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Moving intelligence to the back of the classroom

"The Assault on Reason" by Al Gore puts the last coffin nail in the George W. Bush's presidency. Normally, I view any book by a politician with suspicion. But as I read this near-flammable indictment of George W. Bush's administration, set in historical context by a former opponent, I admire its moral clarity and its other-world equanimity.

The former vice president analyzes the American body politic's illness and renders his diagnosis -- money corrupts absolutely.

"The United States has survived many assaults on its integrity and has endured lengthy periods during which high levels of corruption twisted the nation's goals and distorted the operations of democracy. But in every prior instance, the people, the press, the courts, and the Congress restored the integrity of the system through the use of reason. This is different: the absolute dominance of the politics of wealth today is something new."

Political stridency in some of the early analyses of "The Assault on Reason" in David Brooks' recent piece in the New York Times and Dana Milbank's article in the Washington Post are examples. Both evince an alarming anti-intellectual streak. For example, a recent article by Milbank in the Washington Post headlined: "Is It Wise to Be So Smart?"

The reporter quotes a person in the audience at a lecture by Al Gore who said: "I want the smartest guy around to be president," but he added, "how do you convince people it's OK to feel inferior to their leaders?"

This question is a nonstarter. There is nothing wrong with having a few brains, but our culture, or what passes for it, has moved intelligence from a front seat to the back of the classroom. In fact, it has not been in the front seat for a long time. H. L. Mencken referred to the "Boobus Americanus" more than 70 years ago.

More recently, another analyst of American culture, Ray Schroth, calls the competition for the American mind the fight between the "culture of distraction" and the "culture of literacy," with the "bubble of electronic alienation" appearing to win out for the present.

Gore's book -- a best-seller which speaks to this new chasm of cultures -- may be as timely as his last, "An Inconvenient Truth," which warned of unchecked global warming. In "The Assault on Reason," he asks:

Why has America's public discourse become less focused and clear, less reasoned? Faith in the power of reason -- the belief that free citizens can govern themselves wisely and fairly by resorting to logical debate on the basis of the best evidence available, instead of raw power -- was and remains the central premise of American democracy. This premise is now under assault.

Whatever else one may say about Gore, he is a diviner of big issues. He says it is too easy and too partisan to put the blame for the loss of reason on the policies of President George W. Bush. About this he is as disingenuous as his publisher, the Penguin Press, which has an out-of-date picture of the author -- in thinner times -- on the inside back flap of the book.

It may be too easy and partisan, but Gore unloads on Bush anyway, while giving some historical perspective of the timelessness of the problem. Gore uses Mr. Bush's policy on the Iraq War to exemplify the imperilment of public discourse on just about anything else in America's public life. Because of the war, there is no talk about environmental protection, mercury pollution, toxic waste, or the preservation of the national parks by the present administration.

"What has happened to our country?" Gore asks.

This is the right question to pose. How has it happened that our government's system of checks and balances, the Congress, the courts, accountability to the electorate, is out of synch with the executive branch? Actually, lack of synchronicity is a good thing, if you consider the impulse of the nation's founders, who intended offsetting balances as a check in the federal system.

On this score, Gore says, ". . this intricate clockwork mechanism of American government has always depended on a 'ghost in the machine.' The ghost animating the Constitution's machinery is not holy; it is us, all of us, the proverbial 'well-informed citizenry.' "

The problem is that the electorate seems as incurious as the officials it elected. The Congress and the court system, according to Gore, are in a shambles. Both have been pummeled by an executive branch grasping for previously unheard-of power.

The author spends a lot of time enumerating the lessons of history in "The Assault on Reason." He refers to what wise people, present and past, have thought and said. Among them, Robert C. Byrd, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Burke, Louis D. Brandeis, Dwight Eisenhower, Edward R. Murrow, and many others.

As a result, some critics have accused Gore of "showing off" his scholarship. Sometimes people reject a good message because of what appears to be the messenger's puffed-up personality. If it is true that Gore cannot separate himself from his message, or has a case on himself, this is Gore's problem, not ours.

Nevertheless, the message of "The Assault on Reason" is a good one. Regrettably, American society's problem today is that many of its members are so unlettered that they cannot follow a logical argument. In fact, more and more people resist and resent logic. It gets in the way of what their emotions tell them they want.

This is a book to be read slowly and digested thoroughly.

Gore places the duty to remedy the assault on reason in our democracy on us. Americans must act in unison, as a "well-connected citizenry," to keep the Republic. "Our self-government is based on the ability of individual citizens to use reason in holding their elected representatives, senators and presidents accountable for their actions."

For informed citizens, the Internet is the new equivalent of the earlier printing press.

One might ask, if he feels so passionately about preserving our democracy, why doesn't he run in 2008? In a column by Bob Herbert in the New York Times recently, Gore kept the door ajar, if only slightly. He said, "I don't really think I'm that good at politics . . . Some people find out important things about themselves early in life. Others take a long time . . . what politics has become requires a level of tolerance for triviality and artifice and nonsense that I find I have in short supply."

Michael D. Langan is a retired Treasury enforcement officer.

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The Assault on Reason

By Al Gore

Penguin Press, 308 pages, $25.95

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