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May 31, 2007

Al Gore's book tour brings him to Seattle Monday

Posted by David Postman at 8:52 AM

Former Vice President Al Gore will be in Seattle Monday evening to promote his new book, "The Assault on Reason."

(UPDATE: The event is sold out and there will not be tickets available at the door.) Tickets to the event at Town Hall are $5 and available on-line starting at 10 a.m. today. You can get more information here.

From what Gore and reviewers say about "The Assault on Reason," it strikes me as a book-length elaboration on something Gore said when he was in Seattle last year.

In describing the state of the union, Gore quoted German philosopher Theodor Adorno on the rise of the Nazis.

Adorno conducted a kind of autopsy on the Third Reich and he said the first sign of this descent to hell was when this happened, and these are his words: All questions of fact became questions of power.

...

And I'm not drawing an analogy to what happened there. I'm not. But it's dangerous when we allow questions of fact to become questions of power.

Gore obviously was directing his comments at Republicans. But I've often thought about the Adorno quote since then. I think it can be said of partisans on both sides that way too often emotion and ideology trump facts. A lot of what I read from the left and right too readily blurs the line between questions of fact and questions of power.

At MSNBC, Howard Fineman writes this morning about running into Gore outside the cable channel's D.C. studio. They talked about the new book and the state of politics. Fineman says Gore is worried about the "collapsing political ecosystem of America" and that in the book, "he sees nothing less than a nation succumbing to blind stupidity."

As we chatted, I offered the thought that emotion in politics can be a good thing. It supplies energy to the never-ending debates that define and inspire us. We're sort of like a nuclear reactor. "Yes," he said, "but the facts are the control rods!"

Good point. But the analogy raises more questions than it answers. Who decides what "the facts" are? Will the voters take "the facts" into account even if they are told them? And will our country destroy itself if the voters ignore "the facts?"

I don't think the facts need to be in quotes as Fineman does above. Yes, there's often debate about facts. But many times there are clear facts, an objective truth, that can be found. Reporters need to try to remember that and keep looking for the facts — not "the facts" — even if ideologues confuse that with questions of power.

I've tried reading some of Adorno's work since hearing Gore's speech last year. I didn't get far. It is difficult reading, to say the least. The quote Gore used, though, has gained at least some renewed currency on the left. It's included in Mark Crispin Miller's book, "Fooled Again: How the Right Stole the 2004 Election & Why They'll Steal the Next One Too (Unless We Stop Them)."

Here is the passage that includes the line Gore paraphrased. It's from what is considered Adorno's masterpiece, "Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life."

Lies have long legs: they are ahead of their time. The conversion of all questions of truth into questions of power, a process that truth itself cannot escape if it is not to be annihilated by power, not only suppresses truth as in earlier despotic orders, but has attacked the very heart of the distinction between true and false, which the hirelings of logic were in any case diligently working to abolish. So Hitler, of whom no-one can say whether he died or escaped, survives.

You can see why Gore was quick to say last year that he was not drawing an analogy between Republican control of D.C. and the rise of the Third Reich. Adorno clearly saw the blurring of truth and power as Hitler's legacy.

Adorno was from the Frankfurt School of philosophy that was influential in the post-war years in Germany. He said one other thing that I had heard previously, though I didn't know who said it or in what context. And that, too, comes from Minima Moralia: "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric."

That was seen as Adorno's comment on the fascists' destruction of culture in Germany as well as his own survivor guilt. It's a statement that has been pretty much discredited and even ridiculed in some corners.

One might just as well cast a skeptical eye toward the Frankfurt School and contend that "To write theory during Auschwitz is absurd." A few months before his death, Adorno was lecturing at the University of Frankfurt when three members of a radical separatist student group rushed the podium, bared their breasts, and "attacked" him with erotic caresses. As he left the stage, angered and humiliated, the women declared that "as an institution, Adorno is dead."

Gore has revived Adorno, at least a little, and I doubt he worries about any similar "attack" on him.

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