Carl Sagan and the Beginning of History

Our pale blue dot has circled its star eighteen 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, aside from pioneering recognition of the dangers of nuclear war and remaining an inspiration to opponents of drug criminalization. But his inquiry probed any political order’s taboo “set of forbidden possibilities, which its citizenry and adherents must not at any cost be permitted to think seriously about” (like the USSR’s “capitalism, God, and the surrender of national sovereignty” or the USA’s “socialism, atheism, and the surrender of national sovereignty”). Otherwise, it would wither, as with antiquity’s Alexandrians who 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.”

While not a radical leftist like his feminist wife and coauthor Ann Druyan or his New Leftist friend Saul Landau (who, in a sign of the up-in-the-air alliances of the times, contributed to the Cato Institute’s Inquiry Magazine), his liberalism was influenced by the ferment of SDS’s participatory democracy Whole Earth Catalog-style emancipatory technology. It was thus steadfastly in favor of civil liberties, people power, and sexual liberation, and highly wary of moral panics and calls to trade freedoms for security. Despite being vilified by a right dominated by National Review hawkishness, he sought common ground with pro-lifers. As he said of Albert Einstein, he “was always to detest rigid disciplinarians, in education, in science, and in politics,” and 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 trading economies; as his muse Bertrand Russell put it,

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.

His antidote for the existential crises of nuclear war and environmental damage was not consensus reasonable-centrism — he was apprehensive of the triumphalist The End of History prediction “that political life on Earth is about to settle into some rock-stable liberal democratic world government” — but the widest possible experimentation. He recommended two of the great science fiction depictions of functional stateless societies: 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.” He hoped the inspiration of such ideas would make a reality “the beginning, much more than the end, of history.”

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory