Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Al Gore - Apocaplypse Never

Billmon, the best political blogger on the left, talks about Al Gore:

But there is something tragic, even a little pathetic, about Gore's stubborn faith in the ability of facts and reasoned argument to save the world. The scenes of him schlepping through airports – alone, laptop in hand, on his way to yet another city to show his slides to another room full of college students or environmental activists – hit the edge of bathos. They make Al look too much like Willy Loman. "Attention must be paid to this man."

This is the Al Gore the Washington political press corps never seemed to grow tired of mocking: The earnest wonk who takes serious ideas seriously, and assumes his audience does, too. Up on stage, in front of such an audience, Al is clearly in his element. He’s articulate, funny, even endearing – as when he rides an accordion lift to the top of the viewing screen to illustrate the soaring rate of increase in atmospheric CO2. It’s a reminder that Al’s at his best when he’s being himself, instead of imitating Bill Clinton’s folksiness (which only made him look like Salieri next to Clinton's Mozart) or playing the know-it-all bully of his first presidential debate with Bush....

In my darker moments, it sometimes seems as if the entire world is in the middle of a fierce backlash against the Age of Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution and the ideological challenges they posed to the old belief systems. The forces of fundamentalism and obscurantism appear to be on the march everywhere – even as the moral and technological challenges posed by a global industrial civilization grow steadily more complex.

Climate change is only one of those challenges, and maybe not even the most urgent one – at the rate we’re going, civilization could collapse long before the Antarctic ice shelves do. Maybe as a species we really have reached the same evolutionary dead end as Australopithecus robustus – intelligent enough as a species to create problems we're not bright enough, or adaptable enough, to solve. I don’t know. But if extinction, or a return to the dark ages, is indeed our fate – or our grandchildren’s fate, anyway – I think it will be a Hobson’s choice as to which cultural tendency will bear the largest share of the blame: the arrogant empiricism that has made human society into an instrument of technological progress instead of the other way around, the ignorant prejudices of the masses, who are happy to consume the material benefits of the Enlightenment but unwilling to assume intellectual responsibility for them, or the cynical nihilism of corporate and political elites who are willing to play upon the latter in order to perpetuate the former, which is, after all is said and done, their ultimate claim to power.

None of this seems to faze Gore – or if it does, he and his cinema Boswells manage to keep it well hidden in An Inconvenient Truth. I don’t know if that’s because Al simply doesn’t see the situation in the same bleak terms that I do (he seems like a smart guy, but you never know) or whether, like the doctor protagonist in Camus’s The Plague , he’s decided that work – all that schlepping from airport to airport – is the only sane alternative to despair.

I’d hate to think that Gore, who has better contacts and knows more about the science and the politics of climate change than I do, is as pessimistic as I am. But I like the image of him out there on the speaking trail, completely without illusions about the ultimate outcome of the battle, but determined that it won’t be lost because he gave up. It would make Gore a politician, maybe the only establishment politician, that I can relate to – as one Edwardian plant to another.

An Inconvenient Al

As with anything by Billmon, you need to read the whole thing. Yes, it's long. Yes, it's worth it. Billmon has captured what is perhaps the core of Al Gore's appeal - he means what he says. Now, one could argue that Bush also means what he says, but the difference is that Al's statements are said for the sake of the entire world, not for himself and his cronies.

Al's truths, like Al himself, are inconvenient because they are not intended for advantage. He gains nothing by being right, particularly if he is Cassandra, wandering through the corridors of power, speaking what is as plain as the melting snows of Kilimanjaro, but which the various factions of greed and obscuranturism cannot bear to hear.

I click open the home pages of newspapers and see the bodies of the dead - in India, in Gaza, in Iraq - and read the mendacious spin of the Bush White House claiming economic success when it is misery for people outside his case. Employment down, unions being busted, the middle sinking lower. Who can bear this reality? I read this and I understand the appeal of apocalypticism, because at least it promises an end to the madness.

Except that it is the madness. Al offers such a profound and scary hope. If we care for the earth beneath our feet, the air above our heads, the water that moves in our veins, then we will commit to it. He asks us to renounce our fascination with endings and concentrate on being. One stubborn fact at a time. Reality may be the most radical fantasy we can embark upon, after all.


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