Carl Sagan

I’m a day behind — but, that just makes it more like real history, no?

Carl Sagan & Mars Viking Lander, NASA JPL photo

Carl Sagan and the Mars “Viking” Lander, NASA/JPL photo

Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of Carl Sagan’s death. Several bloggers are blogging to commemorate his memory.

I’ll borrow wholesale; John Pieret at Thoughts in a Haystack pulled out a passage from Sagan’s book, Demon-Haunted World, that has rung true for me. Here it is:

Pieret wrote: For this passage (pp. 414-15), Sagan begins by discussing George Orwell’s 1984 and its roots in Stalinism:

Soon after Stalin took power, pictures of his rival Leon Trotsky — a monumental figure in the 1905 and 1917 revolutions–began to disappear. Heroic and wholly anhistoric paintings of Stalin and Lenin together directing the Bolshevik Revolution took their place, with Trotsky, the founder of the Red Army, nowhere in evidence. These images became icons of the state. You could see them in every office building, on outdoor advertising signs sometimes ten stories high, in museums, on postage stamps.

New generations grew up believing that was their history. Older generations began to feel that they remembered something of the sort, a kind of political false-memory syndrome. Those who made the accommodation between their real memories and what the leadership wished them to believe exercised what Orwell described as “doublethink.” Those who did,not, those old Bolsheviks who could recall the peripheral role of Stalin in the Revolution and the central role of Trotsky, were denounced as traitors or unreconstructed bourgeoisie or “Trotskyites” or “Trotsky-fascists,” and were imprisoned, tortured, made to confess their treason in public, and then executed. …

In our time, with total fabrication of realistic stills, motion pictures, and videotapes technologically within reach, with television in every home, and with critical thinking in decline, restructuring societal memories even without much attention from the secret police seems possible. What I’m imagining here is not that each of us has a budget of memories implanted in special therapeutic sessions by state-appointed psychiatrists, but rather that small numbers of people will have so much control over news stories, history books, and deeply affecting images as to work major changes in collective attitudes.

We saw a pale echo of what is now possible in 1990-1991, when Saddam Hussein, the autocrat of Iraq, made a sudden transition in the American consciousness from an obscure near-ally — granted commodities, high technology, weaponry, and even satellite intelligence data — to a slavering monster menacing the world. I am not myself an admirer of Mr. Hussein, but it was striking how quickly he could be brought from someone almost no American had heard of into the incarnation of evil. These days the apparatus for generating indignation is busy elsewhere. How confident are we that the power to drive and determine public opinion will always reside in responsible hands?

Good things for historians to ponder.

3 Responses to Carl Sagan

  1. […] “Carl Sagan,” with a meditation on the importance of accurate history ( […]


  2. edarrell says:

    How does posting on Carl Sagan have anything to do with my religious belief? Did you read the excerpt I stole?

    I have a great version of “Deportee” from the 1974 series of concerts Arlo did with Pete Seeger, and a couple of other Seeger versions, too.

    There is a book out, a kids’ book, that has the lyrics to “This Land is Your Land” with Woody wandering across America, page by page. The last pages are a concert with Woody singing, and on stage with him are all his old friends from all parts of his life. It’s really a great book.

    Someone turned it into a movie, which I saw once on PBS, and which I had access to last year through the Dallas County School District film library. My memory is that both Arlo and Woody have versions of the song in the film.

    More on that song some other time, perhaps. Thanks for the links!

    Back to Sagan: Here he’s talking about the dangers of propaganda in an era of electronic media. It’s particularly appropriate considering our current war, and the way we got into it. And, what Christian wouldn’t be for the truth over a snow job?


  3. bernarda says:

    I don’t understand. Perhaps I have been mistaken, but I thought you were a believer in the xian god? I thought I saw something like that in a long ago post. Now that you have posted on Carl Sagan, I see that I was indeed mistaken.

    But, that is not what I wanted to mention. The purpose is Woody Guthrie.

    Here is a pertinent song written by him more than 50 years ago “Deportee”. Arlo Guthrie and Emmylou Harris.

    Another cover of a Guthrie song, “this land is your land”


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