The 25th anniversary of the Joe A. Callaway Award for Civic Courage, presented annually by my sister, Dr. Claire Nader, is an occasion for thinking about our culture’s choices for heroic achievements. In most societies, the heroic designation is given to people who rescue others in serious peril such as a fire, flood, accident or military battle. Taking selfless physical risks to save others prompts admiring recognition in all societies and cultures.
Physical courage, however, is defined differently in the ranking of its awards. For example, what is arguably considered the nation’s most prominent award is the Congressional Medal of Honor, which is given to members of the armed forces for bravery beyond the call of duty. Today, even though much of our warfare is asymmetric, most of the recipients, oblivious to their own safety, valiantly saved their buddies who were under attack.
In other realms, acknowledging achievements demonstrating skills, determination and values, a society reveals what the power structures value. A philosopher once said, “We honor what we value.” Well, there are many major awards honoring athletes, actresses, actors, musicians and artists. Many of these awards are covered by the mass media of sports and entertainment to many millions of viewers. Think of the Heisman Trophy, the Stanley Cup, the Academy Awards and the Emmys. These recognitions mesh with the twin values of entertainment and profit that are prized by establishment interests.
Then there is the Presidential Medal of Freedom, considered our nation’s highest civilian honor and presented personally by the president at a public White House ceremony. These choices sometimes can have a distinctly political preference, depending on who occupies the White House.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom has been given to more than 500 persons since it was established fifty years ago by President John. F. Kennedy. The official criterion for the award is that the recipients have made “especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
Many of the awardees met one or more of the criteria. These, during the President Obama administration, have included Gloria Steinem, Oprah Winfrey, Sally Ride, Bayard Rustin, Ben Bradlee, retired Justice John Paul Stevens, Dolores Huerta, John Glenn, Bob Dylan, Maya Angelou, Warren Buffett, Congressman John Lewis, Yo Yo Ma, Bill Russell, John J. Sweeney, Stephen Hawking, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Others had careers that transgressed the above-noted standards. For example, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair are all past awardees. They were war-mongers in office—the last two of which should be tried for the illegal invasion and wanton destruction of Iraq and the enormous loss of civilian Iraqi lives that ensued. This invasion constituted a war crime.
Even without the Medal of Freedom, however, these recipients would still be widely recognized and therefore could still be satisfied with their many other honors and awards from previous years.
The aforementioned prizes and other similar highly visible commendations ignore many men and women who have demonstrated great moral courage at personal risk and taken on abuses by entrenched power. Remember, “We honor what we value.” Whistleblowers, who are the silent patriots of our land, have too often historically been devalued, slandered, fired and persecuted by the government agencies or corporate behemoths they accurately exposed. These people, who brought their conscience to work, find themselves ostracized and are often unable to find work in their area of expertise. As a result, they and their families suffer. The fact that clarion calls have been vital and ultimately substantiated provides little protection.
To recognize some of the unsung American heroes who speak the truth of the harmful manifestations of institutional power, there is the annual Ridenhour Prizes that is given before a lively luncheon of civic leaders and reporters at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. This year, Frederick A.O. Schwarz, Jr. received the Ridenhour Courage Prize and Edward Snowden (in absentia) received the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling. Mr. Schwarz started his career in the mid-1970s strengthening the rule of law as Chief Counsel to the Church Committee in the Senate, where he managed the investigations of the rampant violations of the intelligence agencies and the subsequent enactment of reforms by Congress.
The Callaway Award for Civic Courage is one of the awards that come from a small endowment provided by Joe A. Callaway who had a long career in the theatre, as a solo performer (“The American Dream in Politics, Poetry and Humor”) and as a professor at many universities. This award for “civic courage, for integrity in publically advancing truth and justice, at some personal risk,” is awarded to people of unique conviction overcoming overwhelming odds.
This week, Marcy Benstock was recognized for her “decades long battle against powerful interests that support plans to degrade the Hudson River’s ecosystems, increase air and water pollution and divert taxpayer funds from essential public needs.” Her stamina, strategic brilliance and coalition-building carried the day again and again.
The other Callaway awardee was Dinesh Thakur for his “commitment to drug safety globally, at considerable professional and personal peril to challenge fraudulent pharmaceutical industry practices, beginning with his former employer,” and his continuing work in maintaining and advancing best practice standards.
Unfortunately, prior authentic heroes who were recipients of the Callaway Award has received very little media attention and many of these authentic heroes continue to suffer for their remarkable contribution to the well-being and freedom of millions of people who do not know their name.
Again, our culture honors what we value. We need to improve our culture so that the fundamental civic values advanced by courageous whistleblowers are properly and publically appreciated.
Ralph Nader’s latest book is: Unstoppable: the Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State.