Saturday, August 12, 2017

At Least He Didn't Live to See Reddit ...

I saw this image posted to Twitter yesterday when Daniel Larison retweeted it, though it turns out it was posted to Reddit a couple of days before that.  The guy who posted it remarked, "Carl Sagan wrote this in 1996, and now I think he’s either a time traveler or a witch."  Well, that tends to confirm Sagan's totally cliched forebodings about superstition.

I don't remember what, if anything, I thought about this passage when I read The Demon-Haunted World twenty years ago, but this doesn't make me want to reread it now.  On the whole I remember liking the book, though there were some things, like a stupid denigration of pre-literate people's intelligence, that annoyed me.

As usual with apocalyptic "predictions," Sagan was describing his present and recent past, especially the Reagan regime.  I was about to say that the panic over Donald Trump has wiped out memory of Ronald Reagan's ignorance, superstition, racism, and appeal to the Common Clay, but then I remembered that the human historical memory has always been short, and Reagan was rehabilitated by Barack Obama.  I"ve been wondering if I"ll live long enough to see Trump, like George W. Bush and Richard Nixon, embraced by liberals: hugged by Michelle Obama, schmoozing with Ellen DeGeneres.

Do I need to point out that the US has been moving towards a service economy since the 1800s?  (And what's wrong with an information economy?  Why did Sagan hate Science?)  Like many of his generation, and mine as well, Sagan may have thinking of the brief manufacturing boom during and just after World War II; that was a blip, not the normal state of US economic activity.

The stuff about dumbing-down is also standard, and speaks badly for Sagan, because it's mere demagoguery in the sense Patricia Roberts-Miller described and criticized in Demagoguery and Democracy.  I immediately thought of another critic's remarks about a 1932 lament over the emptiness of Popular Entertainment In Our Time, that I've quoted before: "It is surely a great deal better to like the trashiest fiction than to enjoy seeing a witch burnt, or to go to the silliest cinema than to soak in an eighteenth-century gin-shop."

But maybe Sagan had a point.  I like his science popularizations well enough, and I still remember fondly his appearance on a TV panel after the original broadcast of the 1983 nuclear-war movie The Day After: the political pundits who participated with him were in a state of panic and nearincoherence, and Sagan was sardonic but sensible.  Or so I remember it; I just found that the broadcast has been reconstructed and posted to Youtube, but I haven't re-watched it yet.  Maybe it will disappoint me when I do.  But compare Sagan to some of his science-for-the-masses predecessors: Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein.  There were giants in the earth in those days!  And then think of who followed him: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye.  Maybe we are going downhill.