Friday, October 9, 2009

An Odd Nobelman

I've got a post on music (Brahms, to be precise) in the works, but sometimes the blog writes itself. As you've probably heard, Barack Obama has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a full eight months into his first term. Now this is an incredibly odd decision, no doubt, and has been met with what the media is calling "mixed reviews." In the less-than-mainstream media, there's something more like disgust, indignation, and Orwellian terror (perhaps War is Peace after all). While undoubtely there will be much rejoicing among the Obama-faithful, it is also clear that the ranks of the Obama-faithful are thinning as his Presidency continues to sputter in frustrating non-accomplishment.

It should be no surprise that I stand somewhere outside the realm of even frustration and disgust in the matter of the Nobel. While there have certainly been some quite honorable and deserving winners in the history of the prize (Martin Luther King, Jr and Aung San Suu Kyi come to mind), there have also been some bizzarre choices (Henry Kissinger being perhaps the most notorious, with Yasser Arafat a close second). It's hard, ultimately, to take the Nobel seriously simply because it is an institution so steeped in politics and a history of not just acknowledging champions of peace and justice, but also trying to find those champions in places where they are not.* It bears remembering that George Bush and Tony Blair were both nominated for the Nobel during their terms in office.

*For those looking for a better Peace Prize, I suggest any of the Gandhi awards: The Gandhi Peace Award, The Gandhi Peace Prize, or the Indira Gandhi Prize.

Barack Obama may be no George Bush, but you wouldn't know it from his actual, on-the-ground policy. And that's the important point, here. Obama is a wonderful public speaker, probably the best we've had since Kennedy. Words, however, are just that, and the actions of our President - on Health Care, on the Patriot Act, on the War on Terror, on torture and wiretaps and Civil Liberties broadly - simply do not back up the rhetoric. That is not just true of his presidency, but of his brief stint as a Senator, and in his earlier life as a politician in Illinois. He is, in short, a consumate politician, and that - more than any particular policy, more even than the War - is why he should not win the Nobel.

I've been hesitant to approach the Obama issue, because it's so charged, and I know how easily people get offended by politics. Indeed, that's a quintessential part of framing the discussion and how the major parties in America maintain their power: make people passionately, violently supportive of a position almost indistinguishable from the alternative. Obama may be pursuing an almost identical foreign policy to that of Bush, but you have to make sure you don't tell that to the wrong people, because you're liable to get yelled at, if not beat up. The narrower the spectrum of debate, the more intense it becomes, it seems.

What makes the image of Obama so persuasive that the Nobel Committee - who received his nomination just two weeks into his presidency - bought into the hype? I think Obama has an amazing capacity to define himself in a limited, but suggestive way. What I see when I look at Obama is different than what you see, or what your brother sees, or what your parents or children see. That much is true, probably, of everyone. But with Obama, that subjectivity is captured and magnified, because Obama gives you just enough to make him into what you want him to be. If you want to believe he is a scholar, you will. If you want to believe he is a Cato, you will. If you want to believe he is a champion of people's rights, you will. And so on. Matt Gonzalez - Ralph Nader's running mate in 2008, and a candidate for Mayor in San Francisco a few years back - reported that his conversations with Obama supporters often went something like this on the campaign trail:

Gonzalez: "You know Obama supports the death penalty, right?"
Obama supporter: "No he doesn't."

In this case, there's not even a debate. There is not a single example of Obama voicing opposition to the death penalty, nor is there a single example of him voting against it. Why does the Obama supporter believe that he opposes capital punishment, then? Becuase the supporter herself opposes the death penalty, and she has attributed that opposition to a candidate who has given her the opportunity to fill in those details by always staying just far enough back.

The Nobel Committee - and you can probably see where I'm going - has done the same thing. They are looking, for obvious reasons, for powerful and passionate supporters of peace. What they see is a President who espouses "Hope" and "Change," and take for granted from those loaded and indefinite words that peace is an end-goal of the administration. What reason do we have to believe that it is? Our own desires, our own hopes, our own expectations of what Obama is and will be. But politicians live in a strange world, and even if Obama himself wants those things, it is unlikely that he could bring them about without actually challenging established power structures and political traditions. In short, he would have to cease being a politician, and of all the words that define Barack Obama, that is the most fitting.

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