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The American political scene has shifted greatly since 2000 in ways that most Republicans like and most Democrats do not. Although Al Gore's title suggests a broader topic, The Assault on Reason focuses on the Bush methods of running the government and the Republican Party. As you might imagine, Al Gore doesn't like anything about what has happened.

If you were to boil this book down into one single idea, it would be this: Absolute power corrupts absolutely and is a danger to us all. Gore takes the point of view that the Bush administration has been and is mostly about gaining and holding power in order to reward Republicans and those who pay for Republicans to be elected.

As examples, Gore cites the following evidence:

1. The administration always knew that there never was any connection between terrorist attacks and Iraq (nor any threat of weapons of mass destruction being produced in Iraq), but made invading Iraq a high priority for pursuing its oil-focused strategy of controlling the Middle East where major oil companies and contributing contractors have been rewarded.

2. The Bush administration seeks to maximize fear of terrorism to gain ever more power for itself, usually by ignoring the limits on government power in the Constitution.

3. Fund-raising for Congressional Republicans is now controlled by the White House so the administration hasn't had any oversight from either party in Congress, a sharp departure from past practices.

4. When the president signs a new piece of legislation, he almost always indicates that he won't follow the law that was enacted (this has occurred over 1000 times). As a result, President Bush operates as though he is free from any legal restraint, including treaties that the United States has signed and honored for decades.

5. The Justice Department has been used to punish political enemies rather than seeking to enforce the law in a fair way.

6. Judges (who are supposed to be independent) are threatened with violent rhetoric and having their courts discontinued while they are wooed by special interests at high-priced seminars that serve as vacations.

7. Special interests that support Republicans make all the Bush policy decisions in secret, often contrary to the best evidence of what's in the public interest.

Against this backdrop of raw political hardball, Gore points out that the electorate isn't in the ball game. Most people don't know that Congress and the courts are supposed to be a restraint on presidential power. About half the electorate still thinks Saddam Hussein was the guiding force behind the terrorist attacks on 9/11. People prefer to see news reports about celebrities than news reports about public issues. When the president sponsors legislation that says it's a "Clean Air Act" hardly anyone knows that the bill will actually make air dirtier.

What's the diagnosis?

1. Restore balance between the powers of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government.

2. Start debating major decisions with emphasis on looking carefully at the best evidence.

3. Re-establish the rule of law.

Those ideas will be appealing to those who are deeply steeped in the history of how the U.S. government evolved. But in the last 40 years, schools have done little to teach about how government is supposed to operate. Polls show that many people favor having the government run like a CEO leads a private company, with no role for the legislators, judges, and citizens.

I think the remedy has to be a lot more fundamental, starting with recreating a consensus on what it means to be a citizen of the United States, what proper government behavior is, and what the United States wants to stand for in the world.

The book has three weaknesses that you should keep in mind when you read it:

1. There's no discussion of the inherent problems of having political parties in the government system that our founding fathers created. The original idea they had was to avoid parties. The solution lasted about as long as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were able to stay friends. Much of what Gore decries is an outgrowth of greater partisan battling. What's to stop a continuing escalation of that trend?

2. In the area of public debate, Gore relies a lot on the idea that experts usually know the answers. But that's not always true. In addition, what the experts know if often incomprehensible to everyone else. How effectively can you debate such technical issues when most government leaders were primarily trained to be lawyers and the general electorate has little technical knowledge?

3. The essence of getting elected is to create a temporary coalition of voters. Voters mostly look for "someone like me." That's a pretty big disconnect between proposing an approach to having philosopher-kings (of the sort that Plato liked to write about) who even-handedly make careful decisions that benefit everyone.

You may also find yourself wanting to snooze a bit as Gore describes brain physiology to explain why television is the guilty party for many of our anti-thinking woes.

But, all in all, this is a book that should spark a lot of public discussion. That would be good.

If you don't know much about the political theory behind our methods of governing over the last 200 years and the history of the U.S. government, this book will be even more enlightening. Gore is at his best in citing sources that capture the essence of those perspectives.
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The American political scene has shifted greatly since 2000 in ways that most Republicans like and most Democrats do not. Although Al Gore's title suggests a broader topic, The Assault on Reason focuses on the Bush methods of running the government and the Republican Party. As you might imagine, Al Gore doesn't like anything about what has happened.

If you were to boil this book down into one single idea, it would be this: Absolute power corrupts absolutely and is a danger to us all. Gore takes the point of view that the Bush administration has been and is mostly about gaining and holding power in order to reward Republicans and those who pay for Republicans to be elected.

As examples, Gore cites the following evidence:

1. The administration always knew that there never was any connection between terrorist attacks and Iraq (nor any threat of weapons of mass destruction being produced in Iraq), but made invading Iraq a high priority for pursuing its oil-focused strategy of controlling the Middle East where major oil companies and contributing contractors have been rewarded.

2. The Bush administration seeks to maximize fear of terrorism to gain ever more power for itself, usually by ignoring the limits on government power in the Constitution.

3. Fund-raising for Congressional Republicans is now controlled by the White House so the administration hasn't had any oversight from either party in Congress, a sharp departure from past practices.

4. When the president signs a new piece of legislation, he almost always indicates that he won't follow the law that was enacted (this has occurred over 1000 times). As a result, President Bush operates as though he is free from any legal restraint, including treaties that the United States has signed and honored for decades.

5. The Justice Department has been used to punish political enemies rather than seeking to enforce the law in a fair way.

6. Judges (who are supposed to be independent) are threatened with violent rhetoric and having their courts discontinued while they are wooed by special interests at high-priced seminars that serve as vacations.

7. Special interests that support Republicans make all the Bush policy decisions in secret, often contrary to the best evidence of what's in the public interest.

Against this backdrop of raw political hardball, Gore points out that the electorate isn't in the ball game. Most people don't know that Congress and the courts are supposed to be a restraint on presidential power. About half the electorate still thinks Saddam Hussein was the guiding force behind the terrorist attacks on 9/11. People prefer to see news reports about celebrities than news reports about public issues. When the president sponsors legislation that says it's a "Clean Air Act" hardly anyone knows that the bill will actually make air dirtier.

What's the diagnosis?

1. Restore balance between the powers of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government.

2. Start debating major decisions with emphasis on looking carefully at the best evidence.

3. Re-establish the rule of law.

Those ideas will be appealing to those who are deeply steeped in the history of how the U.S. government evolved. But in the last 40 years, schools have done little to teach about how government is supposed to operate. Polls show that many people favor having the government run like a CEO leads a private company, with no role for the legislators, judges, and citizens.

I think the remedy has to be a lot more fundamental, starting with recreating a consensus on what it means to be a citizen of the United States, what proper government behavior is, and what the United States wants to stand for in the world.

The book has three weaknesses that you should keep in mind when you read it:

1. There's no discussion of the inherent problems of having political parties in the government system that our founding fathers created. The original idea they had was to avoid parties. The solution lasted about as long as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were able to stay friends. Much of what Gore decries is an outgrowth of greater partisan battling. What's to stop a continuing escalation of that trend?

2. In the area of public debate, Gore relies a lot on the idea that experts usually know the answers. But that's not always true. In addition, what the experts know if often incomprehensible to everyone else. How effectively can you debate such technical issues when most government leaders were primarily trained to be lawyers and the general electorate has little technical knowledge?

3. The essence of getting elected is to create a temporary coalition of voters. Voters mostly look for "someone like me." That's a pretty big disconnect between proposing an approach to having philosopher-kings (of the sort that Plato liked to write about) who even-handedly make careful decisions that benefit everyone.

You may also find yourself wanting to snooze a bit as Gore describes brain physiology to explain why television is the guilty party for many of our anti-thinking woes.

But, all in all, this is a book that should spark a lot of public discussion. That would be good.

If you don't know much about the political theory behind our methods of governing over the last 200 years and the history of the U.S. government, this book will be even more enlightening. Gore is at his best in citing sources that capture the essence of those perspectives.
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on 14 August 2008
Polemic? Yes. Turgid? Absolutely not! This isn't a book you would anticipate sitting down to at the airport, or reading whilst lying down at the beach sunning yourself. It doesn't tackle light and easy subjects, it addresses the very basis of the American constitution and why that is currently being subverted, so inevitably it isn't a page turner. It needs to be read at a measured pace, but is not difficult to read. In reading it though and for those of us who are relatively ignorant on the subject, it provides an excellent insight into the fundamentals of the American polity, the approach taken by the Founders of the US to ensure a degree of rationality and reason and fairness in US government and also to try to safeguard this framework from the efforts of those who might wish to subvert it.

Whilst in hindsight it might be obvious, but this book has made it clear to me how unpatriotic Dubya and his pals are, how everything they are doing runs counter to the Founders' aims and is not with a view to ensuring the primacy of the US Constitution but with a view to ensuring self-interest and to hell with the rest. So in that sense it is infuriating, it does amaze me and does make me wonder how a nation with such a strong foundation in democracy (seen in the aims of the aims of it's Founding Fathers) can allow itself to be so betrayed by those in power.
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VINE VOICEon 27 April 2008
Gore argues that democracy is being spoiled by dumbed down news media and the concentration of power in the hands of a small number of insiders, who are keen to keep the masses dumb and misled. Gore compares this state of affairs with the previous centuries, where American public debate was noted for its intelligence and reasoned thought. He laments that now, sound bites and pandering to fears and prejudices are under cutting this, and "short circuiting" this.

Gore believes that the advent of radio and TV destroyed democratic debate. Prior to then, books were the primary medium, which required intelligence to read and also required citizens to seek information rather than simply receive it. TV and radio concentrated the power to spread information and messages in a small number of hands, namely, the TV and radio barons who snapped up a monopoly when the technology was in its infancy. As a result, Americans went from being information seekers, to passive information receivers, being fed droning, dumbed down coverage. Gore also feels that the few active citizens who were not dumbed down could not compete with the multi-million dollar budgets or expensive technology needed to challenge this lamentable state of affairs.

However, Gore feels that the internet has changed this, as it is cheap, and allows individual citizens to spread information. Crucially, it also allows for two-way communication and debate, and allows citizens to both receive and seek information. Gore is optimistic that this will lead to a revival of intelligent debate in political debate.

All in all, the book is a very good read, although Gore is perhaps slightly over optimistic about the power of the internet, and even concedes that it too could find itself coming under the control of wealthy media magnates. This book is an excellent companion to "The Political Brain" by Drew Westen, as Gore argues reason and intelligence should matter in politics, whilst Westen argues that gut feelings and emotions play a more important role. It would be useful for the reader to compare the two and draw their own conclusion.
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on 23 June 2007
Al Gore gives a penetrating, though at times repetitive analysis of what has gone wrong with American government. By declaring perpetual war, George W Bush claims to be exempt from the normal checks and balances between executive, legislature and judiciary. Reliant on 30-second TV slots for political information, a passive public has failed to object.

Running through the book is a message: 'It would have been different with me.' This is a risky claim to make, for who can be sure of resisting the corrupting influence of power? On page 186, Gore makes a troubling statement: 'Back in 1991, I was one of a handful of Senate Democrats to vote in favour of the resolution endorsing the Persian Gulf War. I felt betrayed by the first Bush administration's hasty departure from the battlefield even as Saddam began to renew his persecution of the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south - groups that we had encouraged to rise up against Saddam. After a brilliant military campaign, our decision to abandon prematurely the effort to destroy Saddam's military capability allowed him to remain in power.' In other words, if Gore had been in power in 1991, the destruction of Iraq might have begun 12 years earlier than it did.

The Clinton-Gore Administration spent 8 years bombing targets in Iraq and enforcing sanctions which, according to UNICEF, caused the death of half a million Iraqi children. At the same time, they kept up massive financial aid and arms supplies to Israel while it continued to build illegal settlements on occupied territory, making the creation of a viable Palestinian state virtually impossible. Gore would not have invaded Iraq in 2003, but might he not have sent troops into Pakistan in pursuit of Bin Laden? At all events, America's posture in the Middle East might not have been much more comfortable, nor the attendant dangers much less, than they are now.
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on 21 July 2008
I can't disagree more with what the reviewer wrote below. This book is very informative and well researched - if you don't agree with what it says than research the facts yourself to see if they are the truth and then complain.

The problem I had with this book was that is was little convoluted when far more straight forward language could have been used. Saying that, Al Gore gives a very good summing of what is so wrong with modern day politics and Media - especially in the United States.
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on 4 October 2008
My Better Half bought this at the airport and by Day 3 we had both read it. It is unusual to find a book so packed with content that is so easy to read.

Gore's arguments stretch from the effects of fear on the brain and the hypnotic nature of television to the consequences of instant gratification on US democracy. He worked with leading psychologists to ensure the accuracy of these chapters.

Gore suggests that without reasoned debate, people cannot inform themselves about what is happening in the world. Watching the news is not enough, people need to talk about, and discuss what it means. Passively absorbing information allows people to be hypnotised and brainwashed by whoever is in charge of the Media. The Bush years have betrayed both the people of America and beyond.

The Internet is better and less passive. Blogging is good and may yet help save the world. Reading text, formulating an argument and interacting with other people strengthens society.

I found it difficult to follow a lot of the detail in the last couple of because I am not familiar with the US political system. Nonetheless, it is evident that Bush has done to the US, what Blair and Nulab have done to the UK. "Command and Control" "Bullying and harassment" are familiar on both sides of the Atlantic. We need a version that highlights the loss of liberties and democracy in England and the UK.

A great book. Highly recommended and someone please write a UK version!
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on 13 January 2008
I am afraid, I am somewhat cynical and very much a sceptic but a true believer in the truth and democracy. I picked this book out on a book shelf, and had a brief read and found it that matched many of my own opinions about the erosion of government, free speech, and freedom in the West.

Mr Gore points that there is a strong correlation between politics, government, executive power and TV advertising to get your message across. Underlying all of this is the link between lobbyists, political donations and government agenda's.

Reading this book you begin to see the cracks in our political system, the sound-bites, spin, and a "good day to bury bad news". The alignment between the media and government, both communicate an emotional rather than a rational perspective on the events and challenges facing the country on a daily basis.

While the book has a very American focus, the parallels with UK politics are quite strong. Reading between the lines, you begin to see similarities with the Blair/Brown approach to rule from the sofa in No. 10. The whole business of "Cash for Honours", "Donor-gate" and the current media-circus surrounding Peter Hain, make you begin to wonder about people's motives (and what influence they might be buying).

The key point of the book is we are losing our ability to look at the world from a rational and reasoned perspective.
The result: emotion and an irrational view of the world, the "politics of fear", and the Western world edging towards centralised power and tyranny (Gordon Brown and his "Stalinist" mentality).

Whilst we Brits, don't have a constitution (hasn't done us any harm), we too have history to draw upon. We have Magna Carta, the Barons turning against King John and our ancestors fought each other over the absolute power of the Monarchy in a brutal Civil War. King Charles II only got his kingdom back on the basis that Parliament ruled the roost.

So, all you, young, budding future British Prime Ministers out there, you should take the time to do three things:
- Read this book.
- Catch up on all the goof stuff they didn't teach you at School. (Henry VIII through to George III)
- Get yourself elected on the basis that you will campaign to ban all sofa's from No.10 and restore the heart of government to its proper place, the House of Commons and Parliamentary Committees.
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on 28 August 2007
As the technologies of war give shifting advantage to the means of offense or defense, so the means of public debate have shifted to favor certain interests over others. Gore surveys the changing health of public discourse through the recent ages of print, radio, television and the internet. He gives eyewitness accounts of how these shifts have affected US government operations. And he finds us just starting to emerge from an age of one-way communication via television, controlled by those able to afford huge broadcasting expenses, in which vested interests found an expanding capacity to control the flow of information.

Gore does not simplify his message or dumb-down his wording for some hypothetical "reader of average intelligence". He expects that his readers are smart, educated, and quite justified in feeling cut out of the political game as we've seen it. Of course he rips into the crimes against open debate and access to information by the Bush administration. But he does this against the backdrop of all American history, and draws heavily on other leaders from the past such as Teddy Roosevelt from 1906:

"Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people. To destroy this invisible government, to befoul the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics, is the first task of the statesmanship of the day."

Sometimes Gore seems to wish for the moral thunder of America's founders: "How long would it take James Madison to dispose of our current president's claim, in Department of Justice legal opinions, that he is largely above the rule of law so long as he is acting in his role as commander-in-chief?"

And sometimes Gore plays the card of religion as he understands it:

"Dominance is as dominance does. Dominance is not really a strategic policy or a political philosophy at all. Rather, it is a seductive illusion that tempts the powerful to satiate their hunger for still more power by striking a bargain with their consciences. And as always happens sooner or later to those who shake hands with the devil, they find out too late that what they have given up in the bargain is their own soul."

Okay, so he could use some more humor. But through it all Gore stays optimistic that the tide is turning in favor of interactive media and renewed popular debate. He sees it in the multiplication on web-based movements, the power of blogging, or experiments with two-way television systems: "We can see it happening before our eyes: As a society, we are getting smarter. Networked democracy is taking hold. You can feel it."

--author of Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story
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HALL OF FAMEon 29 December 2007
Erosion is a subtle force. Quiet and persistent, the force wears away an object until it fades away or suffers catastrophic collapse. Al Gore sees an erosive force chipping away the foundation of his nation. Reason and informed decision-making, he argues, have been replaced by the politics of fear. With unprecedented threats raised - even successfully launched against his country - he accepts that fear has become a significant part of the social and political scene. However, he contends, fear must not blind people nor divert them from seeking truthful answers to pertinent questions. Among those queries is the highly pertinent one of whether the US was led into a war by lies and deceptions. The invasion of Iraq was sanctioned by fear rather than reasoned examination of its causes.

Gore's opening chapter discusses the politics of fear and why the brain sustains it. The presentation can only be described as "clinical". One can only wonder why Gore thought it useful to open the book with this examination of brain mechanisms, instead of offering the information in an appendix. It is accurate, and certainly pertinent, but those who sympathise with the author's concerns don't truly need the cognitive science. Those who fail to see the threat of the politics of fear will either ignore the science or reject its meaning. How the brain reasons is of no concern to them. They only wish to apply ways of controlling the process. This type of start is not a good method of recruiting readers to a cause - it will only confuse them at the outset.

The remainder of the book is essential reading for anybody concerned with today's political environment. Gore argues that communication in today's world has undergone a severe departure from past practices. Once, communication between politicians, in or contending for office, was based on two-way communication. Electronic methods shifted the mechanism to broadcaster and listener/viewer. As radio permitted European dictators to rise and control the flow of information, television has made one-way communication stronger than ever. The politics of fear relies on gaining control of what people think about, and TV has been a major force in that process, Gore argues. The politics of fear extend their reach far beyond a war instigated by deception. He shows how the Bush administration has used that power to promote some policies while diverting attention from others. Illegal surveillance tactics, intrusion into personal life and favouritism toward special interests have become endemic.

The process has been so effective that the proportion of the US population believing Iraq possessed WMDs at the time of the invasion has only dropped to almost half from three-quarters. That, in view of total lack of evidence to support the belief. Yet, favoured businesses and other special interests have continued to benefit. A staunch patriot, the author sees the loss of reasoned discourse in viewing these matters as a serious threat to the future of his country. How far can the politics of fear take a modern nation, and what can be done about it?

It's a pity that the author's focus is so tight. He describes the rise of 20th Century European dictators, but fails to note commonality in anything but method. The Prime Minister of Britain led his nation along the same path to an unjustified war using the same tactics, while Canada escaped involvement by a hair's breadth. Where Gore's sight is limited in one area, it's a bit overextended in another. It's nice to have a background to work from, and the author's political capabilities contain a genetic base. Still, the number of personal asides in this book are mostly unwarranted and contribute little. A "campaign-style" statement of methods to improve reasoned dialogue in his nation wouldn't have gone amiss. While he sees a combination of TV and the Internet as a useful means, both remain in the pockets of the very special interests he disparages. A book very worthy of reading, but hardly the final word on a subject with such broad implications. The diminishment of reason is another "inconvenient truth" we must all restrain as it floods our society, but this book is only the first sandbag. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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