Finding Gratitude in a Demon-Haunted World

Carl Sagan wrote about the importance of understanding science (the habit of rational thought) in preserving our democracy, and said that “if we don’t practice these tough habits of thought, we cannot hope to solve the truly serious problems that face us – and we risk becoming a nation of suckers, a world of suckers, up for grabs by the next charlatan who saunters along” (from The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, 1996).


I was hoping for a photo here that would appear a bit scarier…But maybe these clownish jack-o-lanterns are perfectly appropriate.

Like so many people, these past few weeks, I felt I had so much to say, but have been unable to find the words to say it. I have spent my time reading voraciously, seeking out non-biased news where I can, trying to ignore the mocking and gloating of Trump supporters in the media, in an effort to sort through my thoughts and emotions.

I started reading Carl Sagan’s book The Demon Haunted World in the wake of the election, at the encouragement of a former student (thanks Kevin!). I think it’s helping me understand the break-down of rational thinking in this country – or, perhaps the fact that it still doesn’t exist in many parts of the country. Sagan was brilliant. It gives me chills to read something written 20 years ago that so clearly taps into what is happening now.

Education is the foundation of our democracy, and each passing day, it becomes more clear to me just how much our educational system has failed us. Lack of understanding breeds hatred and fear of the outside world. When you can’t see your way through the dark, you might very well assume that demons are lurking there. This fear of demons has been bubbling under the surface of our society for some time now. And three weeks ago, that hatred and fear rose to the surface in every corner of society in an open, ‘in-your-face’, kind of way.

Each day I feel revulsion, and some horror, as I read news about Trump’s latest fake-news tweet, his most recent choice of cabinet member among what appears to be a group of racist, white nationalists, and activities of his most ardent supporters, emboldened to take action against those who they feel don’t belong in this country.

Each day it is clear that we are living in a new reality, where belief and opinion are weighted more heavily than rational thought and logical reasoning (unless, that is, you believe this whole election was a disaster, then you’re just whining, apparently). The anti-science, anti-intellectual backlash from this election is palpable.

In this new reality, racist, misogynist bigots everywhere have been emboldened  and feel no qualms about showing their hate in public (often citing Trump in their actions). This stuff hits very close to home, with incidences of hate speech and harassment in my own community and on my campus. Trump, sounding very much like a father irritated by whining children, has simply told his supporters to “stop it.” Ok. Great. Thanks.

This is a reality where white supremacists now feel brave enough to rise from dark corners and call ‘Hail Trump!’ in hauntingly familiar tones while giving the Nazi salute. There is talk of a ‘Muslim Registry’. And in the past week a ‘Professor Watchlist‘ website has emerged, where the alt-right are registering professors with openly liberal leanings and so-called ‘anti-American’ views.

I won’t even start on climate change. That topic depressed me well enough before the election. Although, Trump is erratic and unpredictable enough that he could make a big move to combat climate change if he feels it would be best for his business empire. What’s good for Trump’s business is good for America. Right? I guess we’ll find out soon enough whether he tries to back out of the Paris climate deal. Also, talk of gutting NASA’s climate research program doesn’t bode well for any of us (by ‘us’, I mean everyone on the planet…not just climate scientists).

(By the way, in the previous paragraph, I seem to imply that the fact that the President-Elect appears to be erratic and unpredictable and willing to go back on his campaign promises gives me hope. Don’t get me wrong. Unpredictability inspires no confidence in a president.)

All of this would be enough to make this professor of climate science, with ‘liberal leanings’, want to crawl under a rock and hide for a few years.

BUT I would be doing a disservice to myself and the world to not call attention to the people that are standing up to insanity and to not stand up with them. And it would be remiss of me to not share my gratitude for the things that give me glimmers of hope.

So, on this Thanksgiving holiday weekend, I wanted to share my gratitude for the following:

  1. Checks and balances. A system designed to protect us from narcissistic demagogues. Trump will not be a king. And while it’s true that the Republicans will control the House, the Senate, and the presidency, Trump is not a true Republican – he is an aberration, who, as far as I can tell, does not really understand the extent of his powers. I feel hopeful that there will be a few sane, educated Republicans, along with a cadre of vocal Democrats, who will make themselves heard in sufficient numbers to put a check on his actions, particularly any that attack the constitutional rights of certain groups of individuals.
  2. Obama. And his 11th hour actions to protect climate. (Keep it up! Less than 2 months to go.)
  3. Clinton won the popular vote, by a healthy margin. What this means is that Trump and his supporters cannot say that he has a mandate for change. If Trump really wants to be a ‘president for all Americans’, he has a lot of groveling to do.
  4. Military men and women who are encouraged to serve with a moral conscience. I think about the response from veterans and service men and women to the little girl who was afraid she would be deported if Trump won. Trump may be the commander-in-chief, but there are many who will not obey orders they feel to be unjust.
  5. The many writers, bloggers, and journalists, who attempt clearly articulate the complexities in the  issues and emotions that have come up in the past few weeks, and have attempted to weed out the truth from the trash. (Among these, gratitude for Dan Rather’s post, ‘Now is a time when none of us can afford to remain seated or silent‘. And for this letter from a professor to his science students.)
  6. Communities of women (and some men) that have come together online to build support and plan for action, including 500womenscientists and Pantsuit Nation. I’m grateful to be a part of these.
  7. The City of San Francisco’s official response to the election of Trump.
  8. The First Amendment, which allows me to say all these things without impunity – I do not take this for granted (although, I do realize I could end up on some alt-right watchlist for the things I say here).
  9. My education. My mom used to tell me, “Education is the one thing no one can ever take away from you.” She attributed that to her grandmother, Martha Koschel, who emigrated from Russia to the US when she was a child (and, BTW, I wouldn’t exist if her family hadn’t been allowed to enter). I’m so grateful to have been born into a family that placed such a high priority on education, one that encouraged me in science, and supported me through college.

On an even more personal note, I’m grateful for all of the friends, family, colleagues and students that pass through my life. No matter which side of the aisle you fall on. If you voted for Trump, you had your reasons – whether it was the economy, the hope Trump would stand with the traditional Republican platform, or a profound dislike/distrust of Clinton. Don’t worry: I’m certainly not assuming you voted for him because you are a racist, sexist white nationalist (especially if you’ve read this far through this post!). I sincerely hope that you will be happy with his action (or non-action) on whatever issue prompted you to vote for him. But for now, what I know, is that having someone as erratic, unfocused, and incendiary as Trump as our President-Elect (among the many other things that he is) does not bode well for any of us. This man is a charlatan like no other.


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