Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of Carl Sagan: scientist, humanist, author, novelist, and champion of rationality. His PBS television series Cosmos stands as perhaps the most brilliant achievement in explaining science and the scientific method to the layman that our civilization has ever seen.
In honor of one of the truly great minds of the twentieth century, blogger Joel Schlosberg has organized the Carl Sagan memorial blog-a-thon. I find that I cannot do better than to present to you Sagan’s own words, taken from the end of his book The Demon-Haunted World:
One reason the Constitution is a daring and courageous document is that it allows for continuing change, even of the form of government itself, if the people so wish. Because no one is wise enough to foresee which ideas may answer urgent societal needs — even if they’re counterintuitive and have been troubling in the past — this document tries to guarantee the fullest and freest expression of views.
There is, of course, a price. Most of us are for freedom of expression when there’s a danger that our own views will be suppressed. We’re not all that upset, though, when views we despise encounter a little censorship here and there. But within certain narrowly circumscribed limits — Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous example was causing panic by falsely crying “fire” in a crowded theater — great liberties are permitted in America…
The system founded by Jefferson, Madison, and their colleagues offers means of expression to those who do not understand its origins and wish to replace it by something very different. For example, Tom Clark, Attorney General and therefore chief law enforcement officer of the United States, in 1948 offered this suggestion: “Those who do not believe in the ideology of the United States shall not be allowed to stay in the United States.” But if there is one key and characteristic U.S. ideology, it is that there are no mandatory and no forbidden ideologies. Some more recent 1990s cases: John Brockhoeft, in jail for bombing an abortion clinic in Cincinnati, wrote, in a “pro-life” newsletter:
I’m a very narrow-minded, intolerant, reactionary, Bible-thumping fundamentalist… a zealot and fanatic… The reason the United States was once a great nation, besides being blessed by God, is because she was founded on truth, justice, and narrow-mindedness.
Randall Terry, founder of “Operation Rescue”, an organization that blockades abortion clinics, told a congregation in August 1993:
Let a wave of intolerance wash over you… Yes, hate is good… Our goal is a Christian nation… We are called by God to conquer this country… We don’t want pluralism.
The expression of such views is protected, and properly so, under the Bill of Rights, even if those protected would abolish the Bill of Rights if they got the chance. The protection for the rest of us is to use that same Bill of Rights to get across to every citizen the indispensability of the Bill of Rights.
What means to protect themselves against human fallibility, what error-protection machinery do these alternative doctrines and institutions offer? An infallible leader? Race? Nationalism? Wholesale disengagement from civilization, except for explosives and automatic weapons? How can they be sure — especially in the darkness of the twentieth century? Don’t they need candles?
Education on the value of free speech and the other freedoms reserved by the Bill of Rights, about what happens when you don’t have them, and about how to exercise and protect them, should be an essential prerequisite for being an American citizen — or indeed a citizen of any nation, the moreso to the degree that such rights remain unprotected. If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.
For a far more original take on Sagan, it would be hard to do better than John Scalzi’s contribution.