Maddow: Before he was nominated for the Nobel, Mr. Obama had persuaded the people of the most powerful nation on earth to choose him and his vision of strength through diplomacy—instead of the vision offered by his rival for the presidency.
McCain: You know that old, uh, that old Beach Boys song, bomb Iran? Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb… anyway…
It’s hard to believe, but there have been sillier moments in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize than this recent fiasco involving Barack Obama — it’s just so hard to remember them when you’re rolling around on the ground and spitting up greenish foam in a state of shock, as most of us were this past weekend as the news of Obama’s amazing award rolled over the airwaves.
The Nobel Peace Prize long ago ceased to be an award given to people who really spend their whole careers agitating for peace. Like most awards the Prize has evolved into a kind of maraschino cherry for hardcore careerists to place atop their resumes, a reward not for dissidence but on the contrary for gamely upholding the values of Western society as it perceives itself, for putting a good face on things (in Obama’s place, literally so).
Even when the award is given to a genuine dissident, it tends to be a dissident hailing from a country we consider outside the fold of Western civilization, a rogue state, “not one of us” — South Africa from the apartheid days, for instance, or the regime occupying East Timor.
You never, ever get a true dissident from a prominent Western country winning the award, despite the obvious appropriateness such a choice would represent. Our Western society quite openly embraces war as a means of solving problems and for quite some time now has fashioned its entire social and economic structure around the preparation for war.
Most of our important scientific innovations come, either directly or indirectly, through research into the creation of new weapons. Our media relentlessly praises and cartoonizes war and violence, blithely indoctrinates millions of children a day into the possibilities of military combat with video games and toy guns. We house an utterly insane percentage of nonviolent criminals in jails. And when a fringe presidential candidate named Dennis Kucinich announced plans to create a “Department of Peace,” he was almost literally laughed off the campaign trail.
We’re a society that believes powerfully in the divine right of force, but that doesn’t mean we don’t like to think of ourselves as being peaceful. And indeed, there are times when we actually do turn to peace and diplomacy to solve our problems. Usually this is because all other avenues of action have been exhausted first, or because it just happens to be the right logistical move at that particular moment.
Like for instance, we invade Iraq for whatever asinine reason was actually behind that decision, we stay there for, oh, seven years or whatever, and eventually it starts to occur to us that this is an extraordinarily expensive activity, pisses off everyone involved, destabilizes a whole region, and to boot puts the lives of countless innocent Iraqis and young Americans at risk, though of course this is the last consideration. Moreover the plan to gain permanent access to Iraqi oil reserves through the establishment of a friendly “democratic” regime with (let’s say) a “flexible” attitude toward foreign investment is turning out to be problematic at best.
So eventually someone will make the decision that this whole Iraq war thing is stupid, benefits no one, not even politically in the short term, and moves will be made to wrap up this idiotic business and bring everyone home. At which point someone making this dreary logistical decision will get nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and that someone will probably win it, allowing us all to bask in the glow of our “peace-loving” values which prevailed in the end over hate and violence.
That’s how this thing works. We ebb toward war most of the time. But sometimes, out of necessity, or when we run out of bullets, we ebb the other way. And it’s then that we give ourselves awards for our peace-loving behavior.
Who knows, maybe Barack Obama’s award is already tied to that particular Iraq plotline. He was, after all, elected in part because his party, the Democratic Party, which had supported the idiotic invasion at the start, had lately decided to abandon the idea and present itself as being against this particular war.
More likely the Obama critics who believe that Obama won this award for not being George Bush are right as well. The problem the international community had with Bush wasn’t that he believed in war and the use of force, it was that he believed in the unilateral use of these things. Bush did not believe in the use of force as an expression of a whole society’s values, he believed in it as an expression of his own machismo.
He was like Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove, flying through history with a bomb between his legs, shouting “Yee, haw!” It wasn’t so much that this behavior was wrong, it was just unseemly. He was like the drunk at a Victorian tea party who during the soup course makes jokes about the hostess’s secret pregnancy in France. We Westerners, we just don’t do things like that. Decorum, sir, decorum!
How do we do things? We keep the troops in those faraway places like Afghanistan and Iraq, sure, but while we do that we make sure to extol things like tolerance and dialogue and the spirit of diplomacy. We make sure that the same people who were not involved in the decision-making process during the previous bombing runs under Bush are in the loop again, now and hopefully forever. We smile a lot and say nice things about the Geneva convention and the impropriety of torture and secret detention, the importance of the rule of international law. We make everybody feel better about how things are going to go from now on.
This is what Barack Obama did to “earn” the Nobel Prize. He put the benevolent face back on things. He is a good-looking black law professor with an obvious bent for dialogue and discussion and inclusion. That he hasn’t actually reversed any of Bush’s more notorious policies — hasn’t closed Guantanamo Bay, hasn’t ended secret detentions, hasn’t amped down Iraq or Afghanistan — is another matter. What he has done is remove the stink of unilateralism from those policies.
They’re not crazy-ass, blatantly illegal, lunatic rampages anymore, but carefully-considered, collectively-run peacekeeping actions, prosecuted with meaningful input from our allies.
You see the difference? The Nobel committee sure did!
There’ve been some dumb Nobel Peace Prizes before. Giving one to Gorbachev in 1990, sandwiched right in between his invasions of Azerbaijan and Lithuania, comes immediately to mind. Giving one to Henry Kissinger, a man responsible for the bombings of millions of Indochinese (and who consistently favored the use of increased bombing runs to force the other side to the negotiating table) is another. The award to Arafat, Rabin and Peres likewise seems humorous to me. The Al Gore award, I don’t even want to go there. I went years thinking that the Al Gore prize was a joke someone was playing on me. I still can’t believe it really happened.
The unifying thread for all these prizewinners is that they were all important political figures who at one time or another embraced violence as a just and appropriate policy, and got the peace crown once the political weather changed and it was time to put the tanks back in the garage. Even Gore, during the Kosovo war, boned up on his war cred before he got a prize for losing an election, growing a beard, and making a freaking movie. And hey, maybe in the real world, you can’t punish politicians for embracing force — maybe there’s just no way around the use of violence, when you’re running a country the size of the U.S. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been President or Vice President of anything.
But it’s hard not to notice that those onetime war-favoring pols are the Westerners who win these awards, when there is still a significant minority of people living right here among us who believe that nonviolence can work as a permanent policy, and who have consistently rejected and opposed the obvious militaristic values of the society we actually happen to live in.
Those people win the Nobel Prize when they live in “other” countries, when they’re penniless priests in Timor or Soweto or activists in Guatemala. But when they’re Americans or Western Europeans or Japanese who think we should reduce military spending or defund catastrophic weapons programs, no dice, because those people don’t represent “us” — us being a society that doesn’t seriously think about disarming.
Instead they use the award to give political backrubs to the inexperienced commanders of deployed armies, people like Barack Obama. I have no idea what his award means, but I do know one thing; it doesn’t have a lot to do with peace.