September 2007 -- BOOK REVIEW: Al Gore, The Assault on Reason (New York, Penguin Press, 2007), 320 pp., $25. 95.
The title of Al Gore’s new book illustrates why he is the perfect spokesman for the smug, soi-disant “reality-based community.” By calling his work The Assault on Reason, Gore is claiming that his opponents are not merely personal ideological enemies but enemies of the epistemology that properly underlies all ideology. Thus, he need not engage his opponents’ arguments, for by definition they have none. He need only expose their nefarious methods of persuasion and deceit.
It is the very essence of a postmodern approach to debate.
Briefly stated, the wicked methods that Gore aims to expose are rooted in a fundamental alteration of the American (and Western) mind that was brought about by the advent of broadcasting media—first radio and then, most devastatingly, television. Where our earlier print-based culture had given us a rational, mutually respectful national dialogue, broadcasting has turned us into a passive mass, manipulated by wealthy media owners who use nonrational advertising techniques to sell their unwanted goods and their simplistic ideologies, thus buttressing their hold on economic and political power.
Of course, these various complaints go back almost a century, and Gore does not scruple to call up all the old complainers, repackaged now as wise Cassandras. Here is Theodore Roosevelt denouncing the increased scale of corporations. Here is Progressive educator Joy Elmer Morgan warning against media concentration. Here is John Kenneth Galbraith lamenting that advertisers can persuade us to buy things that we do not want. When it comes to the narrative of America’s ideological history, Gore is like the Bourbons: He has forgotten nothing and has learned nothing.
The Assault on Reason utterly misunderstands the nature of the Founding of America.
A single example of Gore’s ideological blindness says it all. Chapter Three begins by observing that “Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and America’s Declaration of Independence were published in the same year.” Gore then goes on to draw a parallel between the two: “Capitalism and democracy shared the same internal logic: Free markets and representative democracy were both assumed to operate best when individuals made rational decisions.” But as Martin Diamond pointed out in a 1975 article in The Public Interest, “The Declaration and the Constitution: Liberty, Democracy, and the Founders,” this is a Progressivist confusion. Progressives, attempting to damn the Constitution as the work of plutocrats, erroneously proclaimed the Declaration to be a manifesto of democracy that the Constitution betrayed. In fact, the Declaration has nothing to do with democracy, and understandably so. As Diamond wrote: “For the founding generation, it was liberty that was the comprehensive good, the end against which political things had to be measured, and democracy was only a form of government which, like any other form of government, had to prove itself adequately instrumental to securing of liberty.” The Assault on Reason, for all its quotations from Thomas Jefferson, utterly misunderstands the nature of the Founding and puts mass democracy at the core of its politics.
If such rehashed Progressivism were the burden of this book, no one would waste a minute on it. In fact, though, Gore’s “assault on reason” thesis is merely an excuse for his real argument. His theoretical framework offers him an occasion to introduce evidence about the plutocratic manipulation of Americans’ minds for despicable ends.
And what is the best evidence for that? Well, the supreme examples of our national degeneration are provided by George W. Bush and his malign war on Islamic jihad. In short, the proper title for this supposedly high-minded book is Bush Lied, People Died. Or in Gore’s words: “The current White House has engaged in an unprecedented and sustained campaign of mass deception.”
So let us skip all the fol-de-rol about communication theory and Jeffersonian ideals and get to the heart of the matter: Was everyone who supported the invasion of Iraq either a knave or a fool?
“We were told by the president that war was his last choice. But it is now clear that it was always his first preference. His former secretary of the Treasury, Paul O’Neill, confirmed that Iraq was ‘topic A’ at the very first meeting of the Bush National Security Council just ten days after the inauguration: ‘It was about finding a way to do it.’”
Where does one begin?
Was it contradictory for Bush to say that war was his last choice and yet to start planning the overthrow of Saddam early in his administration? Obviously not. War was a last choice in the sense that it bore the highest cost. But the Bush administration did not come to office confronting a new problem in Iraq. It was confronting a problem that American administrations had wrestled with for a decade. On October 31, 1998, President Clinton had signed into law the Iraq Liberation Act, which declared “it should be the policy of the United States to seek to remove the Saddam Hussein regime from power in Iraq and to replace it with a democratic government.” But how? Economic sanctions obviously had not weakened Saddam’s power, and in any case the sanctions were rapidly collapsing by 2001. Kenneth M. Pollack, who served on Clinton’s National Security Council for many years, and who had principal working-level responsibility for Iraq policy, wrote early in 2002: “It is the inadequacy of all the other options toward Iraq that leads to the last resort of a full-scale invasion.”
In short, if the Bush administration had to start at once giving consideration to the “last resort,” it was only because members of the administration in which Al Gore was vice president admitted that their attempts to use lesser options had failed.
What about Gore’s quotation from O’Neill? Appearing on the January 13, 2004, Today show, O’Neill said: “People are trying to make a case that I said the president was planning war in Iraq early in the administration. Actually, there was a continuation of work that had been going on in the Clinton administration with the notion that there needed to be regime change in Iraq.” Katie Couric: “So you see nothing wrong with that being at the top of the president’s agenda 10 days after the inauguration?” O’Neill: “Absolutely not. One of the candidates had said this confirms his worst suspicions. I’m amazed that anyone would think that our government, on a continuing basis across political administrations, doesn’t do contingency planning and look at circumstances.”
Shall we try again? “President Bush told the American people that he had documentary proof that Saddam Hussein was seeking yellowcake uranium in the African nation of Niger and implied that this was clearly for the purpose of enriching uranium for nuclear bombs. . . . But two weeks later, the head of the United Nations agency monitoring nuclear weapons proliferations, Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, issued a statement revealing to the world that the document upon which President Bush had based this pungent narrative was actually forged.”
The footnote for this assertion is the State of the Union address, delivered on January 28, 2003. But of course that speech makes no mention of Niger nor of documentary evidence. The famous sixteen words are: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
For an analysis of those words, let us turn to a source that even Al Gore might accept: the “FactCheck.org” website maintained by the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. According to FactCheck: “A British intelligence review released July 14  calls Bush’s 16 words ‘well founded.’ A separate report by the US Senate Intelligence Committee said July 7 that the US also had similar information from ‘a number of intelligence reports,’ a fact that was classified at the time Bush spoke. Ironically, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who later called Bush’s 16 words a ‘lie,’ supplied information that the Central Intelligence Agency took as confirmation that Iraq may indeed have been seeking uranium from Niger. Both the US and British investigations make clear that some forged Italian documents, exposed as fakes soon after Bush spoke, were not the basis for the British intelligence Bush cited, or the CIA’s conclusion that Iraq was trying to get uranium.”
One more example: According to Gore, “When he was preparing to invade Iraq, President Bush repeatedly gave the clear impression that Iraq was an ally and partner of the terrorist group that attacked us, al-Qaeda. . . . In the fall of 2002, . . . [President Bush] also said, ‘The true threat facing our country is an al-Qaeda-type network trained and armed by Saddam.’”
But what the president actually said was: “In my Cincinnati speech, I reminded the American people, a true threat facing our country is that an al Qaeda-type network trained and armed by Saddam could attack America and leave not one fingerprint. That is a threat.”
Note, first, that the president said “a true threat.” Gore has changed the wording to “the true threat.” Note, second, what the president declared the threat to be: “that an al Qaeda–type network trained and armed by Saddam could attack America and leave not one fingerprint” (emphasis added). Gore has changed the wording to read: “the true threat” is “an al Qaeda–type network trained and armed by Saddam.” Those are two quite different statements. Put as the president put it, the proposition was entirely correct. Given our then-justified beliefs about Saddam’s weapons programs, Saddam’s employing a terrorist organization to strike America with WMDs was a true threat. And that was the point of the statement. It was to stress that the advent of major Islamist terrorist organizations would render our deterrence of Saddam impotent and make him a grave threat to the United States. The intent of the sentence lies in the phrase “and leave not one fingerprint,” a part of the sentence that Gore omitted from his quotation. Writing about this same issue, Clinton’s Iraq specialist, Kenneth Pollack, took exactly the same position on Saddam’s use of terrorists as did President Bush: “If Saddam believes it highly improbable that the attack could be traced back to him and if the operation offers a high payoff, he might well decide to do so.”
The true heart of Gore’s book is an ill-supported attack on President Bush.
Gore presses on: “The myth that Iraq and al-Qaeda were working together was not the result of an innocent and ignorant mistake by the White House. . . . The propagation of this myth by the White House was not an example of negligence. When the administration is told specifically and repeatedly by the most authoritative sources that there is no linkage but then in spite of the best evidence continues to make bold and confident assertions to the American people that leave the impression with 70 percent of the country that Saddam Hussein was linked to al-Qaeda and was primarily responsible for the 9/11 attack, this can only be labeled deception.”
First, then-CIA director George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee on October 7, 2002: “We have solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda going back a decade.” And even in his 2007 book attacking the administration, Tenet conceded: “There was concern that common interests may have existed in this period between Iraq, Bin Ladin, and the Sudanese, particularly with regard to the production of chemical weapons.”
Secondly, Gore alleges that statements by the Bush administration created the public impression of a link between Saddam and 9/11. But there is no evidence of that. The September 6, 2003, Washington Post story from which Gore gets his poll offered the following explanation for the result. “‘It’s very easy to picture Saddam as a demon,’ said John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University and an expert on public opinion and war. ‘You get a general fuzz going around: People know they don’t like al Qaeda, they are horrified by September 11th, they know this guy is a bad guy, and it’s not hard to put those things together.’”
A sequence of polls supports Mueller’s thesis. As the Post pointed out: “On Sept. 13, 2001, a Time/CNN poll found that 78 percent suspected Hussein's involvement— even though the administration had not made a connection. The belief remained consistent even as evidence to the contrary emerged.” The poll Gore cites in his new book was actually published by the Post in 2003. And here is what the story said: “Sixty-nine percent of Americans said they thought it at least likely that Hussein was involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, according to the latest Washington Post poll.”
So, the figures are down from 78 percent to 69 percent, and Americans do not believe Saddam was “primarily responsible,” as Gore asserts. They believe “it at least likely that Hussein was involved.” A 2007 poll by Knowledge Networks, cited by Gore in another context, shows that now only “18 per cent [of Americans] think the Iraqi government was directly involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.” But that more recent poll Gore does not mention. Nor does he remark that, according to a 2006 Scripps Survey Research Center poll, 36 percent of Americans believe 9/11 was “an inside job,” conducted or permitted by the U.S. government. Nor does he opine as to who might be responsible for creating that particular false belief.
Given that the true heart of Gore’s book is an ill-supported attack on President Bush, is there anything worth saying about the high-minded thesis that serves as the book’s excuse? Not really. His purported advocacy of reason is simply a potpourri of quotations and clichés designed to dress up his partisan agenda. He has no grasp of America’s real intellectual history.
Most notably, he holds up the Progressive movement as an exemplar of reason. Nowhere does he recognize how critically that movement’s intellectual base depended on the nineteenth century’s anti-rational, anti-Enlightenment German philosophy. Nowhere does he recognize the influence on Progressivism of American scholars returning from Germany, bringing with them this anti-rational philosophy. Nowhere does he observe the role that massive immigration from north-central Europe to the north-central United States played in bringing Progressivism’s anti-Enlightenment political philosophy to America.
Nor does Gore mention the role of the anti-rational Pragmatist movement in destroying America’s Enlightenment culture of reason. On the contrary, he mentions with high praise Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Louis D. Brandeis, and Felix Frankfurter—the pragmatist Supreme Court justices who, above all others, destroyed the U.S. Constitution as a governmental instrument of rational principles rather than judicial whim. Whatever concerns Al Gore may have about American culture, the influx of an anti-reason philosophy is not among them.
Despite his book’s title and his endless quotations of the Founding Fathers, Al Gore’s political creed was born of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’ anti-Enlightenment philosophies, which first emerged in France and Germany, then spread like a slow poison through the Anglo-American culture, in the forms of Pragmatism, Progressivism, and Postmodernism. In his books on environmentalism, Gore has been true to that anti-rational, anti-modern, anti-technological heritage. In his new book, however, he lauds Enlightenment values such as reason in order to disguise his partisan petulance as moral superiority. If Gore values authenticity, he should return frankly to his fundamentally anti-modern premises.