The Al Gore Smear: Gossip as an Instrument of Power

06/18/2010 02:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I have just been on the South Ossetian separatist border of Georgia where the Russian armored invasion took place two years ago. I was there reporting at the time of the invasion, and I came back for an update. It has involved repeatedly getting past a front line manned by sanguinary pro-Russian militias into a mafiotic enclave immersed in despair. Suffice to say, all that manic stress makes you yearn for home. Odd little balloons of longing, brilliant ephemera, bubble up in your thoughts: a kitschy restaurant in midtown, a luminous blonde with a sunlit smile; old music; friends at an opening door.

You find, when you finally get home, that spending time in warzones has stripped away vital layers of cynical insulation. You swing your arms wide for an idealized welcome. But in reality, they're rather preoccupied at home, consumed with the scurviest concerns. The tabloids are eviscerating someone new: this time it's Al Gore. They're at it again, in Auden's words: "the hum of printing presses turning forests into lies". The UFO Bee or somesuch has printed allegations of an affair which the Drudge Report has picked up and the New York Post has front-paged. In great festive headlines Al Gore is being fed to the blender.

This is not at all how one dreams of the home front. While running from sounds of gunfire in South Ossetia, I remembered, in particular, slightly garbled words from Rupert Brooke's famous WW1 poem which begins "If I should die think only this of me" and goes on to invoke images of home: "laughter learnt of friends,,,dreams happy as the day; and gentleness/In hearts at peace". When you're away on a frontier where civilization grinds tectonically against its opposite -- you really need your side to represent decency, visibly so, from far away. The principle matters all the more to our soldiers in the field where loss of conviction can be the worst danger -- one that the sociopathic enemy can easily exploit.

America is fighting two wars and several ancillary struggles in a global effort to convince opponents to follow our path away from immiseration towards generosity and reconciliation. You'd think, with the world's eyes on us, we would guard over our dignity. Instead, the tabloids are brutalizing a figure the world universally recognizes as a gold-standard American idealist with the entire earth's interests at heart, a noble, likable, altruistic American.

Furthermore, a figure deprived of the presidency in a dodgy election which tarnished our most precious example to others, our democratic process. And not least, a figure who had the grace to put our democracy above personal ambition by walking away from the divisive dispute -- who then suffered an acute depression and bounced back to show the world how, as an American, you can rise even higher than the presidency. He is the best of us. What we are doing to him we are doing to ourselves in front of a global audience.

I've been introduced to Al Gore once, possibly twice, at cocktails, and to his family down the years. Literate, gracious, down-to-earth, impossibly talented, full of fun and mischief -- consider what they have lived through already: the family that gave up the White House with good grace. No really -- how would you have handled it? And now this additional gratuitous vileness.

Is there no way to halt the media's savage McCarthyism? Tabloid gossip gets a free pass because it purports to be apolitical. It falls so far below the tenor of political debate that it stays above criticism. But there is nothing apolitical about the assault on Al Gore and his family. It's one side of the political spectrum attacking the other entirely ad hominem with no evidence at all of wrongdoing public or private. In warzones, one sees improbable acts of chivalry and charity everywhere displayed, more of it than one sees in our feral media. Where is your charity, one wants to say, the chivalry to the Gore women and grandchildren, who have to endure the keel-hauling of their family as a national spectacle? To Tipper Gore or Karenna Gore we can precisely -- and shamefully -- quote Edmund Burke "In a nation of gallant men, of men of honor, I thought ten thousand swords must have leapt from their scabbards, to avenge a look that threatened her with insult. The age of chivalry is gone."

We should understand beyond doubt that gossip is power. Byzantine rumor is an instrument of force. The ancients knew it full well and used it to destroy political-military rivals. At the court of Byzantium, gossip was deployed as systematically as elections are today. Public families grew isolated, became distrustful even of their own kin as rumor worked its poison. This is what we have to look forward to. It's no good saying that Al Gore is/was a politician, that he knew the risks, that he's therefore different. If you take comfort in that, your turn will come. The briny atmosphere of rumor doesn't stay confined to the topmost layers. It consumes the air, the baker and butcher and small business owner.

Here's how it works -- one sees it in closed Islamic societies -- fear of gossip grows so disproportionate that families learn to enforce self-isolation. Cousins only marry cousins. Arranged marriages multiply. We become the social equivalent of banks that wont lend - we sit on our credit and credibility in a state of costive paranoia. The wide-open, easygoing, affectionate personality becomes dangerous, disappears from the world.

In the end, if I could speak to the Gores directly, I would want to say this: do not please shut yourselves away. As Americans we need to see your example -- that you handle this with the openhearted grace you've already displayed in overcoming previous adversity. Certainly, choose your friends carefully but do not self-destruct please. Do not hand a triumph to the sociopathic enemy. It will harm every citizen who needs a faith in home.