By Al Gore. Penguin, 2007
We know Al Gore as the President who never was, the recipient of the support of the plurality of American voters in the 2000 presidential election, denied the prize by the American Electoral College system and what appears to be some clever slight of hand in Florida. Yet at no point does he turn his argument into an angry sulk. Instead he documents the current attack on the dream of the great Americans who wrote a Constitution that they believed, being founded on reason, would stand forever against the urge toward arbitrary power. Al Gore outlines the forces that are battering that American dream today, and though he remains optimistic that new forces will rally to the support of those ideals, this reader feels that the arguments on the negative side are far stronger.
Gore argues that the Fathers of the Constitution considered reason to be the only worthy guide for public decision-making. Knowing that fear is the enemy of reason, they believed that a well-informed citizenry reasons to put fears into perspective. Leadership helps us manage through our fears; demagoguery exploits our fears to destroy our freedoms. Yet recently, when reason, logic and truth were deliberately distorted, three-quarters of Americans came to believe that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and many Americans still believe that most of the hijackers were Iraqi. Where was the President? Fanning the flames of panic and enriching his corporate friends. Where was the leadership in the Congress? Mostly out fundraising to get the money to buy thousands of spot television ads for re-election. Where were the well-informed citizenry? They were watching television, but not being informed by the 30-second political spot ads.
The drafters of the Constitution could not have foreseen the impact of TV. Indeed, rational engagement may be impossible in a world that has lost the diversity of print and become dependent on monolithic, anti-rational TV.
After 9/11, fear was cultivated by the Bush Administration to grab disproportionate power. Others were “with us or against us.” The Bush Government was no longer subject to the law of the Constitution, nor legal or moral constraints of the international community. The Geneva Accords governing the treatment of prisoners of war, the International Criminal Court, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Outer Space Treaty, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Agreement, the Kyoto Protocol to deal with global warming, the no nuclear first strike policy, the no use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, each has been weakened of disavowed. And to keep his own party in line Bush took control of funds, allowing him to make or break any Republican candidate.
Reason and truth are the primary victims of absolute power. Here is a brief list of truths: Iraq had no involvement in 9/11; Iraqis were not the suicide bombers of the attack on the World Trade Centre; Iraq had no nuclear weapons; Iraq did not attempt to buy fissionable materials from Niger; The aluminium tubes bought by Saddam could not be used to enrich uranium; Saddam and Bin Laden were not friends (instead, they each hated what the other stood for); there was not a great coalition of nations onside with American plans to attack Iraq. Soldiers, scientists and diplomats were muzzled when what they had to say limited the Executive. Congress was not told the whole truth, and when the Legislative branch did force the President’s hand, he used signing statements to nullify the intent of the legislation, notably in relation to the use of torture and spying on Americans.
Today anyone can be arrested and held indefinitely, incommunicado, without being told the basis of the charge, if the President designates him or her an enemy combatant. Indefinite detention, and trial by kangaroo tribunals that accept secret evidence obtained by torture in Guantanamo, or through rendition to friendly torturing nations, is now state policy. Habeas corpus is from a bygone era. Our own Canadian Maher Arar was shown the power, and no apology is coming from the Bush Administration. The victims of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are testimony to the end of civilized morality as we knew it.
Gore rejects the notion that this government is a religious sect that has become a political faction: rather he argues that this is a political faction cleverly disguised as a religious sect; the real objective is not religious, but rather the mundane goal of corporate enrichment. But the alliance with the Christian Right has made it easier for Bush to ignore real problems like global warming, or to deal with real terrorists and the roots of their motivations. The failure to pursue Bin Laden makes a mockery of the commitment to a “war” on terror.
Nor does Gore allow that Bush’s statements reveal a simple-minded man who believes innocently in some moral objective. He is an intelligent man whose language is chosen to heighten fear and obfuscate reality: the metaphor “a mushroom cloud over an American city” goes directly to the fear centre of every brain without having to pass through the rational centre. Everyone forgot to ask for the evidence.
Gore asserts that at the core of Bush policy there is a disregard for maintaining US credibility in the world. Fear of America has displaced respect. I note that of all the natural allies of the US, only Harper’s Conservatives seem to be drawing closer to the Bush worldview.
Yet Gore remains an optimist: there is a ray of hope; the internet with its multiplicity of sources may make rational discourse possible again in the political sphere, enlighten the electorate, and realize the great dream embodied in the Constitution.
This is a very good book. Gore sums up all the terrifying things we all know about the tragedy of the Bush years. He does not try to assure us that a Democratic Executive could succeed in reversing the trends that have been put in motion. Much of the future of our world may depend on such a reversal. We will wait to see if Gore, now recipient of the Nobel prize, suddenly springs for the President’s job. Could this wise man save the nation, and the world?
Ron Shirtliff is an editor at Peace.
You can read an excerpt from the introduction to The Assault on Reason at www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1622015,00.html.