Ted Turner Asks Carl Sagan “Are You a Socialist?;” Sagan Responds Thoughtfully (1989)

Social­ism should not be a scare word in the U.S. Were it not for social­ists like Eugene V. Debs and the labor move­ments orga­nized around his pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, reforms like the 8‑hour work­day, work­er safe­ty pro­tec­tions, women’s suf­frage, min­i­mum wage, the abo­li­tion of child labor, and vaca­tion and sick time would like­ly nev­er have made it into a major party’s plat­form. The lega­cy of this strain of social­ism in the U.S. endured, Jill Lep­ore writes at The New York­er, “in Pro­gres­sive-era reforms, in the New Deal, and in Lyn­don Johnson’s Great Soci­ety,” all wide­ly sup­port­ed by self-described lib­er­als.

Yet while social­ist poli­cies are broad­ly pop­u­lar in the U.S., the word may as well be a writhing, high-volt­age wire in main­stream dis­course. The same was true in the Rea­gan 80s, when so many pro­gres­sive reforms were undone: mil­i­tary spend­ing bal­looned, social spend­ing was cut to the bone, and home­less­ness became a major cri­sis, exac­er­bat­ed by the A.I.D.S. epi­dem­ic the admin­is­tra­tion mocked and ignored. In 1989, at the end of the president’s two terms, Ted Turn­er lobbed the charge of “social­ism” at Carl Sagan in a CNN inter­view. The astro­physi­cist and famed sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tor refused to take the bait.

Rather than denounc­ing or dis­tanc­ing him­self from social­ists, he made it clear that the label was less impor­tant to him than the mate­r­i­al con­di­tions under which mil­lions of peo­ple suf­fered as a result of delib­er­ate pol­i­cy choic­es that could be oth­er­wise. “I’m not sure what a ‘social­ist’ is… I’m talk­ing about mak­ing peo­ple self-reliant, peo­ple able to take care of them­selves,” he says, in an echo of Debs’ praise of the virtue of “sand.” But this sort of self-reliance is not the same thing as the kind of myth­ic, Old West rugged indi­vid­u­al­ism of con­ser­vatism.

Sagan acknowl­edges the real­i­ty that self-reliance, and sur­vival, are impos­si­ble with­out the basic neces­si­ties of life, and that the coun­try has the means to ensure its cit­i­zens have them.

I believe the gov­ern­ment has a respon­si­bil­i­ty to care for the peo­ple…. There are coun­tries which are per­fect­ly able to do that. The Unit­ed States is an extreme­ly rich coun­try, it’s per­fect­ly able to do that. It choos­es not to. It choos­es to have home­less peo­ple.

Sagan men­tions the U.S. infant mor­tal­i­ty rate, which then placed the coun­try at “19th in the world” because of a refusal to spend the mon­ey on health­care need­ed to save more infant lives. “I think it’s a dis­grace,” he says. Instead, bil­lions were allo­cat­ed to the mil­i­tary, espe­cial­ly the Strate­gic Defense Ini­tia­tive, called Star Wars: “They’ve already spent some­thing like $20 bil­lion dol­lars on it, if these guys are per­mit­ted to go ahead they will spend a tril­lion dol­lars on Star Wars.”

Is object­ing to a vast waste of the country’s resources and human poten­tial “social­ism”? Sagan doesn’t care what it’s called—the word doesn’t scare him away from point­ing to the facts of inequal­i­ty. The prob­lems have only wors­ened since then. Mil­i­tary spend­ing has grown to an obscene amount—more than the next ten coun­tries com­bined. The fig­ure usu­al­ly giv­en, $705 bil­lion, is actu­al­ly more like $934 bil­lion, as Kim­ber­ly Amadeo explains at The Bal­ance.

“Monop­o­lies have risen again,” writes Lep­ore, “and income inequal­i­ty has spiked back up to where it was in Debs’ life­time.” Newsweek reports that in 2018, “America’s Health Rank­ings found that the U.S. was ranked 33rd out of the 36 Orga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nom­ic Co-oper­a­tion and Devel­op­ment coun­tries for infant mor­tal­i­ty.” We have only just begun to reck­on with the dev­as­tat­ing pol­i­cy out­comes exposed by the coro­n­avirus. As Sagan would say, these prob­lems are not acci­den­tal; they are the result of delib­er­ate choic­es. We could have a very dif­fer­ent society—one that invests its resources in peo­ple instead of weapons, in life instead of death. And we could call it what­ev­er we want­ed.

See the full Sagan-Turn­er inter­view here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch a Young Carl Sagan Appear in His First TV Doc­u­men­tary, The Vio­lent Uni­verse (1969)

Carl Sagan Pre­dicts the Decline of Amer­i­ca: Unable to Know “What’s True,” We Will Slide, “With­out Notic­ing, Back into Super­sti­tion & Dark­ness” (1995)

Carl Sagan’s “Baloney Detec­tion Kit”: A Toolk­it That Can Help You Sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly Sep­a­rate Sense from Non­sense

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • Sam Griffith says:

    Good arti­cle. I do think you are unfair to Rea­gan. This arti­cle explains why.



    Sam Grif­fith

  • Ray Collins says:

    Chick­en-liv­ered OC too scared to put up dis­sent­ing com­ments, LOL

  • WW says:

    I pine for the inclu­sive days of the clas­sic lib­er­al­ism in Debs era. Pro­gres­sivism has since regressed. Nowa­days, espe­cial­ly if you’re a white, Chris­t­ian straight-male, you’re not invit­ed, by the “woke” Pro­gres­sive crowd. The work­ing-class of all stripes has been aban­doned by them, in favor of the lunatic-fringe. A shame, that even Eugene, etc. would have rec­og­nized.

  • Carl says:

    And don’t come to tell me JB is bet­ter than DT because nei­ther of them care for the 99% US cit­i­zens, much less for the rest of the pop­u­la­tion they don’t direct­ly gov­ern, and rob of their coun­try resources. Oba­ma save the rich peo­ple in 2009, car­ing for the PEOPLE who vote for him, he did­n’t care. DT at least give you some mon­ey. Enjoy.

  • Fran Klin says:

    @WW Imag­ine blam­ing exclu­sive­ly pro­gres­sists for all the divi­sive­ness and polar­iza­tion the US have expe­ri­enced in the last decades, as if con­ser­v­a­tives were all a bunch of saints who nev­er dared to spread false infor­ma­tion, politi­cize nar­ra­tives and actu­al­ly cared for the work­ing class.

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