10.09.09

Nobel Gone Nuts

The world is a different place than when Alfred Nobel cooked up the peace prize. Obama’s Nobel win, following misguided peace prizes for Yassir Arafat and Henry Kissinger, proves the prize is obsolete.

Well, at least he didn’t win it for literature.

Like certain book critics who pass judgment for so long that eventually they react less to the book they are reviewing than to their own positions, the Nobel Peace Prize committee, in making the award to Obama, could be thinking about its own history even more than it is trying to make an obvious contemporary statement about what an ideal world should look like. The Norwegians might well be trying to redeem the whopping mistakes they made in the past. In recent decades, they gave the prize to murderers like Henry Kissinger and Yasser Arafat. Maybe by going overboard now—by giving it to someone who doesn’t deserve it because he hasn’t done enough—they are making up for giving it to people who did way too much, in the wrong direction.

In part, Obama’s Nobel is a projection of how Norway—good, decent, provincial, lily-white, xenophobic Norway—would like to see itself.

Obama could well be the Harold Pinter of peace-prize laureates. Just as Pinter won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his meaningless rhetoric of political virtue, Obama seems to have won his peace prize for, well, some highly literary gestures toward a better world.

But the fault lies in the bestowers of the award, not the bestowed-upon. Please indulge a little satire:

You can imagine the chaos that must have ruled in the Nobel committee during the weeks preceding the awarding of the prize to Obama. First, the Norwegians—Norway administers the peace prize; Stockholm gives out the others—needed to make sure that Obama didn’t have to share the honor with Bill Ayers, who just a few days ago sent conservatives into an orgasmic trance by admitting that all along they had been right, and that he had, indeed, written Obama’s first autobiography, Dreams From My Father. Turns out he was joking. Some joke.

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Then, the Nobel fact-checkers—they must have someone like that, no?—had to ascertain that Obama was born in the United States, so that they could put the finishing touches on the press release. After that, they had to check with their Swedish counterparts and make sure Stockholm wasn’t considering Obama, with two memoirs under his belt, for the literary prize, while at the same time the Swedes had to make sure that their proposed winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Herta Muller, wasn’t in line to get the peace prize, seeing as her writing “depicts the landscape of the dispossessed,” in the words of the Swedish committee, and thus might have qualified her for inclusion in both categories.

Never mind the handwringing over whether Muller’s husband, a novelist named Richard Wagner, was related to the Richard Wagner, which, combined with the fact that her father had been an officer in Hitler’s SS, was just asking for trouble. The important thing was to confirm, absolutely, that Obama himself was not related to Hitler—despite the resemblance in a certain type of poster that had been in circulation over the summer—and that his plan for overhauling health care was not derived from the Nazi euthanasia program, which Muller’s father probably supported, and which Muller, and Wagner, most certainly—we hope!—are opposed to. Wagner the husband, that is.

What a mess!

But then the Nobel Peace Prize, and the Nobel Prize for Literature, too, especially in the last decades, have been proof of the prizes’ increasing irrelevance.

It’s foolish to blame Obama himself, as conservatives are already doing, for winning the prize. (Their crazy argument: His international appeal proves his American emptiness. They would never say that about Jesus.) Obama warned us long ago, in his first memoir, that part of his success was due to the fact that people projected their own emotions onto him, as though onto a blank screen.

In part, Obama’s Nobel is a projection of how Norway—good, decent, provincial, lily-white, xenophobic Norway—would like to see itself. It’s not Obama’s fault if, at the same time, he galvanizes moral vanity in his supporters and inflames visceral hatred in his adversaries. (Indeed, awarding the prize to an as-yet untested Obama ignores the president’s individuality and flattens him into a representative symbol the same way his racist attackers do.) Rather, the Nobel committee has exposed its own fatal myopia. What were they thinking? It’s not just, as many people have rapidly pointed out, that Obama has not yet earned a prize for peace. The true surrealness of awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama is that this very same president will now have to wage what is ultimately going to be a shadowy, unpopular, and ambiguous war with the peace prize figuratively hanging around his neck.

The real meaning, however, of Obama the Nobel Laureate lies in its irony. For the Norwegians, Obama represents the victory of a crowded, cosmopolitan world, where citizenship is defined by proximity to Otherness, and where the problems and struggles of one country are shared by all. But such a place is the precise antithesis of the cloistered, homogenous universe of the Nobel Peace Prize committee—not to mention the one for literature—which is driven by the insecure and parochial need to shoulder itself into current history by issuing big statements, brimming with moral certitude and reprimand, out of their small precincts.

The world is now a more decentered and cosmopolitan place than it was when Alfred Nobel endowed his prize for peace and empowered the Norwegians to bestow it. Continuing to allow them to do so is like letting 12 guys from Bensonhurst decide who the president should be. The very fact—the very absurdity—of Barack Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize proves its obsolescence.

Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books:Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently,Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.