Friday, October 9, 2009

Oslo's Ambivalent Bequest

A day can make a difference. President Barack Obama is no stranger to this cliché. This past year has brought about interesting episodes in his life. However, all such occurrences have not been complete surprises. When he won several key primaries, it came as no surprise. When he clinched the Democratic nomination, it perhaps was not much of a surprise either. Even the Presidency I doubt was a surprise. After a few key states closed their polling stations and the votes were tallied, it was pretty obvious that he had won the Presidency, and by a wide margin.

However, nothing could have prepared the President for the news he received this morning, that he had won the coveted and extremely prestigious Nobel Peace Prize. Obama is the fourth American President to win the award. Other Presidents who have been thus honored include Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter, Carter having received the award years after he left office. Obama not only joins the ranks of American Presidents who have received this award, but also enters an exclusive club that boasts members from the Dalai Lama to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela.

Founded in 1901 by Alfred Nobel, the prize awards men and women across the globe for outstanding contributions to physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and for works in peace. Alfred Nobel whose riches came primarily from oil left much of his wealth to the establishment of the prize. While he lived, Nobel was an accomplished scientist, inventor, entrepreneur, author, and pacifist. The prize over the years has gone to several men and women for outstanding contributions that run the gamut from creating the Grameen Bank to improving empirical economic analysis.

Invitations for nominations are sent to previous Nobel Prize winners, individuals in academia, scientists, and members of Parliament from different countries. The nominators are chosen so that the nominees are from a varied pool, representing as many countries and universities as possible. Obama was selected as winner from a pool of 205 names that included 33 organizations. The names of nominees are kept secret and it will not be known whom the President was up against until 2059.

The reaction of the White House to Obama’s win was one of shock. The White House staff admits that the news was initially received as a joke; an Ashton Kutcher type stunt. However, it seems that a few phone calls might have confirmed that the President was not about to be Punk’d, and that he had indeed won the prize.

Upon hearing that the President had won, the most popular question that followed was “for what?” This question asked by numerous Americans will be visited countless times over the next couple of days and for several years to come.
The President’s win is severely premature. This is not intended to suggest that he is not deserving of the award or that he could never win the award. For the feats he has accomplished, there is no question that given a few years he would merit the prize, but coming at this time, it is unquestionably rash and could perhaps create for the President an ideal to which he will be forced to live up to. President Obama clearly has no fault in being chosen for the award just like Taylor Swift couldn’t help that she won the award for best video. He perhaps is just about as shocked as the rest of the world.

However, it is safe to conclude that for all the President embodies, the nominators and the committee should have exercised better judgment in making their selection. Information on the website of the Nobel Prize notes that Obama was awarded the Prize for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between people. It is unfair to trivialize his win, but when held against other winners like Dr. King or Mother Teresa, it seems as though the committee may have unfairly passed up individuals or organizations that have labored in very convincing ways for peace.

The President’s speeches in Germany, Cairo and Turkey were inspiring, but rhetoric should not be the basis for the selection. Dr. King gave speeches but his speeches were backed by marches, imprisonment, and his willingness to die for the cause. Elie Wiesel was interned in a concentration camp and watched his family die. Rhetoric therefore cannot be a measure for determining eligibility; it takes away from the effort of individuals and groups for whom the win was about more than that. Could it be that the Committee were under the spell of what the popular media has labeled as the Obama star power and wanted to buy into sensationalism of some sort?

Despite, the reasons the committee will put forward, I have not seen Americans so polarized on an issue since Bush decided to declare war on Iraq. The rhetoric from the right has been loaded with vitriol. Rush Limbaugh criticized the President as though he were responsible for the nomination or had bribed the committee to earn the award. On his popular radio talk show, Limbaugh noted that Obama is “not only the nation’s post racial President but is also the nation’s post accomplishment President.” He went further to assert that the win was a greater embarrassment than the United States losing the Olympic bid.

The reason the United States is where she is today is because the country has embraced democracy and other such freedoms. Dissent is good. Healthy discourse is great. However, dissent that is loaded with vitriol and hate, the like that spews from individuals such as Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Michael Steele do not have a place in a democracy. Their comments are the fuel that power hate groups. Regardless of how Limbaugh’s comments are analyzed, it is clear that his rhetoric is laced with hate and reminiscent of white supremacist group type monologue.

That the news of the win was greeted more favorably abroad than it was domestically is not an indictment of the President, but rather is only a testament to how human are apt to act, embracing the other and turning away from self. While it is laudatory that the President won, the award is certainly too much too soon. The risk of the award is that the President may be lampooned and severely so if he fails to live up to the expectations the prize puts on him. In his speech today at the White House he was quick to note that the prize was given for inherent potential and not so much his present accomplishments. The debates over Afghanistan this week and the Saturday Night Live skit are just a glimpse into how vindictive society can be.

Hopefully, as much as this is a great honor for the President and a testament to what potential he has in creating an atmosphere that tends towards peace, the President will be better served by remembering this day as Bo’s birthday and preparing for the three day weekend his daughters have.

The world is becoming increasingly complex even though it seems technology may have made it simpler. Peace is not about what electrons flow where or about forecasting and prose, it’s about the deep ravine that is the human mind. Capable of selfless acts and at the same time able to scheme mass genocides and holocausts. This is the Prize Obama has just been awarded. Making man think in ways that tend him toward been benevolent with a hint of great pacifism. Unlike past winners who may choose to bask in their accomplishments because their work speaks for them, the President has his work cut out for him and will have to work twice as hard to prove that he does indeed merit the prize.