of those buying the Toyota hybrid do so because, unlike the Honda and Ford hybrids (which can be mistaken for regular Civics and Escapes), the Prius is immediately identifiable as a badge of virtue. Rest assured that this book, a similar emblem, will spend a lot more time on Hamptons coffee tables than at the beach.