Thursday, May 17, 2007

"The rule of reason is the natural sovereign of a free people"

Can it be that 32% of Americans work for Haliburton, or are Bush Pioneers waiting for the regulatory relief they paid for in 2004?

Not much other way to explain that Bush continues to cling to even that embarrassingly slim base of support.

I hate to be an intellectual snob--actually, in this case it's more like being a "sentience snob," isn't it?--but it's hard to believe there many people left out there, other than those die-hards, who think the last 7 years wouldn't have gone better if the fellow who said
"The rule of reason is the natural sovereign of a free people"

had been in the White House instead of the fellow who said,
"My job is a job to make decisions. I'm a decision -- if the job description were, what do you do -- it's decision maker."

If you, like me, would appreciate a little more of the former and a good deal less of the latter, treat yourself to this this excerpt from Al Gore's new book, The Assault on Reason:

In order to reclaim our birthright, we Americans must resolve to repair the systemic decay of the public forum. We must create new ways to engage in a genuine and not manipulative conversation about our future. We must stop tolerating the rejection and distortion of science. We must insist on an end to the cynical use of pseudo-studies known to be false for the purpose of intentionally clouding the public's ability to discern the truth. Americans in both parties should insist on the re-establishment of respect for the rule of reason. […]

Many young Americans now seem to feel that the jury is out on whether American democracy actually works or not. We have created a wealthy society with tens of millions of talented, resourceful individuals who play virtually no role whatsoever as citizens. Bringing these people in—with their networks of influence, their knowledge, and their resources—is the key to creating the capacity for shared intelligence that we need to solve our problems.

Unfortunately, the legacy of the 20th century's ideologically driven bloodbaths has included a new cynicism about reason itself—because reason was so easily used by propagandists to disguise their impulse to power by cloaking it in clever and seductive intellectual formulations. When people don't have an opportunity to interact on equal terms and test the validity of what they're being "taught" in the light of their own experience and robust, shared dialogue, they naturally begin to resist the assumption that the experts know best.

So the remedy for what ails our democracy is not simply better education (as important as that is) or civic education (as important as that can be), but the re-establishment of a genuine democratic discourse in which individuals can participate in a meaningful way—a conversation of democracy in which meritorious ideas and opinions from individuals do, in fact, evoke a meaningful response.

Fortunately, the Internet has the potential to revitalize the role played by the people in our constitutional framework. It has extremely low entry barriers for individuals. It is the most interactive medium in history and the one with the greatest potential for connecting individuals to one another and to a universe of knowledge. It's a platform for pursuing the truth, and the decentralized creation and distribution of ideas, in the same way that markets are a decentralized mechanism for the creation and distribution of goods and services. It's a platform, in other words, for reason. But the Internet must be developed and protected, in the same way we develop and protect markets—through the establishment of fair rules of engagement and the exercise of the rule of law. The same ferocity that our Founders devoted to protect the freedom and independence of the press is now appropriate for our defense of the freedom of the Internet. The stakes are the same: the survival of our Republic. We must ensure that the Internet remains open and accessible to all citizens without any limitation on the ability of individuals to choose the content they wish regardless of the Internet service provider they use to connect to the Web. We cannot take this future for granted. We must be prepared to fight for it, because of the threat of corporate consolidation and control over the Internet marketplace of ideas.

The danger arises because there is, in most markets, a very small number of broadband network operators. These operators have the structural capacity to determine the way in which information is transmitted over the Internet and the speed with which it is delivered. And the present Internet network operators—principally large telephone and cable companies—have an economic incentive to extend their control over the physical infrastructure of the network to leverage control of Internet content. If they went about it in the wrong way, these companies could institute changes that have the effect of limiting the free flow of information over the Internet in a number of troubling ways.

The democratization of knowledge by the print medium brought the Enlightenment. Now, broadband interconnection is supporting decentralized processes that reinvigorate democracy. We can see it happening before our eyes: As a society, we are getting smarter. Networked democracy is taking hold. You can feel it.

The television-is-killing-reason argument--or at least its underpinnings--isn't that new, as anyone who's read Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death will recognize. Still, it's not a bad argument, and it's tied in the service of something Postman wasn't positioned to see coming: The struggle of the Internet to remain the newly discovered home of independent voices with a potentially global reach rather than the ultimate profit stream for the ever-shrinking pool of transnational corporate media owners. Let's see what Gore's book does to the conversation.

The excerpt is going onto the Readings list on the sidebar.

Meanwhile, if Gore has a new book coming out, you know what that means--we've got another shot at getting him to attend a Portland Drinking Liberally meeting when he goes on tour. A lot of members will want to hammer him about getting into the 2008 race, but personally I think a brewpub might be the ideal place to find out why they call her "Tipper."

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