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Jewish World Review Sept. 22, 1999 /12 Tishrei, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Econophone

Lost in the stars

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- SOMEHOW IT DID NOT come as a surprise to learn that Carl Sagan, the great popularizer of almost everything, was using marijuana when he was composing some of his bill-yuns and bill-yuns of theories.

Straight out of the bell-bottomed '70s, Dr. Sagan's starlight lounge was a sight to behold. It was a kind of verbal strobe light show. The doc somehow managed to transmit the impression that he had just discovered astronomy. Listening to him was like leafing through the old Book of Knowledge, with its pictures of how long it would take railroad trains to get to the moon, sun, Alpha Centauri and points east. Worlds opened, literally. Whole galaxies. The ideas intoxicated.

Except the Book of Knowledge never messed with politics. Mind-expanding as it was, it knew its limits. Its drug was a childhood awe, not cannabis. I once heard Carl Sagan at an editorial writers' convention on the subject of, alas, not the stars, but arms control, and he made the kinds of folks who organized Peace Links sound like hard-nosed realists.

Most of those who thought of the Soviet Union as just another misunderstood country -- moral equivalence was all the rage at the time -- were under the influence of a muddled ideology. Carl Sagan sounded as if he were beyond any influence at all, just lost in the stars.

When he explained how peace-loving the Soviets were, you knew he really should have stuck to analyzing a whole other breed of stellar red dwarfs.

Now it has been revealed to a waiting world that Dr. Sagan was the author of a previously anonymous essay promoting the loco weed in a 1971 book, "Reconsidering Marijuana.''

Strangely enough, his authorship of the article is supposed to be an argument for using marijuana rather than against. We're supposed to believe that the world would be a far, far better place if more of us went around like Carl Sagan, speaking in italics all the time, with a kind of drifting, laid-back urgency. Cool. As if the world's supply of cosmic bores were in grave danger of being depleted unless we all lit up right now, man.

This once-anonymous essay by Dr. Sagan, which was attributed only to Mr. X at the time, failed to achieve either the lucid style or remarkable influence of George Kennan's article under the same nom de plume in 1947. That's when the famous diplomat outlined the theory of containment that would win the Cold War. From Kennan to Sagan, Mr. X's style clearly had deteriorated. Markedly. You might even say it had gone up in smoke.

In his essay, Dr. Sagan shared this memory, unfortunately: "I can remember one occasion, taking a shower with my wife while high, in which I had an idea on the origins and invalidities of racism in terms of Gaussian distribution curves. I wrote the curves in soap on the shower wall, and went to write the idea down.'' Why, sure. First things first.

Sagan
Fortunately, that's the last we hear of this revelation in (soft) soap. It's never made clear, and perhaps never was. Which was the problem with so many of Dr. Sagan's theories. They had this way of crossing from pop-sci to sci-fi at the drop of a toke. Though they all doubtless seemed clear at the high old time. Despite all our space probes since, man has yet to discover a galaxy as gaseous as Carl Sagan at his most expansive.

Dr. Sagan did have the most engaging line of electronic patter this side of Garner Ted Armstrong. Remember when ol' Garner Ted was doing "The World Tomorrow'' out of Del Rio, Texas, to the entire known and unknown universe?

Both of these mesmerizing artists had mastered the suspenseful transition, the segue, the cliffhanger, so that it was almost impossible to touch the dial on your car radio when they were on.

Listening, you became absolutely convinced that the very next sentence would reveal the Secret of the Universe or, if not, surely it would be contained in the next sentence after that, or certainly the next .. until it dawned on the poor driver, probably in the middle of the night somewhere on I-40 between Amarillo and Tucumcari, that this guy could go on forever, or at least for bill-yuns and bill-yuns of years.

It was all an adventure in anti-climax, a theater of letdown, a rhetoric of empty expectation. Well, now we know the secret of the late Carl Sagan's style, though the key to Garner Ted's remains elusive. Maybe there's just no explaining real genius.

Here's what impressed mostdon reading this AP dispatch about the smoky origins of the late Dr. Sagan's revelations: It was how closely his hazy positionlon arms0controlm co-existence and the essentially permanent and benign character of the Soviet Union tracked with that of noo Arkanas' o]n foreign-policy maven at the time, J. William Fulbright.

Now it's clear that Dr. Sagan was practicing high statecraft, very high. As for Senator Fulbright, former titan, he seemed stone-cold sober when he expatiated on these topics, often to the plaudits of the punditry.

The moral of this story: You don't have to take dope to have hallucinations.

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