Jul 1, 2015

Wed review (Andrei Sakharov - Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom)

A global utopia: a review of Andrei Sakharov's 'Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom (1968)'

The book starts out with a lengthy introduction by Harrison Salisbury that introduces the Russian Sakharov to his English reading audience. Sakharov was instrumental in the success of the soviet nuclear program in the later part of World War 2 and beyond.

In this book Sakharov explores what the nuclear age means to man and how we can prevent our own destruction. He goes beyond exploring measures for the prevention of nuclear war and explores all areas of global life. Human civilization is threatened by, on top of nuclear war, famine, "stupefaction from the narcotic of mass culture", bureaucratized dogmatism, the spread of mass myths that support cruel demagogues, and the consequences of (what is now referred to as) climate change.

He posits that two things are essential for a peaceful and successful world. The first, that we have to have a unified mankind and, secondly, intellectual freedom. The first allows us to work together to end issues that we have already agreed need solving, like starvation.

Sakharov then splits the book into two major sections entitled "Dangers" and "The Basis for Hope".

The first of the Dangers include the threat of nuclear war which is supported by its destructive power, relative cheapness of the weapons, and the impossibility of effective defense against an attack.

The second danger is called "Vietnam and the Middle East". In this chapter Sakharov accuses the USA of "carrying out flagrant crimes against humanity". Recall that this book was published in 1968, so at the time of writing this was a call to action. He wants international policy to adopt some of the values we find in the scientific method and with a "democratic spirit".

Another of the dangers is hunger and overpopulation. Sakharov wants the more affluent countries of the world sacrifice some of its luxuries (and military budgets) to help out poorer countries. He also wants to dispel the notion that these countries are responsible for their plight. Some critics of the countries want them to have birth rate laws (or even sterilization). Many of these critics suffer from narrow-mindedness or even outright racism. Race is one of the "mass myths" that Sakharov attacks all through out the book.

I was always confused growing up in the '90s about climate change and pollution problems. It seemed to me to be an issue that was, incredulously, only just entering the public consciousness. Here in 1968 Sakharov identifies environmental pollution as one of his major dangers to the survival of civilization.

Police dictatorships such as Hitler and Stalin is the next danger. Here Sakharov details the similarities between Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse-Tung. A big component of their rising to power is their ability to suppress intellectual freedom and spread narrow-minded mass myths such as the myth of race, land, and blood; the Jewish threat; praise of anti-intellectualism; sharpening class struggle; and the lebensraum concept (repopulating occupied territories with a superior race - lebensraum means living space).

The threat to intellectual freedom is a threat to independence, human personality, and the meaning of human life. These threats come obviously from war, poverty, and terror but also from more subtle sources. Sakharov fears a lowering of intelligence by mass media which may just be motivated by profit but is supported by its stress on entertainment, mass appeal, and censorship. Education is another means to limit our intellectual freedom. Used rightly its one of the greatest achievements of society to have free, universal, church-separated, education. Sakharov accuses schools of adhering too closely to a standard curriculum. Sakharov doesn't elaborate on this issue but the later sections illustrate that he fears the concoction of mass behavioral norms and beliefs. We need to be able to think for ourselves and not belief notions such as "bosses know everything best". Sakharov quotes Lenin as saying that "every cook should learn how to govern". Decision making should be transparent to the public and the public needs to be critical.

Censorship is another threat to our intellectual freedom. This was a huge issue in the Soviet Union as writers needed to get a stamp of approval from the government before their books could be published which lead many publishers to just reject risky books out of hand effectively dulling the creative abilities of many writers and artists. The other day I wrote this on my blog: "Censorship forces the creator to work within the confines of what he believes will be accepted. The publishing company internalizes the censorship decrees and rejects ideas and creations out of hand. It's like a painter who is told what palette he is to work with. His painting will be uninspired, dull, and shallow." I feel like Sakharov and I are on the same page here. He takes it further and adds that powerful and helpful ideas can only arise in public thought - in discussions and objections. This can only happen if we are allowed to say things that may not be politically correct or even truthful. In Russia people were being sent to prison without trial for their ideas and Sakharov discusses this in detail with many examples. This issue seems to still be alive in Russia today where homosexual literature can be labelled "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors." Sakharov himself became no stranger to censorship years later when in 1980 Sakharov internally exiled for protesting the war in Afghanistan and was placed under police surveillance for 6 years.

The next section is titled "The Basis for Hope".

We can help expand world knowledge by having 'peaceful competition'. He illustrates this with what he calls the 'ski track effect'. Two skiers are racing down a mountain, one is far ahead of the other but the second racer is able to quickly catch up because the first one broke the snow. We see this kind of thing happen within businesses - one company creates an effective business model and the other companies imitate it in their own ways. This requires us to look past our prejudices of other nations and to accept the shortcoming of our own and not idolize our tactics and ways of living. I enjoyed the quote Sakharov gave of Bertrand Russell: "The world will be saved from nuclear annihilation if the leaders of each of the two systems (capitalism and communism) prefer complete victory of the other system to a nuclear war." I recall a quote from an American saying that he would rather crawl and his hands and knees to Russia and adopt communism than be the victim of nuclear fallout.

Sakharov concludes his book with a "four-stage plan for cooperation" and a "summary of proposals" which are both bare bones outlines for what he would like the world leaders to do in order to avoid the destruction of civilization and cultivate a world of progress. One of the proposals is an international law on geohygiene (pollution). It only makes sense for Sakharov to use proposals instead of speaking in absolutes - this book was intended to spark discourse not be a bible. Sakharov wanted constructive criticism.

This was a book that was written in fear of nuclear war between the USA and the USSR. Now that that fear has mostly passed, it still stands as a useful overview of global cooperation that asks us to put aside our dogmatic beliefs, narrow-minded indifference, and illogical fears of other cultures and embrace the differences we see in the world. Its most relevant points for the majority of modern readers will be its focus on cultivation of intellectual freedom and avoidance of anti-intellectualism, belief in harmful mass myths, and critical thinking in life and politics. Unfortunately the book reads at times like a utopian novel ala More's Utopia published in 1516. Fortunately the USA and the USSR were able to settle their differences without war, but certainly not the way Sakharov would have liked (The USA didn't let the USSR follow in their ski tracks).

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