In his only novel, Contact, Carl Sagan speculates about human contact with technological extraterrestrial life in the only rational way it’s ever likely to happen (if it happens at all): via radio telescope. The aliens send back to earth the very first televised broadcast ever made on earth, the opening ceremony of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games featuring, you guessed it, Adolf Hitler. The aliens encode the film they return to us with a method to contact them, and when contact is made the protagonist, Ellie Arroway, asks one of the aliens, “The first thing you picked up from us was that Hitler broadcast. Why did you make contact?” To which the alien replied, “The picture, of course, was alarming. We could tell you were in deep trouble. But the music told us something else. The Beethoven told us there was hope.”
It’s easy to miss the numinous impact of that moment in the book, but in its quiet way it summarizes the ultimate profound contradiction of the human species. Think of it yourself, the very nation that was home to Nazism was also the birthplace of Ludwig Van Beethoven. Sure we are a planet of hate, violence, war and bigotry, but we also went to the moon, we also came together as a worldwide human family after the attacks of September 11, 2001, we feed the poor and care for the sick, and an amazing capacity for communal compassion beats within our collective hearts. We may have created Donald Trump, but we are also the planet that brought forth Nelson Mandela.
The response here in England to the murder of George Floyd reminds me of that shared humanity. ITV, the television station that features a daily news vehicle called The Morning Show, took a full minute out of its programming to broadcast an observation of silence to honor the memory of Mr. Floyd. Across the screen for sixty seconds with white letters on a black background were displayed the words BLACK LIVES MATTER. Meanwhile, the English football teams of Newcastle United and Liverpool, took a knee for sixty seconds in solidarity with George Floyd during one of their games. Peaceful demonstrations took place in London’s Trafalgar Square to enshrine the memory of Mr. Floyd and to cast appropriate shame on the systemic racism that caused his death.
Donald Trump may have used guerilla-faced troops with truncheons and teargas to clear out the multitude peacefully assembled in protest so he could grab a photo-op in front of a hijacked church, but the people who gathered in the first place remind us of what we are mostly like. We are, on the whole, compassionate and full of justice and righteous outrage at four hundred years of brutal oppression, and we have had enough, and our compassion will prevail. They may have the guns but we have the numbers.
Who knows, maybe some alien civilization somewhere is monitoring our broadcasts even now. Maybe they’ve seen Trump and his lunatic pronouncements and hateful actions. If so, I hope they’ve also heard a little Beethoven, and many of the countless other wonderful things our species can be. And maybe by seeing the better angels of our nature they perceive something in us worthy of consideration — and hope. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.