Sunday, October 11, 2009

More Nobel Thoughts

When I wrote my last entry on Obama's Nobel Peace Prize, I did not expect a backlash. Friday morning, my wife and I -- both hardcore Democrats (I've taken the test to prove it) -- were completely shocked at Obama's award. A quick perusal of the early media and pundit responses suggested that most of the world, including a majority of progressives, agreed with me. However, the blog inspired quick condemnation on my Facebook page, and several fellow progressives hit me with personal messages expressing dismay at my blog post.

This reaction has lead me to re-evaluate my initial views. What follows is the thinking process that resulted:

1. Did Obama deserve a Nobel Peace Prize?

No. Not in my opinion. I've listened carefully to the arguments on all sides, from all sorts of sources (most of them liberal), but my initial evaluation has not been swayed. Is Obama a strong world leader in the global pursuit of peace? Yes. Has he accomplished a record of peacemaking worthy of the world's most prestigious honor in that pursuit? Not yet, though I am hopeful he will.

Perhaps the most interesting and persuasive argument made to the contrary came from a friend and mentor of mine. In critiquing my previous post, he compared Obama's win to Martin Luther King's, arguing that King's award was also aspirational in nature, as King admitted in his own powerful acceptance speech. While this argument was emotionally persuasive, it struck me as a case of false analogy.

Besides both men being African American and powerful speakers, I see little in common between President Obama and Martin Luther King and their awards. Martin Luther King was a modest black minister who stood up from a position of absolute powerlessness and -- at great risk to his own life and well-being -- spoke out in non-violent resistance against an incredible injustice perpetrated by the American status quo. By the time of his award, King had already led the unprecedented march on Washington and given his "I have a dream speech." By comparison, Barack Obama is the leader of the free world and commander of history's most powerful military force. While he has done much to reverse the travesties of the Bush years, he is still conducting two wars and has defended the status quo in some areas of concern for true blue liberals like myself. Whatever each man's relative intentions and accomplishments at the time each was honored with a Nobel, I have to hold the world's most powerful man to a higher standard than the peaceable minister who refused to be subjugated.

2. Was my response to the Obama win unnecessarily callous in tone?

Yes. When I wrote, "WTF?" my intention was a response of surprise, not disdain, but it clearly shaped the tone of my overall response into one of cynical dismissal. I regret that my initial response was seen by some as scornful of Obama or distrustful of the power of words to accomplish great ends. Neither was my intention.

In truth, I believe the award was premature (in that he was nominated for the prize only 12 days after taking the oath of office), dangerous (in that it gives unnecessary fuel to the fire of Obama's political adversaries and harshest critics), and a little too aspirational for my taste (in that Obama clearly has great intentions, but has yet to follow-through on some important shifts away from his predecessor). However, those are critiques of the Nobel Prize committee who gave Obama the award, not of Obama himself (he didn't ask for the award), and none of it erases the real and palpable accomplishments of the President on behalf of an America weary from eight years of being hated by the world. Thanks to Obama, the world loves us again, and that is truly something for all Americans to be proud of. He has changed the tone of global diplomacy and set the table for serious peacemaking, and I have faith that serious results will indeed be born from those aspirations.

3. Can good come from Obama's win?

Yes. As friend Diego Kontarovsky wrote to me, "If you ask me, a committee using an award like this to provide attention and momentum to a cause (or man) they believe in at, let's face it, a critical stage, is perhaps the most useful thing I've ever seen an award do." He makes a great point. While I was drawn to the danger of the award as ammo for the president's detractors, surely we who support his peacemaking efforts can use the same bullets to different ends. "Look," we can say, "Obama's moves have restored America to a place of world leadership. We have influence again, and not only through our weapons!" As Nicholas Sarkozy put it, "The award marks America's return to the heart of the people of the world."

4. Can good come from criticizing the award?

Not really, as I'm quickly discovering. Someone asked me if I want to find myself on the wrong side of history for criticizing Obama's Nobel. While the question strikes me as absurdly over-dramatic, many of the loudest criticisms of the award have struck me as so off the mark I shudder to be associated with them. For instance, here are two online posts from Republican friends of mine:
  • A conservative religious party leader in Pakistan referred to [Obama's Nobel Prize] an embarrassing "joke" while an Hamas official in Palestine said, "Obama has a long way to go still and lots of work to do before he can deserve a... reward. Obama only made promises and did not contribute any substance to world peace."
  • What does it mean when a former communist dictator (Fidel Castro) agrees with the decision about Obama receiving the Nobel Peace prize? Who's next...Hugo Chavez?
The argument for the first post amounts to: "Even our enemies don't think Obama deserves this award! Clearly, this award is a sign of bad things to come." Meanwhile, the second argues: "Our enemies support Obama's award! Clearly, this award is a sign of bad things to come!" It's hilarious and sad. If we are picking teams for history, this is not the team I want to be on.

Meanwhile, John McCain has graciously congratulated the President, stating that the American people are proud to have their leader recognized in such a fashion, appreciating perhaps that no good can come from hand-wringing over a prize for peace.

5. So what, then, is the most productive response to this award?

I think Michael Moore said it best: "Congratulations President Obama on the Nobel Peace Prize -- Now Please Earn it!" We've all had our say on the Nobel, now let us join together in supporting our president in his pursuit of peace. Here, again, we can affirm the power of words as we apply ourselves to putting these words into action:
"But I also know that this prize reflects the kind of world that those men and women, and all Americans, want to build -- a world that gives life to the promise of our founding documents. And I know that throughout history, the Nobel Peace Prize has not just been used to honor 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 -- a call for all nations to confront the common challenges of the 21st century."

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