October 10, 2014

Reflections: Is there anything an individual can do to combat the status quo?

I'm still not quite feeling the regular blogging schedule yet. Boo had surgery yesterday, and while he seems to have come through well, the next few days will be crucial. I know, I know, he's "just a dog", but he's also the most amazing companion. A once in a lifetime dog.

But staying away entirely isn't an option either, because I really missed blogging yesterday. So there's that.

I've been making a serious commitment to visit our local library once a week, for my boys and myself. Week before last, I checked out The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, a compilation of Carl Sagan's series at the Glasgow University Gifford Lectures in October 1985.

Reading the book, two things struck me. The first is how very different the world is now. One of the themes Sagan continually addresses is the danger of nuclear war, which was in 1985 (two years before my birth...) a very real threat. It was honestly intriguing to see one of the greatest scientific minds of a generation applying his intellect to try to build a bridge between science and religion to combat that reality. So as I made my way through, I was struck by that astronomical difference between that world, a world I never knew, and this one, one after nuclear disarmament, after the Cold War has ended, where the threat of nuclear warheads launched by another nation isn't even on our radar.

The second point, which may seem contradictory, is that even though the world has greatly changed, it's also stayed the same.

Today we face the same stubbornness of a government that we can see is clearly sending our nation down a path towards destruction, a path that they arguably don't want to avoid. They are actively avoiding, avoiding it, you could say.

And it can feel, as an individual, that you have little power. That I have little power. I live in a state that is actively working to deny marriage equality to all couples. That's something I am strongly opposed to, and yet, it often feels like no matter what I do, I can't change it. I can participate in demonstrations, I can write letters to the editor, I can make beautiful points in the comments section of our local news coverage of the subject, and yet, I seem to make no progress towards helping the actual cause.

There were many good parts of this compilation, and I think Ann Duryan did a marvelous job of editing it, even though she sounds nearly apologetic in her forward. I'd like to share one passage today that really gave me hope. It actually came from the Q & A period after one of the lectures, and that makes it feel all the more sincere and authentic--this wasn't a prepared portion. It was his honest, off-the-cuff opinion, and it's beautiful.

Questioner: Professor Sagan, I'd like advice, please. Is there anything you think an individual could do to change in some way the world situation, or should we just sit back and accept it? 

CS: Nope, you don't have to sit back. i think if we let the governments do it, we will continue in the very desultory direction we have already been going for forty years or more. I think the first thing, in a democracy, where there is at least some pretense about the people controlling government policy, is that every democratic process ought to be used. You can make sure that those whom you vote for have rational views on these matters. You can work hard to make sure there is a real difference of opinion in the alternative candidates. You can write letters to newspapers and so on. But more important than any of that, I believe, is that each of us must equip him- or herself with a baloney-detection kit. 
That is, governments like to tell use that everything is fine, they have everything under control and leave them alone. And many of us, especially on issues that involve technology, such as nuclear war, have the sense that it's too complicated. We can't figure it out. The governments have the experts. Surely they know what they're doing. They must be in favor of the support of our country, whichever our country happens to be. And anyway, this is such a painful issue that I want to put it out of my mind, which psychiatrists call denial. And it seems to me that this is a prescription for suicide, that we must, all of us, understand these issues, because our lives depend on them, and the lives of our children and grandchildren. That's not an issue you want to take on faith. If ever tehre was a circumstance in which the democratic process ought to take hold, this is it. Something that determines our future and all that we hold dear. And therefore I would say that the first thing to do is to realize that governments, all governments, at least on occasion, lie. And some of them do it all the time--some of them do it only every second statement--but, by and large, governments distort the facts in order to remain in office. 
And if we are ignorant of what the issues are and can't even ask the critical questions, then we're not going to make much of a difference. If we can under the issues, if we can pose the right questions, if we can point out the contradictions, then we can make some progress. There are many other things that can be done, but it seems to me that those two, the baloney-detection kit and use of the democratic process where available, are at least the first two things to consider." p. 257-8

It was honestly very uplifting to look at this as we come into election season. We simply can't give up.

The collective impact of people, of individuals like you and me, not giving up...that's what gives us progress.

That's what matters.

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