Carl Sagan on Using Fear in Politics

"The ink was barely dry on the Bill of Rights before politicians found a way to subvert it—by cashing in on fear and patriotic hysteria."

by Matt Hart

Carl Sagan, the 20th century's patron saint of reason, common sense, and science education was a professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and Director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University. He became widely known for his role in teaching my mother's generation about the universe. His award winning book, Cosmos, became an award winning television series (both of which were named in honor of 19th century scientist Alexander von Humboldt's book by the same name). And in 2014, Neil deGrasse Tyson rebooted the Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey television series with the updated science, in one of the most informative programs to ever hit the airwaves (a true must-watch).

Sagan died on December 20, 1996, but not before he taught countless humans about the scientific method, the nature of reality, and put some wonderful books out into the world. In his final book, published just before his death, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Sagan debunks such nonsense as alien abductions, faith healing, and the efficacy of prayer while leaving us with a toolkit for how to think and debunk bullshit.

In Chapter 24, which Sagen wrote with his wife Ann Druyan, they warn us to watch out for the political tactic of fear-mongering the 'other', and how politicians will use this fear to garner support from the credulous, poorly informed, and already scared. Reaching back to 1798 Sagan shows us the first example of a trend that is so clearly still being used in today's Presidential race.

"The ink was barely dry on the Bill of Rights before politicians found a way to subvert it—by cashing in on fear and patriotic hysteria. In 1798, the ruling Federalist Party knew that the button to push was ethnic and cultural prejudice. Exploiting tensions between France and the U.S., and a widespread fear that French and Irish immigrants were somehow intrinsically unfit to be Americans, the Federalists passed a set of laws that have come be known as the Alien and Sedition Acts."

se·di·tion; noun; conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch.
The tactics used in this very election, of inciting fear in immigrants—this time around the Mexican people—are no different than 200 years ago.

"One Law upped the residency requirements for citizenship from five to 14 years. (Citizens of French and Irish origin usually voted for the opposition, Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party.) The Alien Act gave President John Adams the power to deport any foreigner who aroused his suspicions. Making the President nervous, said a member of Congress, “is the new crime.” Jefferson believed the Alien Act had been framed particularly to expel C.F. Volney, the French historian and philosopher; Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, patriarch of the famous chemical family; and the British scientists Joseph Priestey, the discover of oxygen and an intellectual antecedent to James Clerk Maxwell. In Jefferson’s view, these were just the sort of people America needed."

Keep in mind The Demon-Haunted World was published in 1996, not last week.

"From across two centuries, it's hard to recapture the frenzied mood that made the French and the "wild Irish" seem so grave a threat that we were willing to surrender our most precious freedoms. Giving credit for French and Irish cultural triumphs, advocating equal rights for them, was in effect decried in conservative circles as sentimental—unrealistic political correctness. But that's how it always works. It always seems an aberration later. But by then we're in the grip of the next hysteria."
Carl Sagan, 1994
"Those who seek power at any price detect a societal weakness, a fear that they can ride into office. It could be ethnic differences, as it was then, perhaps different amounts of melanin in the skin; different philosophies or religions; or maybe it’s drug use, violent crime, economic crisis, school prayer, or “desecrating” (literally, making unholy) the flag.

Whatever the problem, the quick fix is to shave a little freedom off the Bill of Rights. Yes, in 1942, Japanese-Americans were protected by the Bill of Rights, but we locked them up anyway—after all, there was a war on. The pre-texts change from year to year, but the result remains the same: concentrating more power in fewer hands and suppressing diversity of opinion—even though experience plainly shows the dangers of such a course of action."
Whether you are looking for a toolkit for detecting bullshit or simply a science based argument against your neighbor's claims that he's been abducted by aliens—pick up this brilliant and timeless book. Or pair it with either of George Orwell's seminal novels, Animal Farm or 1984, in which, he so adeptly turns political writing into art.