The corporate, centralized, top-down, one-way, flow of information from television not only models authoritarianism, habituating Americans to what Tocqueville called "soft despotism"; it makes democracy vulnerable to infections of fear. "If it bleeds, it leads" is the mantra of local news." (To which, Gore comments, "some disheartened journalists add, ‘If it thinks, it stinks.’")
In a brilliant chapter, "The Politics of Fear," Gore cites brain research showing that moving images on television trigger primitive adaptive behaviors, inducing a trance-like state that "immobilizes viewers." "It’s almost as though we have a receptor for television in our brains," he writes. Into that receptor George W. Bush poured vials of fear.
The Bush administration’s propaganda campaign for war with Iraq could not have been put over in print because "the parts of the human brain that are central to the reasoning process are continually activated by the very act of reading words"; the selling of an unnecessary war needed the fear-inducing "vividness" of TV, which can "trigger instinctual responses similar to those triggered by reality itself—and without being modulated by logic, reason, and reflective thought." Bush terrorized the American public into war with lies about Iraq’s nuclear threat to America. For this reason, "George W. Bush reminds me more of Nixon than any other president." The Nixon who once said: "People react to fear, not love. They don’t teach that in Sunday school, but it’s true."
Gore weaves science, history, and philosophy into his assault on Bush’s assault on reason. Fresh insights result. For example: "Bush’s view of policies in the context of a fateful spiritual conflict between good and evil does not really represent Christian doctrine," he notes. " It actually more closely resembles an ancient Christian heresy called Manichaeism—rejected by Christianity more than a thousand years ago—that sought to divide all of reality into …absolute good and absolute evil."
Gore quotes James Madison’s warning that "a religious sect may degenerate into a political faction," adding: "Now with the radical Right, we have a political faction disguised as a religious sect, and the president of the United States is heading it." Unfortunately, a fog of prolixity and repetition often muffles such trenchant bursts.
Rather than detail additional counts of his comprehensive and unanswerable indictment, let’s end with Al Gore, visionary statesman.
Over the Bush-darkened horizon, he sees the opportunity to forge "a new agenda for national and global security." The environmental crisis, the "looming water crisis," the "global challenge presented by terrorism," the threat of new pandemics … these all represent to Gore
one of those precious few moments in all of human history when we have a chance to cause the change we wish to see in the world—by seeking common agreement to openly recognize a powerful new truth that has been growing just beneath the surface of every human heart: It is time to change the nature of the way we live together on this planet… We have everything we need—save perhaps political will. And in our democracy, political will is a renewable resource.
But in television’s empire of fear—where 70% supported the invasion of Iraq, where nearly half still believe Saddam played a role in 9/11, where a man "unfit to run a hardware store," in Philip Roth’s words, was reelected president in 2004—don’t bet on it.