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Sunday, September 18, 2016

The European Parliament’s 2016 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought

A new year. “A new age: of hope, and peace, and spiritual growth, et cetera. And I am still here for my sins.” See Prime Minister Francis Urquhart, To Play the King [YouTube, (at 1:47ff)]. And another year for the European Parliament to award the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. 

This year's nominees include: Can Dündarn (the former editor-in-chief of Turkish daily Cumhuriyet, was arrested last November after his newspaper reported on Turkey’s intelligence service smuggling arms to rebels in Syria); Mustafa Dzhemilev (former chair of Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars People (Tatar parliament), a former Soviet dissident and a Ukrainian MP); Nadia Murad Basee & Lamiya Aji Bashar (advocates for the Yazidi community and for women surviving sexual enslavement by Islamic State); and, Ilham Tohti (a peaceful advocate of China’s Uyghur minority, who is serving a life sentence in prison).

Once again, I do not have much to say about the absolute or relative merits of the nominees for this great European prize.

Instead, I will comment on the prize’s namesake: Andrei Sakharov. The prize’s website explains: 

The Russian physicist Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov (1921-1989), who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, first came to prominence as the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb. 

Concerned at the implications his work had for the future of humankind, he sought to raise awareness of the dangers of the nuclear arms race. His efforts proved partially successful with the signing of the 1963 nuclear test ban treaty. [Here]

This is pretty thin gruel. Let me add a few details: Andrei Sakharov devoted the major part of his professional life towards developing thermonuclear weapons for the Soviet Union. He did this work under Stalin and under his successors. Sakharov’s work made it more difficult for the United States and the world’s other democracies to press for human rights reforms in the Soviet Union and the countries in its orbit—just as his work made it easier for the Soviet Union to threaten its neighbors and the countries of the world.

It is true, by the late 1950s, Sakharov had some second thoughts. He stood for human rights and arms control. And, I do not doubt that in doing so, he put his career, and indeed, his very life, at some real risk.

I guess the prize is associated with his deeds during the second phase of his life, not the first. General Longstreet killed a lot of Union troops, but after the Civil War, he broke with his former Confederate colleagues, led an integrated militia in battle in the 1870s, and even became a Republican! (See James Longstreet Timeline: Is there a James Longstreet Prize somewhere? I suspect there is not. Rommel was part of the conspiracy to kill Hitler, and he was killed for his (failed) efforts. Is there a Rommel Prize somewhere? I doubt it.

I do not suggest that Sakharov, Longstreet, or Rommel were evil men, but they did serve bad causes. I do not say that the good they did (or attempted to do) during their lives is made void by the bad. But I do say it is wrong to suggest that the bad is outweighed by the good. Cf. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) (“I do not say [God forbid], I do not say that the virtues of such men were to be taken as a balance to their crimes; but they were some corrective to their effects.” (language in square brackets is Burkes)). Such a moral quantification of right and wrong is not possible by mere mortals, and those who attempt such a calculus only callous our consciences.

I suspect there is no General James Longstreet Prize, and if someone asked me if such a prize should be created, I would say “no”. There is no Rommel Prize, and if someone asked if such a prize should be created, I would say “no”. (Just to be clear: I am not comparing Longstreet and the Confederacy to Rommel and Nazi Germany.)

There is a Sakharov Prize, and if someone had asked me prior to its creation whether it should be created, I hope I would have had the moral clarity to say “no”. There were and there are other people in Europe and elsewhere who this prize could have been named for: persons who were not quite so morally ambiguous. E.g., Average people—people who were not heroic or even particularly bright. Perhaps it could have been called the Ivan Denisovich Prize. It speaks volumes about the modern European zeitgeist that a major prize is named for Sakharov, but the founders of NATO—which protected Europe from Sakharov’s warheads—remain largely unknown. It goes without saying that the American taxpayer who paid for Europe’s defence (and who continues to do so) is entirely lost from sight. Europe’s cosmopolitan transnational elites much prefer believing that the years of peace and plenty were their creation, as opposed to their being the beneficiary of American good will beyond their control.  

Now here is the hard part: i.e., hard for Burkean conservatives. This prize has existed since circa 1988. What may have been a mistake in its conception is now a public tradition, which—in fact—may do some good in the world. Jacobin perfectionism demands old things be torn down or renamed. But Jacobinism does not perfect the world, it just destroys remnants of our historical past. So, although no one is asking me, I am for letting the Sakharov Prize continue, even under its current name, but in doing so, we ought not heap undeserved praise on Andrei Sakharov.  

Still, you might ask: Why not honor Sakharov?”  

Shigera Yoshida pushed Japan’s elites towards surrender and peace as World War II progressed towards Japan’s ultimate defeat. But during the 1930s and 1940s, Yoshida was part of the imperialist movement which led Japan into disaster and destruction, and also led Japan into war with the United States. In fact, during the last year of the war, Yoshida was Japan’s armaments minister. Maybe—just maybe—Yoshida’s countrymen should think well of him. He was morally ambiguous: a mixed bag. But we of the United States and the Allies should remember: that he supported killing our people during the war and, also, that had he had the tools to prevail over us, he surely would have used those tools. Perhaps, just perhaps, he is deserving of a prize in Japan. But there should be no room for a Yoshida Prize in the United States or among the Allies.

The same is true for Sakharov. Perhaps Sakharov is deserving of a prize in Russia and the former Soviet Union, but not in Western and Central Europe, or in the United States. What we owe our country and countrymen is different from what we owe others. The fact that Yoshida did some things which were, in a highly abstract ahistorical sense, praiseworthy, and which were motivated by selflessness—not to benefit us or humanity—but were for the benefit of his country and his countrymen is no reason for us to recognize his deeds as virtuous. The same logic applies to Sakharov. 

Yoshida was always working for Japan—which included its war aims—he just recognized, circa 1944 after millions had died, that Japan’s interests had changed from war to peace. We in the United States and among the Allies benefited from that change of heart. Sakharov too had a change of heart: from arming the USSR with thermonuclear weapons to arms control and human rights. But—as far as I know—in regard to both Sakharov and Yoshida—their change of heart was rooted in self-interest and the interests of their polity. Sakharov stated: “I am no volunteer priest of the idea, but simply a man with an unusual fate. I am against all kinds of self-immolation (for myself and for others, including the people closest to me).” (emphasis added) [source: Wikipedia] If anyone should honor these men it is their polity (or their successor polities). Not us; not the United States; not Western & Central Europe. To the extent we have honors to give out, they should go to people who had the decency, wisdom, and courage to oppose Yoshida and Japan prior to 1944 (i.e., prior to Yoshida’s change of heart) at the risk and cost of their lives, and also to those who opposed Sakharov prior to the late 1950s (i.e., prior to Sakharov’s change of heart), at the risk and, not infrequently, at the costs of their lives.

[Follow up: Nadia Murad & Lamiya Aji Ashar win Sakharov Prize. See Yazidi women who escaped from Isis win EU human rights prize, The Guardian (October 27, 2016, 11:34 BST, ]


Seth Barrett Tillman, The European Parliament’s 2016 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, New Reform Club (Sept. 18, 2016), <>; 

Seth Barrett Tillman, The European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought 2015New Reform Club (Oct. 18, 2015), <>; 

Twitter: ( @SethBTillman ) 

My prior post: Seth Barrett Tillman, Advice to a Friend, The New Reform Club (Sept. 18, 2016, 6:24 AM) [Here

My prior post on this subject: Seth Barrett Tillman, The European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought 2015, The New Reform Club (Oct. 18, 2015, 3:33 PM) [Here]


Rich Rostrom said...

Rommel was not part of the Schwartz Kapelle (the conspiracy to overthrow Hitler). He knew about it, but did not contribute to it in any way other than silence. He was opposed to the assassination of Hitler - he wanted Hitler to be arrested and put on trial. That was enough to put him on Hitler's death list after 20 July. But it should not be exaggerated.

(BTW, there was another prominent panzer general, Erich Hoepner, who was active in the Schwartz Kapelle and was hanged for in on 8 August 1944. He was also an enthusiastic war criminal.)

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