Reason, Democracy, the Internet & Al Gore’s Shrinking Butt on the Fence

Can the internet save democracy? Al Gore thinks so. What do you think?

Just reading the cover piece on Gore in Time, and the excerpt of his new book, The Assault on Reason. Gore says the American public has become disengaged from public issues, government and participating in democracy, largely because we’ve entertained ourselves into a passive flat-line Paris Hilton stupor.

There’s little public discussion of public issues in Congress, he says. Mostly there’s whoring after money so politicians can afford the content-free 30-second ads that have replaced the Lincoln-Douglas debates as today’s public discourse. He blames the media, television’s paralyzing of the brain’s thought, logic and reasoning centers, both parties, and all of us.

More important, he points to a solution. Gore says the internet “is the most interactive medium in history and the one with the greatest potential for connecting individuals to one another and to a universe of knowledge.” American democracy needs “new ways to engage in a genuine and not manipulative conversation about our future,” and “the re-establishment of genuine democratic discourse in which individuals can participate in a meaningful way — a conversation of democracy in which meritorious ideas and opinions from individuals do, in fact, evoke a meaningful response.”

The internet is a “platform for reason” and a way to talk to one another, listen, and get off our intellectual and citizenship asses. My language, that last, not Al’s.

What do you all think? Austin’s buying a round. Does the internet get people engaged, thinking, analyzing, participating? Or is it another self-indulgent distraction?

More locally, is what we’re doing on The Same Rowdy Crowd part of what Gore’s talking about? We five who put this together hoped the blog would get people thinking and exchanging ideas, arguments, cheers and insults. It’s been great fun to read what you all have to say. But is it changing anyone’s mind? Is it making you think? Is it going to save the world?

Gore probably relies too heavily on reason as the driver of human progress. That may be why he was such a flat campaigner in 2000. Passion, conviction, spirituality, the magnetic charisma of leadership, and gut instinct play a huge role in how people relate to each other, the world and the great mysteries of life. So democracy needs more than smart people debating in togas. But Gore raises a challenging vision of the internet as an enabler of government of, by and for the people. I hope he’s right, and that’s one of the reasons I keep tapping away at this keyboard.


(And, of course, there’s the great political theater of Gore, on the fence, being implored by many people to run, losing weight, coming out with another book just at the right time…  He was such a dreadful candidate in 2000, so terrified of the aftershocks of Clinton’s penis problem that he dared not claim the benefits of eight years of good government. And he was advised to death. The Time piece claims 2000 was a crucible for him that burned away the caution and has left a passionate human being doing what he cares deeply about. I admire him for not becoming a victim and a whiner after 2000, but moving forward instead and making a difference. I personally think Obama is the leader for this time, but, who knows — we may get a chance to re-elect Al Gore.)

–Bruce Benidt

9 thoughts on “Reason, Democracy, the Internet & Al Gore’s Shrinking Butt on the Fence

  1. “Does the internet get people engaged, thinking, analyzing, participating? Or is it another self-indulgent distraction?”

    It’s not really that the Internet is some sort of high-minded platform for intellectuals to get their “smart” on; that’s certainly not the case. But whereas “traditional” media are outlets in which someone else decides what’s newsworthy, what we want to see, read and hear, what should be important, the Internet can be and do whatever we want or need it to.

    “Is the Internet useful?” is like asking, “Are trees useful?” Well sure, they give us paper for the printing presses for discourse and information. But they also give us baseball bats for clubbing people over the head. It’s all in what we make of it.

  2. Curtis says:

    Last night I spent 45 minutes working through a multiple draft response to a 20-post conversation about the Star Tribune. I’d say this blog is making me think. Can I bill that time to something? 😛

  3. Observer says:

    “I admire him for not becoming a victim and a whiner after 2000.”

    We’re talking about Al Gore, right?

    There is no more bitter person in America than he. I truly worry about his stability.

  4. jloveland says:

    As the resident Luddite, the things I worry most about the Internet as an information source:

    1) The gathering spots are so much more dispersed than mainstream media that we can sequester ourselves into millions of little self-reinforcing enclaves. I can’t visualize the path to democratic consensus from there.

    2) Though the mass media is often inaccurate or biased, you must admit that it’s inaccurate and biased much less often than blogs and advocacy-oriented sites. When the public gets an increasing proportion of their information from self-reinforcing blogs and advocacy sites, it leads to a public that is seldom right but never in doubt. I’m not convinced that’s what democracy needs.

    Things I’m optimistic about the Internet as a source of information:

    1) There’s more information, and it’s easily accessed. It should make us more knowledgable IF we can become critical consumers of the information. Democracy needs knowledgable citizens, and maybe the Internet gets us there.

    2) The Internet leads to more conversations between strangers, so you can learn something IF you’re a) discussing something meaningful b) with someone other than a mirror image of yourself and c) really listening. Democracy needs more conversations, and the Internet could gets us there.

    The big “ifs” make me less optimistic than the Prophet Al. Unfortunately, the promise of the Internet can’t overcome the limitations of human beings.

  5. Observer says:

    “Gore probably relies too heavily on reason…”

    If we relied on Gore’s reason, we’d still be waiting for a rush of melted glacial water to flood Minneapolis. He’s a fraud, and I reject any assertion that he’s cerebral or a policy wonk. He’s Tennesse’s equivalent to Mark Dayton – a talentless dolt born to privilege. Bush isn’t any better.

    I also wish Gore would reduce his carbon footprint by selling his massive air-conditioned estates, his fleet of limos, and his timeshare private jet.

  6. jl says:

    For what it’s worth, the other side of the story…

    My understanding from the evil mainstream media (Time) is that he is putting in energy efficient windows and solar panels on his 1915 energy-sucking house, and spends a boatload ito get all his energy from renewable sources. They say he flies commercial most of the time, and buys offsets to lead a carbon neutral life. He also donates all profits from his book and movie ($50 million gross so far) to the cause.

    Maybe he should live in a tent and ride a bike everywhere, but given all that I think fraud might be too strong of a word.

  7. I like Joe’s point about conversations. Maybe it’s less about news reporting and a consensus based on common knowledge, and more about smaller communities talking and listening to one another. That’s what the country was like at its founding, as a smart commenter said reacting to the Strib piece on this blog last week — lots of partisan local media and no national media, and people talking about issues in pubs and coffee houses. Now, the challenges in the 18th Century were not as instantaneous as now, but they were as dire.
    So maybe lots of smaller conversations are OK, when the vast majority of what’s paid attention to the in the common media is about drivel (sitting in an airport just now, and the “news” on CNN is what Rosie said on The View and which of two nonentities will survive to be the new Amurikan Idle).
    The big problem is that critical thinking is not on the curriculum in America’s schools and colleges. I’m hoping someone somewhere is using the internet as a way to teach critical thinking — maybe having two teams, each finding info on the net to back up opposing points of view, and then each digging in to the credibility and accuracy of their sources, and comparing them to more-factual sources, such as public records, studies, etc.
    Probably too much to ask. Dammit, Joe, I want somebody around here to be optimistic!

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