Nobels, politics and parochialism


My friend Shmuel Rosner says I tend to go on forever. He’s right. This is a big topic, all the more reason I should keep it pithy.

The Peace Prize: It’s political.

By this I don’t mean "It’s" (roll eyes heavenward) "political." I don’t mean it in the way that every prize from the Macarthur Genius Grants, through to the Pulitzers down to the Sunday School Teacher of the Year awards are political, as in, it’s whom you know, whom you pleased, whom you logrolled in your own time.

I mean it’s political in the way that every peace negotation is political. It’s a cliche that everyone but the Spartans wants peace; how you achieve it, what its terms are boil down to a point of view. Like its corollary, war, it is an extension of politics.

This is how Alfred Nobel framed it in his will: "One part to the person who shall have done the most or best work for fraternity among nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses."

Peace congresses (see: Camp David I) and reduced armies (see: Germany and Japan, postwar) work at times, and at others do not (see: Camp David II, Germany and Japan during the war.) Some people believe purely in the approach Nobel favored, some people believe purely in the opposite. Most of us swing back and forth along this trajectory, at times closer to one end, and times closer to the other. This is because what Nobel posited is a political position, appropriate to some situations, not to others; but its protagonists remain loyal to it, must remain loyal to it even when it is not relevant, so that it may flourish when it becomes again relevant.

It’s not unlike Wall Street: Its denizens now champion utterly uncontrolled trading, to perfectly reasonable derisive laughter from the rest of us, because that model has so recently so catastrophically failed us; and sometime in the future, distant or not, when controlled markets are strangling development, these same clowns will reappear as wise men. And it will be good that they stubbornly stood by their politics when it was clownish to do so.

Check out the Peace Laureates: Some of them seem prophetic (Sadat, Begin), some are better left buried (Austen Chamberlain, Neville’s dad, laureate in 1925 for negotiating the Locarno Pact, which essentially allowed the larger European powers to screw the smaller in the name of "peace" — see how well those ideas worked out with Junior).

The point is that the prize committee rarely has awarded prizes for a provable peace (DeKlerk and Mandela are about the only exception I can see); this is because waiting three or four decades to see if it all worked out and giving the $1.4 million to an awardee capable of breathing "thank you" are mutually exclusive.

So what’s left is making a bet, based on the politics of Alfred Nobel’s predicates: In 2009, there’s no likelier increase-engagement, reduce-troop-levels horse than Barack Obama.

It’s not about whether the president is deserving or undeserving (we can’t know yet) or whether the committee is trying to nudge along ideas it likes (of course it is); it’s about the party backing the party man. Complaining about it is like complaining that the Democrats nominated Obama instead of McCain. A Democrat in 1974 cast back to 1968 might wonder whether Hubert Humphrey’s policies would have ended the war, expanded the Great Society and brought about engagement with China as Nixon’s had; in 1968, though, his only logical vote was Humphrey.

Okay. Now for the Literature.

I’ve actually read — I don’t want to embarrass anyone here with links — American commentary that stops just short of making fun of Herta Müller for her funny sounding name. And there’s the usual bleating about Philip Roth and Don DeLillo. "Why can’t an American win it!"

Now that I’ve read a little Müller, I’ll put this as gently as I’m able:

* It’s about getting people to read. What they haven’t already read. Otherwise, make it posthumous and give it to Shakespeare every year.

* She’s led a life. As opposed to imagined one, in her pajamas. Call me a boring old social realist, but this should count for something.

* She writes about herself, and makes it seem universal. As opposed to Roth and DeLillo who write about others and make it seem like masturbation.

I just hope she has the sense to blow the $1.4 million on a good time.

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