Musings of the Great Eric

An Assault on Reason

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Time Magazine recently printed an excerpt from Al Gore’s new book and I have to say it’s fantastic. I rarely indulge in contemporary political books, but I think this is one I’ll be buying:

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.

I’ve taken a great interest in exactly what ails our democracy; it’s one thing to point out the (voluminous) ways in which George W Bush is a corrupt fuck up, but the root causes of why someone like him was allowed to get into power and get away with what he has is both far more interesting and critical – this is what the above gets at.

And though I’m normally loathe to look for single-factor answers, I’ve often come to the same conclusion that Gore is talking about here. Of all the inventions of the 20th century, television has had the most deleterious effect on our civilization, and stands as perhaps the root cause of many of our troubles, from the decay of our political discourse to seemingly unrelated problems like obesity. (This will be the subject of a more detailed future post).

Anyway, the linked excerpt is well worth reading if you haven’t already, and I suspect the whole book will be worth it as well.

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Written by Eric

May 19, 2007 at 2:48 pm

Posted in Media, Politics, Society

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