Saturday, June 9, 2007

Al Gore and "amygdala politics"


Al Gore's new book The Assault on Reason (2007) has already received a lot of comment and attention, much of it reflecting the mainstream press hostility to Gore that made possible the election theft of 2000. Digby thought Gwen Ifill's recent interview with the author was so awful that "Ifill was practically chewing gum and popping bubbles in Gore's face as she asks him about his, like, totally boring book."

The video of the interview,
Gore's New Book Criticizes Bush Administration PBS Newshour 05/30/07, is very worth watching, because Gore got his message across despite Ifill's airhead approach. One surprising example was Ifill's last question:

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you one final question, which is, as you were putting this book together and assembling your thoughts about what you see as a broad-based collapse in a lot of the way we think and reason in our society, did you ever think to yourself, based specifically on the indictment that you make against the Bush administration, that perhaps you conceded too soon in 2000?

AL GORE: Well, there was - I took it all the way to a final Supreme Court decision. And in our system, there is no intermediate step between a final Supreme Court decision and violent revolution.

So, at that point, having taken it as far as one could, then the question becomes, are we going to be a nation of laws and not people? Do I support the rule of law, even though I disagree withthe Supreme Court's decision? I did disagree with it, and I think that those of us who disagreed with it will have the better of the argument in history.

This kind of hostility by our so-called "press corps" to Gore himself as well as their general indifference to substantive issues of the sort he raises in his book is all we could expect from them, of course.

Fortunately, we can expect a lot more from Al Gore. And he delivers. The book's title, The Assault on Reason, is appropriate because he has organized the book as a defense of Enlightenment ideals of reason in the age of Freud and the Internet. You could say it's a case study, focusing on the genuine crisis in American democracy that the Cheney-Bush adminstration has created.

I found myself thinking as I read it that Gore must have sat down at some point for a long series of conversations with Jerry Brown and the Christian philosopher Ivan Illich, and emerged with his own vision of Jacksonian democracy for the digital era. But the book is neither a list of legislative proposals nor the sort of extended stump speech that usually emerges when politicians write a book. It is written in accessible language, which might give the impression by just selecting a few paragraphs at random that it leans toward vague an "safe" rhetoric. That impression would be wrong. Maybe the fact that Gore knows that anything he writes will be savaged by our sad excuse for a "press corps" gives him a freedom to describe the present crisis of democracy and the dictatorial inclinations of the Cheney-Bush administration in straightforward ways.

His bluntness about two things in the book was especially striking to me: his strong and prominent condemnation of torture, and his recognition of the literally criminal nature of the administration's decision to invade Iraq.

Reflecting in part his own Christian religious values, Gore first brings up the Cheney-Bush torture policy on the first page of the introduction:

To take another example [of "what has gone wrong with our democracy"], for the first time in American history, the executive branch of our government has not only condoned but actively promoted the treatment of captives in wartime that clearly involves torture, thus overturning a prohibition established by General George Washington during the Revolutiony War.

Gore recognizes that throwing the gates open to the kind of brutal, sadistic torture that has resulted from the Bush policy - mock executions by partial drowning, extreme sexual humiliation and perversion, rape, beatings, tying prisoners into painful postures for extended periods - that allowing this opens the way to a kind of lawlessness and brutality that has far-reaching consequences. A Pandora's box image is an appropriate one for the impliations of Cheney's and Bush's decision to make torture the official policy of the US government; they've let demons out of the box that will be very hard to put back in.

Gore recounts many instances of lawless behavior by this administration and explains in some detail the problems with Cheney's radical Unitary Executive theory under which he and Bush have operated. And Gore not only doesn't hold back from criticizing Bush's violations of international law. He emphasizes who very problematic they have been. Attacking the Bush Doctrine of preventive war, he writes:

At the level of our relations with the rest of the world, the administration has willingly traded in respect for the United States in favor of fear. This administration has coupled its theory of American dominance with a doctrine of preemptive strikes, regardless of whether the threat to be preempted is imminent or not. George Tenet, director of the CIA from 1997 to 2004, made it clear that the Agency never said Iraq was an imminent threat. For this administration, the threat to be preempted didn't have to be imminent. ...

If other nations asserted the broader right to preemption that the Bush administration has, ... then the rule of law would quickly be replaced by the reign of fear. Under this approach, any nation that perceives circumstances that could eventually lead to an imminent threat would be justified in taking military action against another nation. In other words, President Bush initiated one of the most fateful military doctrines in history. He abandoned what we thought was America's mission in a world in which nations are guided by a common ethic codified in the form of international law. (my emphasis)

This is also a good example of Gore's approach in this book. He sticks with the official term "preemptive" war and does not try to explain the more technical legal distinction between preemptive war, which is legal, and preventive war, aka, a war of aggression, which is not. But the passage I just quoted focuses on the substantive distinction between the two and recognizes the legal distinction, as well. Given the near-total lack of decent reporting on issues relating to the laws of war, it would require at least a page or two to give an intelligible description of what the distinction between "preemptive" and "preventive" war means.

Gore's book covers a wide range of issues: the Iraq War, international treaties and alliances, fighting terrorism, the politics of secrecy, the concentration of wealth, the conservative strategy to pack the courts with rightwing zealots, and, of course, global climate change. He describes this administration's crimes, failures and misdeeds in enough detail that it can be pretty, let's say, sobering to read two or three chapters at one stretch. In other words, not at all boring but also not light entertainment.

It's important to recognize the idea that organizes the book, especially since it's so far outside the comprehension of our "press corps" gatekeepers of the news, focused as they are on critical national issues like John Edwards' haircuts and Mike Huckabee's faulty memory for Ronald Reagan's birthday.

And the organizing idea is not, let's sit down and reason together, as Lyndon Johnson used to say. The idea is to repair the damage to American democracy and revitalize citizen participation so that the powewr of reason can be brought to bear on national problems.

Kenneth Galbraith: More relevant than ever

 

Gore proceeds from two key assumptions. One is the reality of modern marketing, which the late John Kenneth Galbraith was unusual among economists in recognizing: the fact that consumer needs can be created, manufactured. As Galbraith himself formulated the issue in the last book he published during his lifetime, The Economics of Innocent Fraud: Truth for Our Time (2004):

As does the voter, the buyer has the right to exercise independent choice, to opt out. This some do; they resort to a lifestyle outside the system that is thought eccentric, even slightly insane. The existence and exercise of such choice does not lessen the force of market persuasion. Ecnomics as taught and believed lags well behind the reality in all but the business schools.

The concept of consumer sovereignty, to repeat, is still avowed in economic instruction and in defense generally of the economic system. There are still the curves and the equations. Once, after describing the reality, I was sought out for severe professional economic criticism. Advertising and salesmanship were of atmospheric irrelevance. The demand curve featured the truth; the consumer ruled. I was sternly and repeatedly reminded that even the all-powerful Ford Motor Company had failed to persuade consumers to buy an oddly shaped vehicle named for a Ford descendant — the Edsel. Here was proof of consumer sovereignty; not even a Ford could prevail.

Belief in a market economy in which the consumer is sovereign is one of our most pervasive forms of fraud. Let no one try to sell without consumer management, control.

Central to this transformation in the relation of citizens and consumers to government and business has been the technology of television. Gore describes the way in which the printing of books, pamphlets and broadsides in the highly literate American society of the late 1700s was basic to the type of democracy and the notion of citizen participation that generated the American Revolution and became embodied in the American Constitution.

In the 20th century, first radio and then television produced a different relationship of the citizen to the news and information we receive about public affairs. Whyat was a far more interactive process in the days of Thomas Paine has become overwhelmingly a one-way transmission of information and opinion.

This dependence on television makes the politics of fear practiced by the Cheney-Bush administration a far more dangerous possibility:

Research shows that television can produce "vicarious traumatization" for millions. Survey findings after the attacks of September 11 showed that people who had frequently watched television exhibited more symptoms of traumatization than less frequent TV viewers. One analyst of this study said of respondents describing their reactions to 9/11, "Those who watched the most television reported the most stress."

The physical effects of watching trauma on television — the rise in blood pressure and heart rate—are the same as if an individual has actually experienced the traumatic event directly. Moreover, it has been documented that television can create false memories that are just as powerful as normal memories. When recalled, television-created memories have the same control over the emotional system as do real memories.

Gore is not aguing here that seeing a violent scene on TV causes people to run out and hurt somebody. He is arguing that it mobilizes emotional responses in a way that receiving information by print does not, making it less likely that reason will play its necessary role in judgment.

Benjamin Franklin, man of the Enlightenment, champion of reason and democracy, one of the greatest scientists of his day

He uses the phrase "amygdala politics" as a description of political fear-mongering, based on the part of the brain that is activated during traumatic events and results in those fear-inducing memories being stored in the brain in a different way than others. He quotes research psychologist Michael Fanselow of UCLA: "The available evidence suggests the amygdala learns and stores information about fear-arousing events but also modulates storage of other types of information in different brain regions" (Gore's emphasis).

Present-day science has not only learned more about how the brain works. It also enables that knowledge to be put to use in sophisticated persuasion techniques. Gore uses the story of Sigmund Freud's nephew Edward Bernays, who emigrated from Austria to the US and "adapted the revolutionary insights of his uncle to create the modern science of mass persuasion". He writes:

One of Bernays's first breakthroughs involved his work for the American Tobacco Company, when he interviewed psychoanalysts to discover the reason women in the 1920s would not smoke cigarettes. Upon learning their view that women of the era saw cigarettes as phallic symbols of male power and thus inappropriate for women, Bernays hired a group of women to dress and act as suffragists. They marched down New York's Fifth Avenue in a parade for women's rights and upon passing news photographers pulled out and lit cigarettes, proclaiming them "torches of freedom." The strategy worked to break women's resistance to cigarettes.

Gore is not talking about the legendary "subliminal persuasion", as in the often-told tale of the movie theater whose popcorn sales soared when the owner flashed pictures of popcorn onto the screen too fast to register in conscious perception. (That story is urban folklore, by the way.) Bernays' strategy to identify cigarette smoking as the mark of an independent-minded woman was scarcely "subliminal". It was in-your-face obvious.

The point is that the predominance of television as the primary news source for most voters provides an excellent vehicle for Karl Rove's "amygdala politics" on terrorism. And the increasing control of the media by huge entertainment corporations creates additional pressure to emphasize lurid and emotionally gripping stories even in regular news broadcasts.

Kenneth Galbraith began the final chapter of his excellent and vastly under-appreciated 1992 book The Culture of Contentment with these words:

Books of this genre are expected to have a happy ending. With awareness of what is wrong, the corrective forces of democracy are set in motion. And perhaps they would be now were they in a full democracy - one that embraced the interests and votes of all the citizens. Those now outside the contented majority would rally, or, more precisely, could be rallied, to their own interest and therewith to the larger and safer public interest. Alas, however, we speak here of a democracy of those with the least sense of urgency to correct what is wrong, the best insulation through short-run comfort from what could go wrong.

There is special occasion here for sadness - for a sad ending - for what is needed to save and protect, to ensure against suffering and further unpleasant consequence, is not in any way obscure. Nor would the resulting action be disagreeable. There would be a challenge to the present mood of contentment with its angry resentment of any intrusion, but, in the longer run, the general feeling of security in well-being would be deepened.

Gore's book doesn't end on quite so glum a note; Galbraith's final chapter was called "Requiem". Gore points to developments like Internet organizing, blogging and interactive Internet TV as technological developments that open up new possibilities for democratic participation, what I called above Jacksonian politics for the Internet age.

But The Assault on Reason could be seen as a continuation of Galbraith's The Culture of Contentment. Because Gore doesn't claim to present any magic-bullet solutions to the problems he describes so dramatically. Democracy and the rule of law are in real trouble in the United States.

Although it's not like we're going to wake up one day and find out the President claims total power to do what he wants, even reading our mail and tapping our phones and checking our library books on his own discretion, or arresting American citizens and holding them indefinitely without charges, or ignoring any laws he wants to, or, uh, wait a minute...

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