Wednesday, December 20, 2006


In Memoriam

Adding my small voice to the Carl Sagan memorial blog-a-thon in honor of the tenth anniversary of his death, I, like PZ Myers, want to take my text from Sagan's book, The Demon Haunted World. But instead of discussing his science, I want to focus on his deep humanity and his understanding of its glories ... and its failings.

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?
How prescient he was, given how many Americans believe that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq or are convinced that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11. But would even Sagan have foreseen our falling for exactly the same ploy, in the same place, with the same players, twice?

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