By quoting Gore in a positive fashion, it’s almost certain that what follows will be dismissed by some as utter folly. This is a bipartisan problem; say something nice about George W. Bush’s immigration reform policy or his anti-AIDS initiatives in Africa, and others will tune out.
A healthy, well-functioning democracy demands something better than just tuning out.
While Americans see — and have always seen — things differently, we seem to be veering into a realm where ideas and opinions only matter if they come from someone on your side. That’s the conclusion Gore reached in his 2007 book, The Assault on Reason.
“Faith in the power of reason — the belief that free citizens can govern themselves wisely and fairly by resorting to logical debate on the basis of best evidence available, instead of raw power — was and remains the central premise of American democracy. That premise is now under assault,” Gore wrote.
What does he know, right? Didn’t he claim to “invent the Internet?” Well, actually, no. In 1998, Gore told CNN, “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.”
And, it turns out, that’s mostly correct. As two of the Internet pioneers, Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf, wrote in 2000, “[T]here is no question in our minds that while serving as senator, Gore’s initiatives had a significant and beneficial effect on the still-evolving Internet.”
The Internet is this war on reason’s best ally and most-feared foe. This tool efficiently spreads information across the world. However, the reliability of that information is another matter. In this digitized world, news consumers can never be bothered with a dissenting view. They can wall themselves off from news that might cause them to rethink firmly held positions.
In 2006, then-Alabama Attorney General Troy King visited with The Star’s editorial board. King was asked about capital punishment. He stated firmly that the death penalty deters future criminals. We asked for evidence, for some study that supported his view. King admitted that he had no “empirical” evidence to believe that executions deterred crime; he just knew it in his heart.
Fast forward to last fall’s election when candidate for the Public Service Commission Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh met with The Star. She was asked about the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community that man-made activity is contributing to climate change. After repeatedly dodging the question, she finally dismissed the widely held view as a fiction invented by Gore and “liberal scientists.”
Of course, Cavanaugh, the challenger, had a leg up on her opponent, incumbent Jan Cook. Longtime PSC member Cook never bothered to respond to The Star’s invitation to discuss her views. Letters, calls and e-mails were ignored. She was apparently unwilling to make an argument — reasonable or otherwise — for why she should continue as a member of the Public Service Commission. Cavanaugh won the election handily.
The outcome of the battle over reason is not so clear.
At its best, journalism is an excellent model for encouraging reasoned debate. Employing well-reported facts and objective context, newspapers are an ally of reason. They ought to be supermarkets of ideas, places the news of the day is delivered in a credible way and where varied opinions on the import of that news are aired. Sometimes those stories, editorials and columns upset readers; this will happen in a free society where ideas are allowed to flow. The aim is to use them to judge if what we’ve learned since yesterday makes a difference in what we think today.
Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at (256) 235-3540 or email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.