I was thinking about Carl Sagan again this past weekend. He is always standing nearby when I gaze up into the night sky---he being our greatest modern articulator of humankind's place in the universe---and on this particular night, I was staring straight up into one of the most spectacular starscapes I have ever seen. Sagan was especially present to me also because I was with my sister Jennifer, the amateur astronomer of the family, and her adult son, my nephew, who once gifted me a copy of Sagan's excellent book The Dragons of Eden. We three Sagan fans had travelled to one of the darkest places in the state of Georgia and camped on the Savannah River in anticipation of one or two exceptionally dark and moonless nights. The weather cooperated beautifully. The skies were cloudless and perfectly clear on both nights. We found a choice spot on the side of a quiet country road that cuts through two large pastures. There, we set up the telescope behind her parked SUV and began searching the skies for interesting objects.
The drive from Atlanta was glorious, especially the second half, which unfolded through rolling hills and dozens of big farms, past fields dotted with cows and car-sized cinnabon-shaped hay bails. There were small white-steepled community churches and many large pickup trucks on the road. We slowed down to pass several large tractors on the road. The drivers waved and we waved back. Having grown up in farm country in Northwestern New Jersey, I recognized all of these sights, and although I am a longtime city dweller, they still fill me with familiar sensory delights.
This is also Trump country, a fact that was evidenced by the dozens of large signs advertising his campaign for the presidency, each one red or blue and emblazoned with his now-iconic name. Most of them were hung from fences or porches, but a few were draped over parked tractors or flying from flagpoles right beneath the Stars and Stripes. We passed a handful of Biden signs, most of these on the South Carolina side of the river, but many of the farmers in this part of the country stand firmly on one side of the partisan divide and are not afraid to advertise it.
These signs were not a welcome sight. The election is looming, and everywhere I look now, I see and hear the preening, prancing, squealing, shouting, raging, grimacing, mocking, bloviating face of modern American politics. I want to squeeze my eyes shut and cup my hands over my ears. This desire to hide was a large part of my motivation to join this trip---partly to escape from my long self-imposed COVID lockdown by driving outside of the warm glow of Atlanta Metro, but also partly to flee from the dysfunctional drama unfolding in my various news feeds.
Where can I go to hide? The darkest place in the state of Georgia of course.
Because I lived the first 38 years of my life in New Jersey, right across the border from Donald Trump's hometown, the signification of his name runs deep for me. Trump Tower. Mr. Razzle Dazzle real estate baron. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. The man with the golden toilet. When I was in college in the 1980s, he was everywhere the symbol of ostentatious and unrepentant wealth. His lying was so outrageous that no serious person took him seriously. Trump was just ... Trump, a singularity in the media landscape not for his accomplishments but for his tasteless braggadocio. No one could hurl a boast like Donald Trump.
If you lived in the Northeast in the 1980s, Trump was easily dismissible as a creature of larger-than-life Bonfire of the Vanities New York City. I remember seeing Oliver Stone's film Wall Street in 1986 and briefly flashing on Trump in the famous beach scene where Gordon Gekko tells Bud Fox on an shoebox-sized original cell phone "this is your wakeup call, pal...got to work." Donald Trump would have one of those, I thought staring at that phone. Everyone knew that Donald Trump liked big things.
So much larger than life / I'm gonna watch it growing
You didn't devote serious thought to Donald Trump. You certainly didn't believe anything he said. He was a straight-up performance, like a character in the WWF. You could almost imagine him going toe to toe with Andre the Giant or Rowdy Roddy Piper. Almost, but then you remembered what the guy actually looks like in those suits he wore, sort of flabby and not so tough, despite his height.
Around the same time, I was taking a political philosophy class, and the teacher said something I will never forget: "In the future, American politics will more and more resemble professional wrestling." We all thought that he was crazy, but I was too young then to realize that nearly every crazy-sounding idea will eventually enjoy a prophetic moment.
In the world of wrestling, the word "mark" is reserved for overzealous fans who act like the storylines are real. This word adequately describes Trump's deadly serious followers today---his "base," however broadly you want to define it. The wrestler and his fans. The conman and his marks.
On Saturday morning, we crossed the Savannah River to South Carolina looking for a hiking trail. The search was ultimately a bust, so we took a long, meandering drive along the river instead. At around noon, we stopped at a 7 Eleven to buy bottled water. The sign on the door clearly said that masks were required, and the three of us being dutiful adherents of reason and good manners, we all donned ours before we walked into the store. Inside, there were perhaps a dozen people, white and black. All of the African-Americans were masked up like us, but the six white people dressed in hunting fatigues were not. This was the first day of deer season, and we had awakened that morning to the sounds of single rifle shots coming from across the river. In this part of the country, everyone ends up in the 7 Eleven sooner or later.
I have no problem with hunting or guns. I grew up around hunters, though my family did not own guns or hunt. What bothered me was the very deliberate flouting of both reason and good manners evidenced in their not wearing masks.
As we drove away, I was thinking about something I read in Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World, which is one of the most beautifully written defenses of a reason-based approach to life. The book is full of funny, insightful passages, but this one is especially relevant to the scene I witnessed in the 7 Eleven:
One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.
I do not think ill of those men in camouflage, only that they have been bamboozled by a charlatan. Who among us has never been preyed upon by the grifters and fraudsters who push and pull the levers and switches of the American economy? Con artists are smart and manipulative. Cult leaders know exactly what buttons to push, even in the most intelligent people. Everyone has been a mark at one time or another.
There's no shame in it.
The temperature had dipped into the 40s on Saturday night by the time we had set up the telescope. Looking upwards with the naked eye, I saw a sky that has only been visible to me a handful of times in my life. The Milky Way stretched across the entirety, strangely translucent and glowing with its own energy like some kind of iridescent undersea life form. The brightest objects were planets: Mars, which hung over the Eastern horizon, a reddish point of light; Jupiter, higher up in the sky, which appeared white hot; and Saturn, fainter and higher still, off to the left of its larger sibling. My sister helped me tease out the less obvious objects, the Andromeda Galaxy, for example, which was faint but still visible with the naked eye if you know where to look for it. She also pointed out The Pleiades, a famous star cluster, as well as several others of lesser renown.
We clearly saw the rings around Saturn and the four largest moons around Jupiter.
In the presence of such a sky, my immediate reaction is awe, but this feeling quickly gives way to a strong sensation of being absorbed into something vast and ineffable. The moorings that tether my sense of self snap and I find myself drifting. To the Southwest, where I live under that great dome of artificial light called Metro Atlanta, my place in the universe is warped by digital devices and apps and advertising that conspire to bend the light towards me, filling me with the false aura of my own importance. But out here in the vast sparsely populated dark lands, even the illusion of self is swallowed up by the enormity of this sky. Even if I did not know anything about the speed at which light travels or the distances between stars, this sky would cast my ego adrift.
But I do know these things. For example, I know that the distance to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri is 4.4 light years. Light travels at 186,282 miles per second in a vacuum, which is about 3,000 times faster than the fastest human-made object (the Parker Solar Probe, which is currently hurtling towards the sun). Traveling at this astonishing and as-yet-impossible rate of speed, a spacecraft would take four years to reach its target.
This expanse seems nearly unfathomable to me, but this is only the distance to the nearest star, which is one of many trillions. When my gaze moves beyond our galaxy, the bottom drops out of my capacity to conceptualize my place in the universe. Take the Andromeda Galaxy, for example, which is the closest galaxy to ours. We were able to view this galaxy very faintly with the naked eye at first, and then looked at it through the binoculars and the telescope. In the binoculars, which was the best view, the galaxy is faint and pale white, like a partial fingerprint after it is "dusted" on a windowpane. The dust is a trillion stars circling around a gigantic black hole at the center. The light that reaches my eyes has travelled 2.5 million light years. To gaze upon this galaxy is to look backwards through time to a moment when Homo sapiens did not even exist.
In The Dragons of Eden, Sagan presents a cosmic calendar that imagines the history of the universe from the Big Bang to the present as a standard 12-month year. In a single memorable and humbling paragraph, he locates all of human history on this calendar.
It is disconcerting to find that in such a cosmic year the Earth does not condense out of interstellar matter until early September; dinosaurs emerge on Christmas Eve; flowers arise on December 28th; and men and women originate at 10:30pm on New Year’s Eve. All of recorded history occupies the last ten seconds of December 31; and the time from the waning of the Middle Ages to the present occupies little more than one second.
These facts alone mitigate against my sense of self-importance. All of human civilization in a single cosmic blink of an eye. There is no place for big egos in the actual universe.
"America," wrote Allen Ginsberg, "how can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?" I want very much to write a holy litany these days, to scrape the rancor and grievance of others from my heel, set my boots by the door, and climb inside of a clean, unfurnished room. To pray without words. To clear out my mind sufficiently for a beatific light to spark there. America, I am sick to death of your bicameral mind. America when will you be worthy of your Greatest Generation? When will you unlock your windows and doors? When will you love your neighbor and yourself?
America this is quite serious.
What holy litany would I write, if I could? Certainly nothing that could be sung or spoken in any of those small white-steepled churches I saw on the drive from Atlanta. Certainly nothing that speaks in the awful binary code of American culture.
Certainly my holy litany would be something more than can be conceived by the limited imagination that painted and hung a sign from one of the overpasses on Route 85 South between Lawrenceville and Spaghetti Junction, the sign that read simply, "Jesus or Hell." I would have been less offended if the sign presented the choice as a question, but it did not. Instead, it was thrown up as a self-evident decision, an on/off switch for the entirety of human experience that reduces the Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy, and the billions of other galaxies to an altar call (as if your wooden altar and your wooden church and your wooden creed can possibly withstand the inevitability of entropy. "Gravity always wins," goes the Radiohead song. That goes for your bearded white-guy God and your Rapture and every less-than-cosmic thought you have ever entertained).
It was difficult to return to Atlanta after my weekend of stargazing, to plunge headlong back into the carnivalesque clamor of America on the eve of a presidential election. I understand the appeal of the darkest places---the pastoral beauty that is possible at such a far remove from the city, the sense of fraternity with your neighbors that is possible in a small community, the connection to the land, which carries its own spiritual weight even if it is never spoken of in spiritual terms. I even understand the Trump signs, which may not be so much an endorsement of the man himself as they are a declaration of independence, a clear statement to 'leave us alone, we are just fine, don't try to change us.'
Upon my return, I picked up my iPad to learn that pundit and commentator Jeffery Toobin-- one of the serious talking heads on CNN who is always full of smart things to say about the American judiciary and politics---was embroiled in a silly scandal everyone was calling "Zoom dick." While participating in a Zoom call with colleagues in preparation for election night, Toobin was seen exposing himself, and possibly masturbating, while he thought his camera was turned off. Social media was exploding. The memes were flying. America was pleasuring itself again with the folly of celebrities.
I was immediately overcome with feelings of pity and deep empathy, not for Toobin, but for all of us. We have become the enthusiastic audience for Zoom dick memes and the Donald Trump presidency, spewing our leering howl of nonsense into the blackness of space as we hurtle around the sun. We are now the professional wrestling audience writ large, just as my professor predicted in the 1980s. Maybe this has always been true of my country and I am only now waking up to the fact. One thing is certain: the beatific moment I seek won't be found inside of the great dome of artificial light. I will have to drive out the darkest place in Georgia again and look up at the sky and maybe, if I'm lucky, catch a glimpse of another galaxy.