Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A "Fix" for Democracy

“What has gone wrong in our democracy, and how can we fix it?” These are the questions that Al Gore boldly and passionately addresses in his book, The Assault on Reason.

Gore frames the conversation with a focus on literacy – the capacity to receive, assimilate, and articulate response to information. He outlines the nature of literacy common to the print-based society out of which democracy first sprung in our country and contrasts that with today’s society where one-way, television-based information dominates the scene. Gore convincingly argues that subsequent shifts in patterns of literacy and access to information distribution have put our democracy at risk, disenfranchised the vast majority of Americans, and created the vulnerabilities that have made it possible for the Bush administration to pillage our nation for personal gain.

eight chapters of brutal awakening. Call Bush the Wizard of Oz, and I have been one of too many willing to “pay no attention to the little man behind the curtain,” while he goes on making plans to protect his own interests. Gore walks the reader through a behind-the-curtain view of democracy’s dismantling under the Bush administration. He demonstrates the use made of mass media – particularly television – to loll the electorate into complacency and put democracy up for sale to the highest bidder. Where Brzezinski’s Second Chance leans into analytical and often an elevated discussion of national and international political overview, Gore remains approachable and respectfully conversant on similar topics throughout but does so while disclosing an insider’s view of American policy enacted in our names that could only leave us repeatedly aghast and ashamed if complacent and complicit in our knowing. The dissolution of constitutional authority, the disregard for checks and balance between branches of government, the wholesale betrayal of American trust and confidence as regards the war, the environment, the economy, and citizen rights, and the cankerous promotion of glutinous self-service are all illustrated in point after supported point of Bush-led initiatives. I was reading somewhere in chapter seven when IThe relatively comfortable read through introductory comments gives way to finally said aloud to myself, “I need some light at the end of this tunnel, Mr. Gore, and I need it soon.”

That light comes in chapter eight, “A Well-Connected Citizenry,” and as you might expect from the language, Gore looks largely, but not exclusively, to the Internet for hope in the fight to save democracy. He notes the two-way nature of the Internet, the open access, and the means available for assembly of the electorate. Interestingly, he pointedly contrasts “education” with the act of being “well-informed,” defining them in starkly different terms and noting that while being institutionally educated can underwrite the ability to be informed, it is no guarantee and certainly no prerequisite. The “marketplace of ideas,” he states is 1) open to every individual able to receive information and in turn contribute information directly into the flow of ideas, 2) is governed by the “meritocracy of ideas,” and 3) is guided by “an unspoken duty to search for general agreement” (13).

The revolutionary departure on which the tide of America was based was the audacious belief that, as Thomas Jefferson said, “An informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will.” Our Founders knew that people who are armed with knowledge and the ability to communicate it can govern themselves and responsibly exercise the ultimate authority in self-government. They knew that democracy requires the open flow of information both to and, more important, from the citizenry. That means it is past time for us to examine our role as citizens in allowing and not preventing the dangerous imbalance that has emerged with the efforts by the executive branch to dominate our constitutional system and reverse the shocking decay and degradation of our democracy. (259)

Gore defines the Internet as “perhaps the greatest source of hope for reestablishing an open communications environment.” He applauds the use of blogs, wikis, user-generated TV, and social networks as the 21st century equivalent of 18th century pamphleteering and reiterates the importance of the written word as a basis for propagating democracy. “Generally speaking,” he writes, “bloggers are concerned citizens who want to share their ideas and opinions with the rest of the public. Some have genuinely interesting things to say, while other do not, but what is most significant about blogging may be the process itself … reclaiming the tradition of our Founders by making their reflections on the national state of affairs publicly available” (263). … hurrah for us! And Go, Team, Go!

The Assault on Reason is one summer read I’ll be reading again.

In closing this discussion, I’ll leave you with a few questions given in the last chapter (254-56) as a quick test against which to assess the need for becoming a better informed citizen. Take a read and see how you do.

  1. Can you name one of the candidates running for the Democratic nomination? Can you name two?
  2. Can you name one of the candidates running for the Republican nomination? Can you name two?
  3. Can you name a Supreme Court Justice? Can you name two? Can you name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court?
  4. True or False: The president is required to follow a Supreme Court decision with which he disagrees.
  5. True or False: Only the Supreme Court has the right to declare war?
  6. True or False: The Supreme Court has the power to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional.
  7. The line “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” comes from what document?
  8. What rights are protected by the First Amendment, and do you believe “they go to far in the rights it guarantees”?
  9. Are you able to locate the countries of Iraq, India, and China on a map?
  10. Who really won the last election?
Ok, so the last question was my own, but hey… we needed a light moment, right!?

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