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Gore's 'Assault' makes his case for an open market of ideas

The Assault on Reason, By Al Gore, Penguin, 308 pp., $25.95

Lots of former Bush boosters have been in damage-control mode ever since the spotlights of "shock and awe" that they focused on Iraqis and American liberals began turning back on them. Some even associate themselves retroactively with the early war skepticism and genuine contrition of William F. Buckley Jr., who wrote recently, "If I knew then what I know now about what kind of situation we would be in, I would have opposed the [Iraq] war."

Al Gore is having none of it. In his new work, "The Assault on Reason," he quotes Buckley's confession and answers, "One of the central points of this book is that we as Americans should have 'known then what we know now' -- not only about . . . Iraq but also about the climate crisis, and what would happen if the levees failed to protect New Orleans . . . and about many other fateful choices that have been made on the basis of flawed and even outright false information."

Gore insists that Bush boosters, especially, had every reason to know but made reason itself their enemy. And they intimidated us "as Americans" out of our civic-republican capacity to work up sound public intelligence through open communication, disciplined inquiry, and the self-confidence not to jump to conclusions.

While the pre-Bush past wasn't quite as Periclean as Gore implies, he's right that it's "simply no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse." Something has changed for the worse, and Gore names not William Kristol or Rupert Murdoch, but viruses they carry that are weakening our "immune system" against sound-bite alarmism.

The most virulent of these, he thinks, is "corporate consolidation and control over the marketplace of ideas," which diminish entrepreneurial and democratic freedoms by monopolizing the electronic media, whose relentless, ever-more-intimate intrusions are turning us from active citizens into passive consumers, sapping our disposition and skill to govern ourselves.

Gore isn't remotely conspiratorial or anticapitalist about this, as some may claim. He revives analyses of the public sphere by Walter Lippmann, Marshall McLuhan, and Jürgen Habermas to show how TV's one-directional image-making stimulates impulsiveness over reflection. Print's "meaningless" symbols make you think; repetitively violent TV imagery does the opposite, leaving a mental "vacuum . . . filled by fear, superstition, ideology, deception, intolerance, and obsessive secrecy."

Recent books by columnist Frank Rich and psychologist Drew Westin cover parts of this ground well, but what public leader has synthesized such material to reach out to us ? Gore taps James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, political theory, new technology, and cognitive and developmental psychology to blame the "withdrawal of reason from the public sphere" on profit-crazed disruptions of what should be the mutually reinforcing openness of free markets and democratic communication. He notes that Internet openness is reviving the mental stimulation of reading and writing, and its interactivity is reviving Revolutionary-era pamphleteering, generating new "committees of correspondence" and strengthening a "meritocracy of ideas" instead of letting conglomerates corner the "marketplace of ideas."

Some damage-controllers will sniff that Gore is naive and that, anyway, politics isn't ultimately about reason. But Gore's faith in human nature is braver and sharper than theirs. And he was prescient about the Internet's importance, even if he exaggerated his presence at its creation. This book isn't about him; it's about the republic whose freedoms depend on increasing reasoned debate and reducing intimidating noise. He's betting that democratic interactivity, not bombastic ideology, can strengthen the public immune system to support choices smarter and tougher than gas-guzzling convenience and what's viewed by many as a useless, spectator war.

If Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama stumbles, Gore may run. He won the popular vote in 2000, after all; he foresaw the threats to communication, climate, and our diplomatic credibility; and his movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," showcased a leader who's grown (although in one way too many for the image-driven media he scorns ).

But this isn't a campaign book or another venture in teaching and advocacy. It's a deep public remonstrance, inspired a little by Tom Paine's "Common Sense," which combined anger at King George III in his day with larger arguments that the institution of monarchy itself had become a threat to our liberties.

Gore is no Paine, but he argues persuasively that Bush's tenure is no longer a constitutional presidency. The book is part polemic, part impeachment in hard covers. Let the TV blowhards who will claim it's ponderous prove they can do better by turning Gore's harsh charges into hard questions for the would-be presidents who are assaulting us -- and reason -- with televised body language and cheap slogans.

Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, may be reached at