Dreaming Like Carl Sagan
Staying Vigilant in a Demon-Haunted World
by Mike Dawson
“The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles.
Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.” *
When I was young my dad encouraged me to read the history books that were sitting on the top shelf of his antique bookcase. He was a World War II veteran and had dozens of books in his library. I found memoirs by Sir Winston Churchill, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, General Billy Mitchell, and WWI ace Eddie Rickenbacker. These books gave me my first insights into the world my father inhabited as a schoolboy and later as a Navy aviator. Those first mature literary journeys taught me that people worked hard to achieve goals and sometimes doubted their convictions while striving to greater heights. These unmatched titans of the 20th century held the belief that Western civilization was the greatest society on Earth. My father also had collections of cartoons from magazines like Punch, The New Yorker, and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts (his favorite). Perhaps my greatest lesson came from comedy. It taught me the beauty of irony, and that a good laugh keeps serious discussion from becoming morbid and thick like a fog in Sir Winston’s London. Those books launched me on voyages that few kids ever experienced.
As a child born in the 1960s, I loved sports, television and radio programs. I idolized my dad, Bill Cosby, Willie Mays, Neil Armstrong, and Jackie Robinson. As a teenager, my Heroes Hall of Fame grew to include Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Gwendolyn Brooks and Hank Aaron. As an adult, I continued to add to my Heroes Hall of Fame. The list now includes Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sally Ride, Carl Sagan and George Carlin. Scientists, astronauts, poets, comics and musicians inspired me to be a critical thinker and to value education as a coin of great worth. And when I think back to the lessons I’ve gleaned from these men and women, be they from my childhood or my adulthood, I cannot help but think that the Western civilization so revered by Churchill and Armstrong is waning. I loved my dad’s favorite shows like The Shadow, Dragnet, Buck Rogers and public programs that broadcast music and theatrical productions. Public broadcasting became my second schoolhouse and a refuge while I learned to build radio crystal sets to listen in on the local police frequencies and ham radio broadcasts from Canada. I became enthralled with radio and technology. I embraced science as a friend and the Cold War space race of
the 60s was as inspirational to me as it was to every kid on the block. As my childhood ended and adulthood took root my idealism was crushed as my friends and I tried to make sense of a world mired in the Vietnam War. Some of us never recovered from the manifold shocks of severed dreams. I’ve seen their obituaries and continue to hear reports and rumors of hardship and devastation.
Our civilization has drifted off course like a Spanish conquistador seeking a fabled city of gold. We treat illusions as reality and accept pseudoscience as fact. Our culture neglects or outright ignores their studies of great literature, music, art, science, and mathematics. Momentous historical events won by blood and sweat, like the Revolutionary War, Civil War, Native American genocide, human slavery, the Great Depression, two world wars, Woman’s Rights, McCarthyism, the Scopes trial, the Cuban Missile Crisis and countless horrific events since the terrible days of September 2001 are dimming in the national consciousness. We’ve been hijacked by big business and
their leaders who tell us that profits are king while markets crash and pension funds are looted. The government, which is commanded by the Constitution to provide its citizens with a chance at “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” has turned into a dysfunctional system, unable and unwilling to work toward compromise for the common good. News organizations built by Murrow, Cronkite and MacNeil have been poisoned by the lure of Big Money and the headlong rush to be first with the story. Although a few contemporary journalists report the news with skill and bravery, their work is mostly lost amongst screaming trolls and propaganda. One only has to read the newspaper headlines to realize how irrational fears of science by religious zealots have infected our schools, governments and public discussions. And perhaps most alarmingly, the various expeditions to explore space and the far reaches of the universe have become decimated by the suicidal budgetary sequestrations.
Clearly we have a long way to go until we become a mature Nation, exercising wisdom tempered by humility. My parents’ generation destroyed the Nazis and harnessed the power of the atom. But unprecedented accomplishments do not mean we are beyond reproach. Although we have learned much from space race programs like Apollo or human rights initiatives such as the United States 1965 Civil Rights Act, our nation, and indeed, the larger global community, have a great deal more to learn and do. I believe that our top priority should be to build educational institutions, especially for women. Education should be a human right to be viewed equal in importance as voting rights or living wages. Until we comprehensively educate our entire planet, we will continue to live in Dr. Carl Sagan’s demon-haunted world – a world ruled by irrational superstitions and run by technology we can no longer comprehend. Sagan reminds us to keep our candles of wisdom and knowledge burning brightly to dispel the darkness of fear, ignorance and hatred that inhabits this pale blue dot we call Earth.
There are promising signs on the horizon. As long as there is life, there is hope. We must keep the candle burning for heroes Carl and Neil. They need our help to keep the darkness at bay.