A purple-highlighted passage from Carl Sagan’s 1996 book The Demon Haunted World made the rounds of social media recently. In it Sagan expresses concern for a future in which people have chosen ignorance over reason, and some have taken this to be an eerily prescient depiction of America in the Age of Trump. Go ahead and take a minute to read it.
One of the things that struck me as absurd about Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” was the way it presupposed some just-past golden age in which America was “great”. This was a time when manufacturing jobs were plentiful, blue collar everymen didn’t feel culturally condescended to by white collar technocrats, social change moved at an acceptable pace, and politicians weren’t all a bunch of crooks. When was this golden age? According to many Trump supporters I saw quoted it was the 1970s and 1980s.
If you’re my age or older you were alive during this golden age, old enough to read newspapers and watch TV. You remember clearly, firsthand, anxiety about the decline of American manufacturing, the closing factory that destroys a small town. The Culture Wars were actively being fought. I also recall that yuppies were snobs and politicians a bunch of crooks back then too. It’s not like concern with these problems is all misplaced—if I were a rust belt factory worker I’d be justifiably nervous about my job—but the problems themselves are long-term if not perennial, and not the result of some abrupt decline that happens to coincide with this particular moment in history. Trump supporters who believe otherwise are making a mistake, naively projecting their personal anxieties onto a historical shape that just isn’t there.
Now would maybe be a good time to go back and reread that Carl Sagan passage.
Sagan frames his dim view of America as foreboding about the future, but all the things he describes were commonly remarked-on trends in 1995. In the mid-1990s–just as in the 1980s and 1970s before them–pundits were worried about the decline of the manufacturing sector. The media (though back then it was network TV, not Twitter) was turning us all into spoon-fed zombies, unable to think for ourselves. The line about “clutching our crystals” hasn’t aged well, but Sagan’s disdain for horoscopes remains as germane as ever. The highlighted passage concludes with concern over American culture’s peculiar “celebration of ignorance”. This isn’t prescience, just evidence that people have been saying the same damn thing for over twenty years.
A bit of wisdom for any Millennial whippersnapper who stumbles across this post: there has never, ever, ever been a time when American intellectuals did not express deep concern over the ignorance of their fellow countrymen. Look no further than just beyond the purple highlighting above, for the specific evidence Sagan offers that right-now, in 1995, things are uniquely bad: the popularity of the TV show Beavis and Butthead. That show was the first big hit for writer and filmmaker Mike Judge, who in 2006 would go on to make the movie Idiocracy, a satire about a future America that had been overrun by–wait for it!–rampant anti-intellectualism.
I don’t mean to beat up on Sagan here. Just like the Trump supporters he’s not wrong, at least about some things, in a broad outline. In any culture there will be a strain of anti-intellectualism, and this is bad because it makes people vulnerable to con men and demagogues. Strains of this anti-intellectualism are playing out in American politics right now, and it’s good for people to combat them. In particular there are things about Donald Trump and his supporters that really are really, really bad. But from long personal experience let me tell you there is no rising tide of ignorance just about to swamp us all, no new army of barbarian yokels at the gates, and if you think you’ve just discovered one, you’re flattering yourself. Feel free to wear that red “Make America Smart Again” baseball cap as a joke, but if you ever for a moment take it to be a sincere rallying cry you are as big a rube as the people it mocks. The first rule about being the smartest person in the room is that if you think you are, you’re not.