an excerpt from
The Assault on Reason
by Al Gore
Published on Thursday, May 17, 2007 by Time Magazine
Not long before our nation launched the invasion of Iraq, our longest-serving Senator, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, stood on the Senate floor and said: “This chamber is, for the most part, silent—ominously, dreadfully silent. There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war. There is nothing. We stand passively mute in the United States Senate.”
Why was the Senate silent?
In describing the empty chamber the way he did, Byrd invited a specific version of the same general question millions of us have been asking: “Why do reason, logic and truth seem to play a sharply diminished role in the way America now makes important decisions?” The persistent and sustained reliance on falsehoods as the basis of policy, even in the face of massive and well-understood evidence to the contrary, seems to many Americans to have reached levels that were previously unimaginable.
A large and growing number of Americans are asking out loud: “What has happened to our country?” People are trying to figure out what has gone wrong in our democracy, and how we can fix it.
To take another example, for the first time in American history, the Executive Branch of our government has not only condoned but actively promoted the treatment of captives in wartime that clearly involves torture, thus overturning a prohibition established by General George Washington during the Revolutionary War.
It is too easy—and too partisan—to simply place the blame on the policies of President George W. Bush. We are all responsible for the decisions our country makes. We have a Congress. We have an independent judiciary. We have checks and balances. We are a nation of laws. We have free speech. We have a free press. Have they all failed us? Why has America’s public discourse become less focused and clear, less reasoned? Faith in the power of reason—the belief that free citizens can govern themselves wisely and fairly by resorting to logical debate on the basis of the best evidence available, instead of raw power—remains the central premise of American democracy. This premise is now under assault.
American democracy is now in danger—not from any one set of ideas, but from unprecedented changes in the environment within which ideas either live and spread, or wither and die. I do not mean the physical environment; I mean what is called the public sphere, or the marketplace of ideas.
It is simply no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse. I know I am not alone in feeling that something has gone fundamentally wrong. In 2001, I had hoped it was an aberration when polls showed that three-quarters of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for attacking us on Sept. 11. More than five years later, however, nearly half of the American public still believes Saddam was connected to the attack.
At first I thought the exhaustive, nonstop coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial was just an unfortunate excess—an unwelcome departure from the normal good sense and judgment of our television news media. Now we know that it was merely an early example of a new pattern of serial obsessions that periodically take over the airwaves for weeks at a time: the Michael Jackson trial and the Robert Blake trial, the Laci Peterson tragedy and the Chandra Levy tragedy, Britney and KFed, Lindsay and Paris and Nicole.
While American television watchers were collectively devoting 100 million hours of their lives each week to these and other similar stories, our nation was in the process of more quietly making what future historians will certainly describe as a series of catastrophically mistaken decisions on issues of war and peace, the global climate and human survival, freedom and barbarity, justice and fairness. For example, hardly anyone now disagrees that the choice to invade Iraq was a grievous mistake. Yet, incredibly, all of the evidence and arguments necessary to have made the right decision were available at the time and in hindsight are glaringly obvious.
Those of us who have served in the U.S. Senate and watched it change over time could volunteer a response to Senator Byrd’s incisive description of the Senate prior to the invasion: The chamber was empty because the Senators were somewhere else. Many of them were at fund-raising events they now feel compelled to attend almost constantly in order to collect money—much of it from special interests—to buy 30-second TV commercials for their next re-election campaign. The Senate was silent because Senators don’t feel that what they say on the floor of the Senate really matters that much anymore—not to the other Senators, who are almost never present when their colleagues speak, and certainly not to the voters, because the news media seldom report on Senate speeches anymore.
Our Founders’ faith in the viability of representative democracy rested on their trust in the wisdom of a well-informed citizenry, their ingenious design for checks and balances, and their belief that the rule of reason is the natural sovereign of a free people. The Founders took great care to protect the openness of the marketplace of ideas so that knowledge could flow freely. Thus they not only protected freedom of assembly, they made a special point—in the First Amendment—of protecting the freedom of the printing press. And yet today, almost 45 years have passed since the majority of Americans received their news and information from the printed word. Newspapers are hemorrhaging readers. Reading itself is in decline. The Republic of Letters has been invaded and occupied by the empire of television.
Radio, the Internet, movies, cell phones, iPods, computers, instant messaging, video games and personal digital assistants all now vie for our attention—but it is television that still dominates the flow of information. According to an authoritative global study, Americans now watch television an average of 4 hours and 35 minutes every day—90 minutes more than the world average. When you assume eight hours of work a day, six to eight hours of sleep and a couple of hours to bathe, dress, eat and commute, that is almost three-quarters of all the discretionary time the average American has.
In the world of television, the massive flows of information are largely in only one direction, which makes it virtually impossible for individuals to take part in what passes for a national conversation. Individuals receive, but they cannot send. They hear, but they do not speak. The “well-informed citizenry” is in danger of becoming the “well-amused audience.” Moreover, the high capital investment required for the ownership and operation of a television station and the centralized nature of broadcast, cable and satellite networks have led to the increasing concentration of ownership by an ever smaller number of larger corporations that now effectively control the majority of television programming in America.
In practice, what television’s dominance has come to mean is that the inherent value of political propositions put forward by candidates is now largely irrelevant compared with the image-based ad campaigns they use to shape the perceptions of voters. The high cost of these commercials has radically increased the role of money in politics—and the influence of those who contribute it. That is why campaign finance reform, however well drafted, often misses the main point: so long as the dominant means of engaging in political dialogue is through purchasing expensive television advertising, money will continue in one way or another to dominate American politics. And as a result, ideas will continue to play a diminished role. That is also why the House and Senate campaign committees in both parties now search for candidates who are multimillionaires and can buy the ads with their own personal resources.
When I first ran for Congress in 1976, I never took a poll during the entire campaign. Eight years later, however, when I ran statewide for the U.S. Senate, I did take polls and like most statewide candidates relied more heavily on electronic advertising to deliver my message. I vividly remember a turning point in that Senate campaign when my opponent, a fine public servant named Victor Ashe who has since become a close friend, was narrowing the lead I had in the polls. After a detailed review of all the polling information and careful testing of potential TV commercials, the anticipated response from my opponent’s campaign and the planned response to the response, my advisers made a recommendation and prediction that surprised me with its specificity: “If you run this ad at this many ‘points’ [a measure of the size of the advertising buy], and if Ashe responds as we anticipate, and then we purchase this many points to air our response to his response, the net result after three weeks will be an increase of 8.5% in your lead in the polls.”
I authorized the plan and was astonished when three weeks later my lead had increased by exactly 8.5%. Though pleased, of course, for my own campaign, I had a sense of foreboding for what this revealed about our democracy. Clearly, at least to some degree, the “consent of the governed” was becoming a commodity to be purchased by the highest bidder. To the extent that money and the clever use of electronic mass media could be used to manipulate the outcome of elections, the role of reason began to diminish.
As a college student, I wrote my senior thesis on the impact of television on the balance of power among the three branches of government. In the study, I pointed out the growing importance of visual rhetoric and body language over logic and reason. There are countless examples of this, but perhaps understandably, the first one that comes to mind is from the 2000 campaign, long before the Supreme Court decision and the hanging chads, when the controversy over my sighs in the first debate with George W. Bush created an impression on television that for many viewers outweighed whatever positive benefits I might have otherwise gained in the verbal combat of ideas and substance. A lot of good that senior thesis did me.
The potential for manipulating mass opinions and feelings initially discovered by commercial advertisers is now being even more aggressively exploited by a new generation of media Machiavellis. The combination of ever more sophisticated public opinion sampling techniques and the increasing use of powerful computers to parse and subdivide the American people according to “psychographic” categories that identify their susceptibility to individually tailored appeals has further magnified the power of propagandistic electronic messaging that has created a harsh new reality for the functioning of our democracy.
As a result, our democracy is in danger of being hollowed out. In order to reclaim our birthright, we Americans must resolve to repair the systemic decay of the public forum. We must create new ways to engage in a genuine and not manipulative conversation about our future. We must stop tolerating the rejection and distortion of science. We must insist on an end to the cynical use of pseudo-studies known to be false for the purpose of intentionally clouding the public’s ability to discern the truth. Americans in both parties should insist on the re-establishment of respect for the rule of reason.
# # # # #
A Deeper Purpose
by John Edwards
by John Edwards
Published on Thursday, May 17, 2007 by CommonDreams.org
Memorial Day is a time of remembrance for those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom. My wife Elizabeth grew up on military bases around the world, as the daughter of an Air Force pilot, and this holiday has always had special meaning for our family. This year, I am calling on all Americans to use their Memorial Day Weekend not only for celebration and time with family and friends, but also for a deeper purpose: to honor the memory of the fallen by acting, as patriots, to honor troops today-to end the war and bring them home.
This is a serious holiday and a serious time. The American people voted last fall to stand by our troops, end the war, and bring our soldiers home. The Congress has sent the President a bill that would fund the troops and bring them home. But President Bush has embarked on a stubborn path-rejecting the will of the people and of Congress. He is not only continuing the disastrous war in Iraq, but is escalating our presence there and vetoing Congress’s bill that would support the troops. It has become clear that the only way to support our troops and end the war is by direct action-by democracy.
Some will say that this weekend is not the right time to ask Americans to stand together and tell the President and the Congress to end this war. They may say it is not patriotic, or that it does not honor the fallen.
I strongly disagree. I believe that Memorial Day Weekend is exactly the right time to honor the memory of those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom, and to honor the troops serving us today.
It has been said that dissent is the highest form of patriotism. Mark Twain once wrote that the government must not “decide who is a patriot and who isn’t.” President Theodore Roosevelt went even farther. He said that to say there should be no criticism of a president is not only “unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”
As these wise words make so clear, democracy is a wonderful gift. But it is not free. On the contrary, democracy is also a responsibility. Brave Americans have fought for it again and again, and this holiday honors their sacrifice. There comes a time when citizens, acting together in a democracy, can truly force change. That time is today. And I do not want Americans to stand up and be heard because of any political campaign or ideology, or because they were told to. You should instead reclaim your patriotism for one important reason: it was yours to begin with.
This Memorial Day weekend, this means more than just getting in your car, driving to the beach, a parade, or a picnic and saying the words, “We support our troops.” This weekend should honor the memory of the fallen through democracy itself. That’s why I am asking the American people this weekend to give something in return for the sacrifice of the fallen-to honor and remember all those who have gone before in service to our country, and to let our government know we want to honor our troops by ending the war and bringing them home.
I have offered Americans 10 suggested actions that will support our troops and end the war. These actions include sending our troops a care package, gathering in public to make your voice heard (taking a moment of silence beforehand to honor the fallen), organizing a prayer vigil, sending a letter to President Bush, and sending a thank-you note to our troops. In the days leading up to Memorial Day, we should take action to support our troops, end the war, and bring them home to the heroes’ welcome they deserve. And on Memorial Day, we should honor and remember all those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.
It was only four decades ago that we found ourselves in a similar place to today. We were embroiled in an unpopular war, plagued by disparities and inequalities here at home, and looking for leadership in Washington, D.C. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called us to action with three simple worlds. As he put it then, there comes a time when “silence is a betrayal” — not only a betrayal of one’s personal convictions, or even of one’s country alone, but also a betrayal of our deeper obligations to one another and to the brotherhood of man.
Martin Luther King’s demands were not to the government of the United States. He issued a direct appeal to the people of the United States, calling on us to break our own silence and to not sit idly by and wait for others to right the wrongs of the world. Today, I’m again calling on our nation to break its silence — speak out to end this war and bring our troops home.
At Riverside Church in Harlem in 1967, Dr. King made another attempt to reclaim patriotism. He told his audience they had to move beyond “the prophesying of smooth patriotism” toward “a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.”
This Memorial Day Weekend, we should all take up Dr. King’s call to action. It is time to take back patriotism from a President who has misused it to justify policies that have exacted such terrible costs-from Guantanamo Bay to domestic spying to the War in Iraq itself. Let us reclaim patriotism for all of us who love our country, support our troops, and are ready to end the war-and to bring these brave servicemen and women home to the heroes’ welcome they deserve.
For more information about this Memorial Day Weekend effort please visit: http://www.supportourtroopsendthewar.com