Because of my habit of saying awkward things to famous people, I was determined not to say anything to Al Gore last week. We were in the same room because he was getting an award at the Interfaith Center of New York’s annual dinner, where I was filling out the table of a friend and donor to the center where I work. Despite my determination, at the cocktail reception I found myself turning around and suddenly shaking hands with the most famous person in the room.
As he took my hand in his, he looked right into my eyes and greeted me with respect and openness. For a long moment, I felt as if I were the only person in the room with him. It was dazzling. This is remarkable when you consider how often he has had to greet strangers. Summoning the psychic energy to do so over and over again with genuine respect, or even its convincing simulacrum, must require monastic levels of strength and discipline. I once saw the performance artist Marina Abramovic make a moving piece out of honoring strangers one by one with her full attention in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art. Gore’s presence was equally striking.
I had a front row seat to his remarks later in the evening. He was introduced and humanized for the crowd by his daughter Karenna Gore Schiff. She recounted her childhood admiration of her father’s ability to balance large objects on his nose for long periods of time. He had once, she said, explained the theory of nuclear disarmament by using salt and pepper shakers at the dinner table. As a girl, she had confronted him one morning with the front page of the Washington Post, showing the picture of a woman suffering in the Bosnian conflict, and asked why America wasn’t doing more to help. That same day Gore told this story to Clinton’s national security team, kicking off a conversation that eventually changed US policy. From the surprised reaction of James Parks Morton, a Gore family friend sharing the stage with her, I surmised that this wasn’t the usual patter trotted out to personalize her father’s public appearances.
Then Gore got up and cast his spell over the room. Because of my time in the Whiffenpoofs and my work in New York’s not-for-profit galaxy, I have been to my share of fancy dinners with the 1%, and one of their tribal quirks is to talk through events where basic politeness would require silence (as when the Whiffenpoofs are singing, for example). I can’t explain this behavior, but I have come to expect it, so the silence in the room during Gore’s remarks surprised me.
After a quick aside about climate change (he’s confident we’ll solve it), he waded right into a subject which normally inspires politely feigned interest: global unity. But Gore’s approach hooked me. He didn’t talk about it as a platitude or abstraction, but as an operating condition that those manning the control panel of our civilization must take into account. Global unity is about our shared fate, woven chiefly from the ever tightening bonds of economic connection that entangle every country on earth. Wherever the course of our civilization ignores this factor, it must be corrected.
Hearing this, I felt transported back to the late 1990s, when the United States approached global problems with self confidence, optimism, and technological might. Gore’s recent writings show that he’s aware of the claustrophic and irrational miasma that has permeated American political life since 9/11 and the Great Recession, but that his own perspective remains undistorted by it. Perhaps his vision is keen enough to see through the haze, or perhaps his perspective is lofty enough that he sees around it. It’s like there’s an alternate America out there and he’s President of it. Listening to him, I felt anew some of the disappointment and disbelief I felt when he was robbed of the White House in 2000. I don’t share Gore’s belief that a single global economy is necessarily a good thing, but I do appreciate his exciting underlying assumption that we are still a great civilization capable of solving big problems.
This past week, observing Obama getting sucked back into the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan, still constrained as he is by the blunderings of George W. Bush, I have wondered what the world might be like if Gore had been president on 9/11. Two things he said last week gave me clues.
He described a two-step process of reconciliation necessary for societies that have been riven by racial conflict. It is not enough to declare racial divisions arbitrary and silly and resolve to cast them off in one enlightened gesture. The full extent of the racial problem has be to be acknowledged and re-acknowledged as many times as is necessary before progress can be made. Overpowering pain and anger are a risk at this stage, but the outlines of the problem have to be seen as they truly exist. This must be done not to inspire shame on either side of the divide, but because it is impossible to repair a foundation unless you know how deep the cracks really go.
The next step is purely internal. It is the of mustering empathy and hope. Again, this is a practical step and not an airy ambition.
When Nelson Mandela had long been imprisoned on Robben Island in South Africa, he resolved one day to try to let go of his hatred for his white jailors, despite its righteous roots in the long persecution of blacks by whites in his country. His resolve emanated from the desire to be free of the weight of hatred in his own soul. One night he brought a cup of tea and two cookies to one of his guards during a recreation period. That small act lightened Mandela’s inner burden just a little, and was the start of his own mustering of empathy and hope. Much later, after years spent fighting his inner demons, he was ready to lead his nation to victory in the same fight. That’s the process Gore was describing.
Gore’s knowledge of this process comes from William E. Cross, Jr., an American scholar of race whose counsel Gore sought while still a young congressman. I can imagine a President Gore leading America out the blind, bewildered rage of those first twelve months after 9/11, rather than onto the battlefields of Iraq, where 4,487 American soldiers and over seventeen thousand Iraqi soldiers have died, as of this writing. As the Iraqi government we left behind disintegrates, and the battle lines of a civil war are being drawn between tribes and religious factions, countless more Iraqis and some of the thousands of American soldiers still in Iraq are sure to die.
Gore also invoked one of America’s great atheists, the late astronomer Carl Sagan. He had met Carl, as he called him, while convening great minds for the Joint Appeal of Science and Religion for the Environment, in 1991. Gore was a United States Senator by then and, he told us, felt himself privileged to overhear the rigorous but friendly debates between Sagan and James Parks Morton, who was then Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City and later founder of the Interfaith Center. Morton and Sagan’s debates finally ended with Sagan’s death in 1996, but, before his end, Sagan expressed a desire “to be buried in Jim Morton’s Cathedral,” said Gore. He pointed to the huge Interfaith logo glowing behind the lectern and said, “That’s truly Interfaith, welcoming all beliefs, including non-belief.”
Again I felt like I was glimpsing an alternate reality, where the President elected in 2000 had not been silent as his party whipped up support by encouraging the faith-based persecution of gay people, or promoting belief in a world where evolution is denied and climate change, when acknowledged at all, is welcomed as part of a millenarian catastrophe in which all unbelievers are left behind. Like Gore, I am not an atheist. I believe that religion can be a great force for good when those in power invoke it to strengthen the fragile foundations of our charity and hope.
Standing in conversation with him, I had found myself noticing, in that moment when the celebrity you know from television merges oddly with the real person in front of you, that Gore is much trimmer these days. He’s 66 and very much in fighting shape, even if he’s determined to stay out of the political arena. “I’m focusing on the climate crisis now,” he said very slowly and carefully to somebody who asked him if he’d be going back into politics. As much as I’d like Gore’s enlightened agenda to be empowered by the bully pulpit, I accept that it’s not going to happen.
Inspired by the speech he gave, I’m now a third of the way through his latest book, The Future, and I can report that it is a dizzying but well reasoned tour of seemingly all our big picture issues. Some of them are familiar, like climate change and income inequality, and some of them, like the effective transfer of sovereign power from nations to private economic interests, and the oncoming redefinition of biological life in the wake of nanotechnology, remain undiscussed by anybody in power right now. From the bibliography of The Future, it’s clear that Gore is plugged into a truly broadminded array of information sources; he reads The Journal of Evolution and Technology and Three-Toed Sloth, The Center for the Study of Complex Systems (both now duly added to my Internet bookmarks) as well as more familiar outlets like The Economist. In the book, he quotes Marshall McLuhan, the oddball but influential founder of media studies, and Ilya Prigogine, a Nobel laureate who formulated the Second Law of Thermodynamics and who made a great impression on the young Gore when (of course) they met during Gore’s early government career. Gore even quotes hipster science fiction writer William Gibson, who coined the word cyberspace. This is a man, we must remember, who was only a few political maneuvers away from the Oval Office. As a chief magistrate who would have looked to our great scientists and thinkers for wisdom on how to direct civilization, Gore would have been the real thing. Not having him in the Oval Office during the crisis-ridden first decade of this century has been a great loss.
While I mourn his exile from government, I am grateful he no longer has to cater to our blinkered voters and so feels free in this latest book to let go and say things like “The technological extension of the ability to think is therefore different in a fundamental way from any other technological extension of human capacity,” or, “… the emergent capabilities bursting forth from the revolutionary advances in the life sciences are about to make us the principle agent of evolution.” Gore fully grasps the strangeness of the present. The New York Times implied in their review of The Future that Gore came off as a little kooky and isolated from everyday life, strong confirmation for me that he really is on to something. Climate change and networked computers probably seemed a little kooky in the 1980s, but Gore was taking them seriously back then.
Since his political defeat, he has been applying his perspicacity to a career in business, and has reportedly amassed a second, uninherited fortune in short order, both from his activities as a canny investor in Silicon Valley, and his sale to Al Jazeera of the broadcasting infrastructure left over from the now defunct CURRENT TV network. His newfound fortune is further proof of the real traction his seemingly crazy ideas have. Mr. Gore the soothsayer is more useful and interesting to me personally than Mr. Gore the elected political leader, lover that I am of the weirdness of futurity, and anxious as I am about how to weather the rest of my life in the 21st Century. After meeting him and hearing him speak, I’m inclined to take some of the regular attention I’m obliged to give our current President and give it instead to Mr. Gore. The alternate America that eerily unfolded around him as he spoke is the one I’d like to inhabit, and it’s where, as far as I’m concerned, he’s our real President.