The hardest thing to do, quite often, is just choosing to do the right thing. It’s easy to posture, to proclaim, and to promote the idea that one is striving to fix the world or to achieve justice. If you really want to repair the world and promote justice, just try to do something good… and then another good thing… and then another.
Focusing on grand goals, like saving the world or realizing justice, tends to produce little good in the world and can often do the opposite. We are too small and the world is too big for us to understand how to map a path toward saving it. And if we focus on building an unknowable path to reach distant objectives, we are more tempted to ride roughshod over good things and people along the way. If you want to promote good in the world, start by doing one good thing without a plan for saving the entire world.
But very rarely, choosing to do one good thing can save the world. In the case of Stanislav Petrov it actually did. When Petrov, who was a Lt. Colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces, received a signal indicating that the US had launched nuclear missiles, he chose not to follow established procedures and inform his superiors. Rather than risk a nuclear war, he chose to assume that the signals of a US launch were faulty. He didn’t have a plan to save the world. He didn’t take to the 1980s equivalent of Twitter or Facebook and declare his intentions to save humanity from nuclear self-destruction. In the midst of a stressful and confusing moment, he just chose to do the right thing, even when he had orders to do otherwise. For making that one fateful good choice, Petrov is clearly worthy of the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award.
Just as an aside, the Petrov story that Matt recounts is a reminder of how weak and stupid authoritarian systems really are. There is a bad habit among Western observers to believe that free societies are weak and vulnerable because they are divided and riddled with conflict among groups each seeking their own interests. Authoritarian systems are admired, even among some who say they oppose them, for their unity of purpose and speed of action. This was a common view during the Cold War (even held by fellow Al nominee, Whittaker Chambers) who feared the West would lose if it didn’t shed some of its freedoms for the sake of prevailing over a more menacing threat to freedom. Joseph Kennedy and the Duke of Windsor were fascinated by the Nazis and leaned toward appeasement in part because they thought authoritarianism had an edge over free societies. Previous Al nominee, Bill Knudsen, shows how wrong they were, specifically with respect to the superiority of the free US war mobilization over the Nazi effort. This belief that we need to sacrifice freedom to prevail over an authoritarian advantage is also a common reaction to Islamic terrorism.
Even in the world of education reform, I’m old enough to remember people urging us to imitate educational practices from Japan and more recently China because of the imagined greatness to be achieved by suppressed individualism. These are some of the same people who push national standards, like Common Core, increased centralized control over education, etc… But that is a post for another day.
As the Petrov story makes clear, authoritarian systems are actually quite weak because they have difficulty obtaining accurate information and avoiding self-destructive groupthink. Once they get it into their collective head that the US is preparing a first-strike, they can’t consider all of the evidence showing that is wrong, nor can they avoid interpreting all actions from the faulty assumption that they are part of an imminent attack. We see this time and again with dictators.
Whittaker Chambers also made a fateful choice to do one good thing by (we now know truthfully) accusing Alger Hiss and others in senior government positions of being Soviet agents. But Chambers’ accusations also fueled the McCarthyite over-reaction, which was based on this false belief in an authoritarian advantage that required we had to become less free to defeat bigger threats to freedom. And Chambers is not really lacking in recognition for the good choice he did make, having received the Medal of Freedom, which is the highest award for civilians, in 1984.
My own nominees, Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, who are the creators of the Rick and Morty animated TV show, as well as Jason’s nominee, Russ Roberts, who hosts a popular podcast, also fall short. While promoting decency among those who assume nihilism and promoting honest intellectual inquiry are both worthy accomplishments, they just can’t compare to avoiding nuclear war. We need more Stanislov Petrovs, who just choose to do the right thing. And some of those good choices might really save the world.