The most interesting aspect of hearing Al Gore talk tonight here at the D Conference is that I went into the hour-and-a-half session hoping that Gore would run in 2008, and by the end I was hoping he wouldn’t.
Oh, he’s definitely in good form — impassioned and funny. Kara Swisher kicked off by asking him “Are you not not running?” and he parried, “That completely dismantles my defenses. I guess I have to resort to full candor now.”
He talked, of course, about global warming. He also talked at length about Current.tv, the cable network he started that focuses on videos submitted by the public. He delivered a mini-lecture about “information ecology and the structure of the marketplace of ideas” from the medieval monastery through Gutenberg and on to Tom Paine and the Founding Fathers, and argued that the broadcast TV era was an aberration, a throwback to a one-way media universe in which “the individual could not join the conversation,” and then pointed to the Internet as the next turn of the wheel, back towards the individual.
Of course it would be a refreshing, even astonishing thing to elect a president who actually understood all this and was capable of explaining it to people.
But as Gore talked more and began answering questions from the crowd it became clear that his analysis of today’s political mediascape is even deeper and angrier. Someone asked him why we couldn’t just kill the canard that “there’s still scientific debate about global warming” by getting the science faculties at 100 universities to sign a letter expressing their consensus. With weary determination, Gore explained that there have been lots of letters, including one signed by dozens of Nobel Prize winners, but few in the room would have heard of them, because they didn’t get covered. They didn’t matter — because truth (or what we might call consensus reality) in the Bush era has ceased to be a product of rational discourse and instead come under the sway of political propaganda.
Gore went on: On the eve of the Iraq war, something like 70 percent of American voters believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. And when Sen. Byrd delivered his jeremiad on the Senate floor at that time, few of his colleagues were even in the chamber. Why? Because, Gore declared, no one pays attention any more to what’s said on the floor of the Senate — except for each senator’s political opponents, who might find some quotation to use against the incumbent. Meanwhile, the senators were out at cocktail parties raising checks to build war chests so they could purchase TV commercials during the next election cycle. Our reality is then shaped not by the deliberations of our elected officials, but by these TV barrages — “short emotional messages that are repeated over and over again by those who have enough money to purchase the time.”
I found Gore’s acid-sharp anatomy of this devastation of the political landscape even more terrifying than his now-familiar arguments about the environment. Because it’s this legislative paralysis and political bankruptcy that has left us utterly unable to respond to the warming crisis. How can we make smart choices when reality itself is a target of political subversion? What’s the point in repeating that there is overwhelming scientific consensus about global warming when we remain stuck with a media that’s still willing to publish nonsense like today’s Holman Jenkins column in the Wall Street Journal?
Jenkins says “it wouldn’t be too surprising if tomorrow’s consensus were that CO2 is cooling, or neutral, or warming here and cooling there.” That, Gore said, is like saying, “Gravity may repel us from the earth’s surface; it may repel us in some places and hold us down in other places. It’s an open question.”
Gore argues that the challenge of responding to global warming is this generation’s version of the World War II generation’s challenge of defeating fascism — and that we can, as they did, earn moral authority and find our strength by meeting it. “What I have on my side here is reality,” he said. In our denial of the evidence on warming, “we have been living in a bubble of unreality.”
Gore’s fierce dedication to his quest, which he rightly defines as a moral and spiritual issue rather than a political one, left me thinking that a run for president on his part would be a waste. Gore should take his anger and his understanding and dedicate it not just to the specific, overwhelmingly important environmental cause he has chosen to champion, but also to changing the very structure of our media landscape so that it can support a “reality-based community” once more. He’ll need to do the latter, anyway, if he is to get anywhere with the former.