Carl Sagan and the Beginning of History

carl sagan | @joelschlosberg | Support this author on Patreon
Our “pale blue dot” has circled its star nineteen times since it lost the astronomer who gave us the perspective to see it that way — and that phrase.

Carl Sagan is not usually remembered as a political prophet, except possibly in warning of the dangers of nuclear war and drug criminalization. But his inquiry questioned any nation’s “set of forbidden possibilities, which its citizenry and adherents must not at any cost be permitted to think seriously about” (such as “capitalism, God, and the surrender of national sovereignty” in the USSR or “socialism, atheism, and the surrender of national sovereignty” in the USA). He observed that prior to the decline of Hellenistic Alexandria, its scholars never “seriously challenged the political, economic and religious assumptions of their society. The permanence of the stars was questioned; the justice of slavery was not.”

Sagan was not a radical leftist, although his feminist wife and coauthor Ann Druyan and his New Leftist friend Saul Landau were. (In a sign of the up-in-the-air alliances of the times, Landau contributed to the Cato Institute’s Inquiry Magazine.) But his liberalism was influenced by SDS’s participatory democracy and the era’s interest in technologies of emancipation. It was thus steadfastly in favor of civil liberties, people power, and sexual liberation, and wary of moral panics and calls to trade freedoms for security. Vilified by a conservative movement dominated by National Review hawkishness, he still sought common ground with pro-lifers. As he wrote of Albert Einstein, he “was always to detest rigid disciplinarians, in education, in science, and in politics.” His distrust of politics was evident in proposing a “series in which we relive the media and the public falling hook, line and sinker for a coordinated government lie.”

He took note that the flowering of inquisitive, tolerant values in ancient Greece and Renaissance Holland grew from their trade economies. As his muse Bertrand Russell explained: “The relation of buyer and seller is one of negotiation between two parties who are both free; it is most profitable when the buyer or seller is able to understand the point of view of the other party. There is, of course, imperialistic commerce, where men are forced to buy at the point of the sword; but this is not the kind that generates Liberal philosophies, which have flourished best in trading cities that have wealth without much military strength.”

Sagan’s antidote for the existential crises of nuclear war and environmental damage was not consensus reasonable-centrism — he was apprehensive of The End of History‘s triumphalist prediction “that political life on Earth is about to settle into some rock-stable liberal democratic world government” — but the widest possible experimentation. He hoped that functional stateless societies depicted in science fiction — Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, with its “useful suggestions … for making a revolution in a computerized technological society;” and Eric Frank Russell’s “conceivable alternative economic systems or the great efficiency of a unified passive resistance to an occupying power” in The Great Explosion — would set an example for “the beginning, much more than the end, of history.”

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