A Nobel Pursuit
Sunday, March 7, 2010 1:23:45 PM
When we last left off, we were fast approaching the end of the year. This is always a significant time for Norway, because Decembers herald when the country distributes the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize.
A Nobel Past
Like most people, I had assumed that a global honour like the Nobel Prize was - like all 'global' things - American. It was only when I moved to Norway that I discovered the award's Scandinavian origins. The award is named for Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist, engineer and inventor (right), whose most famous invention was also his most infamous: dynamite. In 1888 Alfred suffered the death of his brother Ludwig, and his suffering was compounded when a French newspaper mistakenly printed an obituary for Alfred instead of his brother, entitled "The merchant of death is dead". Disappointed with how he might be remembered, Alfred changed his will to ensure the Nobel name would carry out good, long after his death. Nobel requested that 94% of his fortune be used to create a series of prizes for those who confer the "greatest benefit on mankind" in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. (A sixth category, economics, was added in 1968.) The first Nobel Prizes were handed down in 1901, five years after Nobel's death.
Interestingly, only the Peace Prize is handed out in Norway, and the other five Nobel Prizes are distributed in Sweden. This has always been a source of much speculation, but at the time of Alfred Nobel's death Norway was still in a union under Sweden. Norway was also without Sweden's strong militaristic traditions, perhaps better suiting it for a peace prize. Nobel's will specified that the Peace Prize should be awarded by a committee of five people elected by the Norwegian Parliament. The Nobel Prize winners - known as laureates - are announced in October, and receive their awards on the anniversary of Nobel's death on December 10. Since World War II, the Peace Prize has focused on honouring efforts in four main areas: arms control and disarmament, peace negotiation, democracy and human rights, and work creating a better organised and more peaceful world.
As everyone will be aware, there was much controversy last year when the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced the Peace Prize laureate for 2009 to be the president of the United States, Barack Obama. The decision received criticism both at home and abroad. An excellent article on Wikipedia details the arguments, so I'll just sum up for those who might have been living under a rock during the brouhaha.
The main criticism is that the award was given prematurely and based on Obama's (election) promises of peace rather than any actual achievement of it, or given just plain wrongly in that he presides over a country at war with Iraq and Afghanistan. Even Obama said he was "surprised" and "deeply humbled" by the award, stating he did not feel he deserves it. The Washington Post put it more bluntly when they wrote that in "intending to honour Obama, the committee has actually embarrassed him".
Conversely, as Obama himself eloquently explained, "Throughout history, the Nobel Peace Prize has not just been used to honour specific achievement; it's also been used as a means to give momentum to a set of causes. And that is why I will accept this award as a call to action." Indeed, unlike the other Nobel Prizes that recognize final findings and accomplishments, the Peace Prize can be awarded during the process of resolving conflicts or creating peace. The Nobel Committee explained that the award recognised Obama for promoting nuclear non-proliferation and a "new climate" in international relations, especially in reaching out to the Muslim world. The chairman of the Nobel Committee said, "We want to embrace the message that he stands for." Such sentiments, however, prompted many people to wonder whether Obama received the award simply for not being George W Bush. (Or other people.)
To throw in my two cents (it's my blog, after all) there have been several less worthy winners of the Peace Prize. For example, drawing attention toward global climate change is important, but was that really the world's greatest step toward peace in 2007? And sure it's great to help village people climb out of poverty through microcredit for entrepreneurs, but is that really what a peace prize should recognise? One could argue that micro-financing and consideration for climate change can help ensure an equality of resources that deter future wars and conflicts, but it seems a little bit of a reach to me. I'm just sayin'.
Obama in Oslo
My other two cents would be that I was just plain ecstatic to realise that awarding Obama the Peace Prize meant he would be coming to Oslo, to receive the honour in person! This was exciting because I have pored over both of Obama's books, I greatly admire his internal policies and vision, and - quite frankly - I think he's a bit of a babe.
Oslo became quite chaotic when he and the First Lady arrived in town. Black helicopters circled the city, sections of main street were barricaded off, and crowds gathered outside buildings hosting Nobel festivities. (My company, Opera Software, made use of the visit for an amusing publicity stunt.) I of course did not want to miss out on any Obama action, so my boyfriend and I - and 15,000 of our close personal friends - gathered in front of the Grand Hotel balconies for the Peace laureate's traditional wave to the crowds. We waited an hour and a half in the early winter cold, and were at last rewarded with the man himself (and Michelle too!). A cheer roared up from the crowd, and there soon rose a chant of "Yes we can! Yes we can!" It was kind of surreal. It was like, "Wow, there is Barack Obama. Just there, right in front of me. In the flesh! This great source of hope and inspiration for the entire world, and I could just like throw my candy bar at him... if I didn't throw like a girl and he wasn't surrounded by bullet-proof glass."
Regardless of whether he was given the Prize prematurely, it was a great honour to see this inspiring world leader in person, and know that one day I can say to my grand-children that I had the opportunity to see him ("Oh yeah, Baz and I go way back."). Let's hope Obama does indeed use the Prize as a call to action to deliver on his promises and vision, so that the Prize continues to honour the wishes of Alfred Nobel and creates a more peaceful future.