I really don’t understand David Brooks’ criticism of Al Gore’s new book, The Assault on Reason. Basically, Brooks characterizes Gore as a technological determinist who believes that the nature of public discourse is entirely dependent on the dominant communications technology of a given period. This does seem to be Gore’s position, which Ezra Klein’s profile, what with its Habermas name-dropping, seemed to foreshadow. But Brooks’ critique of this mostly consists of snarky mockery, without any real substance to it. For instance, take the beginning of the column:
If you’re going to read Al Gore’s book, you’re going to have to steel yourself for a parade of sentences like the following:
“The remedy for what ails our democracy is not simply better education (as important as that is) or civic education (as important as that can be), but the re-establishment of a 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.”
But, hey, nobody ever died from contact with pomposity, and Al Gore’s “The Assault on Reason” is well worth reading. It reminds us that whatever the effects of our homogenizing mass culture, it is still possible for exceedingly strange individuals to rise to the top.
Gore is, for example, a radical technological determinist. While most politicians react to people, Gore reacts to machines, and in this book he lays out a theory of history entirely driven by them.
So Gore is wrong because he uses big words, is “exceedingly strange,” is a “radical” and, Brooks insinuates, robotic (how original!). None of these, mind you, are legitimate criticisms that challenge Gore’s argument. Instead, Brooks has spent four paragraphs leveling personal insults against Gore. In the New York Times. What the hell? Moreover, Brooks just keeps on emphasizing that Gore is not to be taken seriously because he’s too damn smart. “Gore writes in his best graduate school manner,” Brooks attests, and mockingly highlights his usage of words like “visceral” and “modulated.”
Brooks gets closer to having an actual thesis later in the piece, but still in a patently unfair, disparaging manner. In response to Gore’s assertion that the Internet has the potential to improve discourse, Brooks asks, “Has Al Gore ever actually looked at the Internet? He spends much of this book praising cold, dispassionate logic, but is that really what he finds on most political blogs or in his e-mail folder?” Has David Brooks ever actually looked at the Internet? Because if he has, he’d have found, like Gore has, that there are far more bastions of tempered wonkery there than on television. Of course, Brooks’ medium-based chauvinism prevents him from noticing this.
From here, Brooks continues painting Gore as a robot (now, actually, Brooks calls him a “Vulcan”) as if that constitutes an actual argument before revealing his real problem with Gore: Brooks just doesn’t like reason that much.
Gore seems to have come up with a theory that the upper, logical mind sits on top of, and should master, the primitive and more emotional mind below. He thinks this can be done through a technical process that minimizes information flow to the lower brain and maximizes information flow to the higher brain.
The reality, of course, is there is no neat distinction between the “higher” and “lower” parts of the brain. There are no neat distinctions between the “rational” mind and the “visceral” body. The mind is a much more complex network of feedback loops than accounted for in Gore’s simplistic pseudoscience.
Without emotions like fear, the “logical” mind can’t reach conclusions. On the other hand, many of the most vicious, genocidal acts are committed by people who are emotionally numb, not passionately out of control.
Does Brooks really think this? Does Brooks really think that policy decisions are best decided passionately, without being carefully thought through, and that to do otherwise leads to genocide? Sure, one can use rational methods to pernicious ends. But rational decision-making is still far more effective at achieving whatever ends one might desire than emotional decision-making; no administration has shown this as vividly as the current one. This fetishization of emotion as such by Brooks is disturbing, and telling.