The Nobel Prize in Controversy

Posted on 12. Oct, 2009 by in Uncategorized

“The fame-making apparatus confers celebrity on an individual in a conflagration so intense that he or she can’t possibly survive.” – Don DeLillo

John Bolton thinks that Barack Obama should decline the Nobel Peace Prize.

In other news, John Bolton thinks that people care about what John Bolton thinks.

The DeLillo quote provides insight to Bolton’s motivation. Obama’s status as a celebrity politician has been noted so often that the status itself could rightfully be considered a celebrity. McCain mocked him for it during the campaign, and conservative critics are already referring to the Nobel as a “celebrity reward.” Because Obama is a celebrity, everyone feels comfortable and even entitled to weigh in on everything that surrounds him. That’s the intense conflagration. What gets lost in the intense conflagration of all things Obama is meaningful and reasoned consideration of those things in and of themselves. The Nobel is just the latest in a string of issues that include the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, health care, bailouts and gun control.

Critics and supporters alike analyze these issues through the prism of Obama’s personality and the magnitude of his celebrity. The benefits or problems of a public option are ignored in favor of a long, hard look at how Obama feels about said option.

And when the Nobel Prize is examined outside of the context of Obama’s fame and current power, one finds all sorts of reasons to say “who cares” when the heads start talking about whether the president is worthy of the award:

Reason the First: Though Alfred Nobel left certain guidelines in his will to help determine who should be considered for the Prizes that bear his name, there is no list of criteria that must be met in order to win. “The person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses” is as clear as Nobel gets for the Peace Prize. That allows for Henry Kissinger to win for his efforts to end a war that he repeatedly escalated.

Reason the Second: The Nobel Committees have an odd relationship with the United States in general. Since 2001, the Peace Prize could have easily been re-named “The Not George W. Bush Award,” and been awarded to “a person not named George W. Bush for not being George W. Bush.” That is partially, of course, a reflection on Bush’s policy of picking fights, ignoring peaceable counsel and generally dropping his dick in the mashed potatoes. But there’s something deeper, more complex. Two of the three Physics laureates for 2009 are American. One of the three in Chemistry is American. Both of the Economics winners are American. In Medicine, the USA was a clean three for three. But no American has won the Literature Prize since Toni Morrison in 1993, despite the fact that DeLillo, say, has been at the forefront critiquing American capitalism and government, and American Peace laureates have historically won during periods of conservative dominance in American government (the two glaring exceptions are Obama, of course, and Martin Luther King, who won in 1964, at the height of LBJ’s Great Society).

Reason the Third: It’s just an award. Yes, it’s the most prominent award on the planet. But that says a lot more about the planet than it does about the Prize. Nobels are designed to encourage peaceful, knowledgeable behavior. But the world doesn’t immediately become more peaceful or learned once a Nobel is awarded. Al Gore’s 2007 Peace Prize has not resulted in fewer automobiles or a shift away from coal power yet. Jimmy Carter’s 2002 Peace Prize didn’t prevent the invasion of Iraq or the bungling of New Orleans’ rehabilitation or the increasing gap between the rich and the poor despite the fact that Carter was acknowledged for his efforts around similar issues.

It is unsettling that Barack Obama is such an exception to DeLillo’s celebrity fatalism. He has not only survived the intense conflagration, he has thrived. Does he deserve the Nobel Peace Prize? More than Kissinger, his fellow laureate, less than Gandhi, who famously was not honored by the Nobel Committee. John Bolton disagrees. Then again, Obama didn’t get to be a Nobel laureate by taking advice from John Bolton, he got it by working tirelessly to overcome the trap of celebrity and focus on the issues. It seems that he plans on staying that course. Good for him, and us.

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