Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- June 13, 2006


Where Are Our Heroes Today?

Ernest Partridge




There is a need to create ideals even when you can’t see any route by which to achieve them, because if there are no ideals then there can be no hope and then one would be completely in the dark, in a hopeless blind alley.

Andrei Sakharov

Peace, progress, human rights.  These three goals are indissolubly linked.  It is impossible to achieve one of them if the others are ignored.

Andrei Sakharov
Nobel Prize Speech, 1975.

It is impossible to fully appreciate the enormity of the crimes of the Bush Administration.  Among them: That regime has initiated a war against an unthreatening nation, has caused the death tens of thousands of innocent civilians, has abrogated numerous treaties including the Geneva conventions that stipulate the humane treatment of prisoners of war, has tortured and murdered numerous prisoners, has held American citizens indefinitely, without charge, trial, and access to counsel in violation of several articles of the Bill of Rights, has “lost” to graft and corruption several billion dollars of public money, has looted the treasury and passed the public debt on to future generations, has taken and retained power through election fraud, and has in effect proclaimed the President above the law.

Incomprehensible! And so we are a nation in denial.

Many admirable individuals, too numerous to mention, have spoken up in protest against the Bushevik regime.  Among them, Cindy Sheehan, Ray McGovern, Joe Wilson, Jack Murtha, Robert F.  Kennedy, Jr., the seven retired generals who demanded the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld.   Add to these the progressive bloggers in that last vestige of our “free press,” the internet.   Worthy individuals all.  But none of these have put themselves in grave peril.  They are, at this moment at least, still free to dissent and then be ignored by the mainstream media.  They are safe.  But so too, apparently, is the target of their protests, the Bush regime.

The opposition to Bushism is weak, inchoate, disorganized and unfocused.  And it apparently is without a political party to advocate its message since, it seems, the “official” Democratic Party, with a few honorable exceptions within, is content to serve as a junior partner in what has effectively become a one-party state.

So where, at this perilous moment in the history of the United States, are our heroes – men and women of moral vision, extraordinary courage and unyielding integrity, who will put their careers, their freedom and even their very lives on the line in order to put a halt to descent of the United States into despotism?  Where is our Mohandas Gandhi, our Nelson Mandela, our Martin Luther King, Jr., our Andrei Sakharov?   Although many others could be mentioned, I have selected these four moral giants of the past century as exemplars of the sort of moral integrity, courage, and tactical intelligence that are so desperately needed at this darkening moment in our history.

Great crises in history have a way of producing great moral leaders, albeit not often enough.  It is impossible to determine what the fate of India, South Africa, the American South and the Soviet Union might have been were it not for the inspired and inspiring leadership of these great men, but in each case the outcome would almost certainly have been much the worse for the people and for the cause of freedom.  Will we, the American people, at this moment of our acute need for heroic leadership, be so fortunate as to find extraordinary men and women equal to the challenges of the time?

This question was brought vividly to my mind this past week as I watched the 1984 TV movie, “Sakharov,” with Jason Robards in the title role, and Glenda Jackson as his wife, Elena Bonner.  It is a superb portrayal of Sakharov and Bonner and meticulously accurate as to the events and even the published words of Sakharov.  Many of those words in the screenplay are by Sakharov himself, taken, verbatim, from the out-of-print book, Sakharov Speaks, edited by Harrison Salisbury and published in 1974.  The scene depicting Sakharov’s encounter with the state prosecutor is drawn from Sakharov’s own written recollection.

But that splendid movie presents two acts of a three-act drama, as it closes with Sakharov and Bonner exiled to the industrial city of Gorky, where they resided, incommunicado, when the movie was released in 1984.  The final act was both a triumph and a tragedy, as Sakharov was released from exile in 1986 by Mikhail Gorbachev and returned in triumph to Moscow.   Soon thereafter he was elected to the Council of Deputies and became a leader of the liberal opposition.  In December, 1989, shortly after completing a draft constitution for a free and democratic Russia, Sakharov died at age 68.  At his funeral, his widow, Elena Bonner said to Gorbachev: “I pity you, for you have lost an honest critic.” 

Russian sociologist and dissident, Tatyana Zaslavskaya, said this of her fallen colleague:

Sakharov was the only one of us who made no compromises....  For us, he was a figure of the inner spirit.  Just the bare facts of his life, the way he suffered for all of us, gave him an authority that no one else had.  Without him, we could not begin to rebuild our society.

And in an interview on National Public Radio in November, 2001, Vladimir Putin responded to a caller’s question with this tribute:

At certain periods of time in the life of any nation, there will be people who turn on the light, if you will.  They show a road for the nation to follow.  Andrei Sakharov was one of those people: a visionary, someone who was able not only to see the future, but to articulate his thoughts, and to do so without fear. 

What does Sakharov’s courageous resistance to Soviet despotism have to do with us?  After all, we’re Americans!  We live in a free country!  Don’t be too sure of that.  It is true that the USA of 2006 is not the Soviet Union in the seventies.  But who can doubt that we are traveling down the same road?  Watch the movie, “Sakharov,” and you should be shocked at the parallels between what the Soviet dissidents were dealing with and what we are facing today.   (My 1993 essay on the life and thought of Andrei Sakharov may be found here.)

For example: In one scene, Bonner signals for silence and points to light fixture, indicating the probable placement of a KGB microphone.  I had exactly the same experience in 1991, at the apartment of a Russian friend in Moscow.  Given the sophisticated technology of today and the Bushevik obsession with secrecy and surveillance, how can we expect to be secure in our private conversations?  Even as late as the mid-nineties, after the fall of the Soviet regime, I was advised by my Russian friends always to assume that my mail to Russia, both e-mail and postal, would be read by government agents.  Of course, at the time I had no such concerns about my domestic mail back home.  No longer.  Like my friends in Moscow and St.  Petersburg, I must now expect that my mail might be read and that my phones might be tapped.

Sakharov’s writings were smuggled out and published abroad but were not published in the Soviet Union.  Nonetheless, the Soviet government and media launched a relentless campaign of insult and denunciation against the Sakharovs.  Not all that different from the attacks against Gore (“invented the internet”) and Kerry (“Swift Boat Veterans for Truth”).  In fact, as Jamison Foser clearly indicated and documented in Media Matters last week, any Democrat who achieves prominence can expect to be insulted and attacked in the mainstream media.

One of the most chilling practices of the Brezhnev/Andropov regimes was the incarceration of political dissenter in psychiatric institutions.  In the movie, two of Sakharov’s associates “play-acted” an interrogation of a dissident by a KGB psychiatrist:

“Patient:” Why me?  I followed the Constitution to the letter!

“Interogator:” But what normal person takes Soviet law seriously?  You are living in an unreal world of your own invention.  You must be insane! Lock him up.

P.  I’m not insane.  Ever since I made my first legal protest, you’ve hounded me. 

I.  Who has?

P.  The KGB.  I’ve been followed.  I’ve been photographed.

I.  ...  Obviously paranoid.  For his own good, lock him up. 

P.  All because I don’t agree with the state?

I.  Exactly! You are in conflict with society.

P.  Some of our greatest socialist leaders were in conflict with society.  Lenin himself...

I.  You compare yourself to Lenin?  Delusions of grandeur.  Obviously insane.  Lock him up.

Could never happen here, you say?   Not yet.  But consider the “journalistic” response to Al Gore’s speech to MoveOn on, May 26, 2004. 

Charles Krauthammer (on FOX News): "It looks as if Al Gore has gone of his lithium again."

Dennis Miller: “I think he’s lost his mind.”

Mark R. Levin on FOX: “Half the country thinks he’s a mental patient.”

John Podhoretz in the New York Post: “It is now clear that Al Gore is insane.”

James Taranto in the Wall Street Journal: “Gore suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder.”

Sean Hannity: “He’s really nuts.”

When might some right-wing colleague of psychiatrist Charles Krauthammer take the next step and sign the order committing Al Gore to a psychiatric hospital?  Impossible?  How many of the Bushevik horrors listed above seemed possible when Bush took his oath of office in January 2001, and swore to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” – a Constitution that stipulates that the President “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed”?

When, in earlier essays, I wrote of a need for a moral hero as a leader of the opposition to Bushism, I was scolded by some readers for my apparent desire to replace one authority figure with another.  Not so.  The hero-leaders of whom I speak did not seize control of a movement, the movement was drawn to and chose the leader.  Without the moral qualities that these men brought to the struggle, their emerging leadership would not have happen.  When the leader loses sight of the commanding objectives of the movement, that leader is likely to be replaced.

Even so, my respondents issue a valid caveat.  For many reformers in history have succumbed to the corruption of power.  Napoleon, who began his career as an anti-royalist reformer, later proclaimed himself emperor.  Robert Penn Warren’s great novel, All the King’s Men, in effect a fictional biography of Louisiana’s Huey Long, depicts the rise, corruption and fall of a populist reformer.  As another great leader, Thomas Jefferson, warned: “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

So who will lead the resistance that will put a stop to this dictatorial madness?  Who will be our Sakharov?  He may be a Republican – perhaps better a Republican.  Will some GOP senator stand up in the Senate and publicly denounce his President and leave his party or even the Senate?  Will another Republican, who has access to proof-positive evidence that the past three elections were stolen, disclose and publicize the damning evidence?  Will some general on active duty refuse an order to bomb Iran?  Is there another Dan Ellsberg somewhere within the bowels of this administration willing to face prison as he publishes the “state secrets” that just might bring down this illegal regime?

What act of civil disobedience will at last ignite the opposition to Bush’s incipient despotism?  What will be the new realization of Gandhi’s general strike and salt march?  Or of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, provoked by Rosa Parks’ defiance, which “selected” Martin Luther King, Jr.  as the leader of non-violent resistance?  We do not yet know.  But if that defiant act is to come and is to be successful, it will be ingenious and dramatic, and it will, as Gandhi prescribed, provoke a response from the regime followed by massive non-violent defiance.   Simple courage, while necessary, will not suffice.  Intelligence and discipline will also be essential to ultimate success.  This much we have learned from history.

I daresay that if someone with the courage and moral authority, not to mention tactical shrewdness, of a Gandhi, Mandela, M. L. King or Sakharov, stands up and calls the citizen-troops to action, we may all be amazed at how many will follow.

But we must not wait for that leader to appear, for, if we are fortunate, that leader will emerge as did Gandhi, Mandela, King and Sakharov, out of the ongoing struggle and defiance of the people.  That leadership must be preceded by innumerable individual acts of protest and resistance.

The Busheviks, through their greed, their corruption, their disregard of the law and the Constitution, their cruelty, and their war crimes, have disgraced us all in the eyes of the peoples of the world.  Those Americans who sit idly by as passive spectators as their country is dishonored and their democracy is dismantled, are accomplices to the criminals in power.

Only the American people can restore the honor of the United States of America.

Copyright 2006 by Ernest Partridge

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .