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The Assault on Reason by Al Gore


Al Gore, one of the most lucid American political commentators I have read, explains clearly and persuasively why he thinks American democracy is going downhill and is in dire need of a shot in the arm.

His main arguments are – the overwhelming influence of the television media, leading to a sudden decrease in citizen participation (TV is mostly one-way communication); the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few (directly related to media influence as well); and massive abuses of power and unconstitutional actions by the Bush administration which have gone either unchecked or uncorrected by Congress and/or the judiciary but also by the American public.

He gives ample substantiation (though anyone who follows the American democracy or even the Daily Show closely enough should need none). But it was shocking to learn that a huge percentage of Americans believe that the President needn’t follow the orders of a Supreme Court judge – simply because Bush has ignored a few. Gore’s is the most lucid explanation I’ve read yet of why reason and rationality – the tools that are the presumption of a working democratic system are being eroded.

The book is definitely food for thought for Americans. But it has a lot of implications for the rest of us as well. America is the birthplace of real democracy – built from monarchy. They still learn – and care – about what their founding fathers struggled with more than two centuries ago, and how the system of checks and balances works. And so perhaps it’s not as surprising that they (or at least some of them) can see better than the rest of us what plagues the institution of democracy.

As an Indian, I am very proud of being part of the largest democracy in the world. Yet democracy is something we adopted, and now take for granted, something we sort of assume is the best mode of government there can be. We all learned the how of democracy in civics lessons – who elects the national and state legislatures and what the division of powers are and what that parliamentary system means. But the why of it – thats something that we don’t bother about much. We don’t learn too much about why our constitution is the way it is, and what the logic of democracy is.

The problems that Al Gore points out for the US are as applicable to India or may become in the future – mindless sensationalizing of the news media for one; and increasing lack of participation of the educated electorate for another.

At the end of the book, Al Gore suggests that the Internet can play a major role in rekindling the role of citizens in a true democracy. He also makes it quite clear that democracy is no panacea – without a well informed citizenry willing to participate in the process, power will naturally go into the hands of select few who will then have no checks to prevent its abuse.

The only negative – perhaps only for an outsider – is that the middle of the book is a bit rambling about how much Bush has abused his power – some of which may be due to the fact that they’re natural rivals.

Rating: 4 / 5

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