Friday, 9 October 2009
A Nobel prize for imagination
It's Friday night. You're home, you've just had dinner, and you turn on the tv to have a look at the movie channels. The first thing you see is the logo of BBC World, as this is the channel you were watching last time. Second, you see a line saying 'Obama wins Nobel Peace Prize.' You reread the line, and again, and wonder if you understood it well. You must have - it's pretty hard to misinterpret a line like that. Next, you wonder whether you might have slept ten years last night, without noticing it (it would explain why you lost so much hair, when you were combing it this morning). After all, the guy wasn't supposed to win that prize until 2020. By then, he may have reduced the number of nuclear weapons drastically, contributed to peace in the Middle East, eliminated poverty in his own country, reduced carbon emissions by 50%, and successfully undermined the popularity of both Orientalist and Occidentalist myths of differentiation - right now, however, he hasn't achieved any of his great goals yet. It's quite surreal, therefore, that he gets the prize so early. The timing of the Nobel committee sure is surprising - I don't think anyone would disagree on that.
Poor guy. The Scandinavians really knew how to surprise him (and the rest of the world) this week. First, there was the humiliating defeat in Copenhagen, at the IOC meeting, where favourite city Chicago was the first to be eliminated in the elections for the 2016 Olympics. Only a couple of days later, the Norwegians awarded him the most prestigious political prize there is - just when he was beginning to wonder what had happened to his charisma and popularity. It wasn't just the defeat in Copenhagen that gave him doubts: much more crucial were his healthcare reforms, which didn't exactly go uncontested in his country (apparently, many of his ignorant countrymen demand the God-given freedom to not insure themselves and their children, so that if they get seriously ill, they can face their fate and die in proud poverty). Even European audiences seemed to have lost their initial enthusiasm for his messianic messages. People were demanding 'concrete results' - as if one person could transform global power structures, and bring world peace, within 8 months. I seriously doubt whether God himself would be capable of it, but it was expected of Barack Obama nonetheless.
I open my facebook homepage. As I expected, many of my facebook friends have commented on the Nobel committee's decision, or posted links with comments written by others. The decision has caused quite a massive online uproar, it seems. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who is writing on their weblog to give their opinion on this issue - in fact, I doubt whether a Nobel prize has ever caused so many reactions. I also seriously doubt whether a Nobel prize has ever caused so many negative reactions, for that matter. The most common (and the mildest) negative reaction, on facebook as well as elsewhere on the internet, is that 'he hasn't deserved it yet'. Apparently, everyone suddenly seems to be an expert on the conditions for winning a Nobel peace prize. Personally, I wouldn't consider myself in a position to judge. I don't know exactly what Obama has done. Sure, I have read a couple of newspaper articles, watched the news, and listened to some of his inspiring speeches - but that doesn't make me an expert on (international) politics, diplomacy, and peace resolution. So in contrast to many people, I don't know whether he 'deserves' it or not. I wonder where all those ad hoc experts got their information, and where they got the authority to make any statements regarding whether the prize was 'deserved' or not. In any case, so far, I haven't come across any convincing arguments against the decision from people who seem to actually be well-informed.
Sure, I've read the (mainly leftist) Pavlov reactions. His army is still in Iraq, he is sending new troops to Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay still isn't closed, he still supports Israel despite their continuing annexation of land and their violation of human rights, he hasn't smoked a cigar with Fidel yet, et cetera. So what did you expect the guy to do - revise the results of fifty years of American foreign policy within the blink of an eye? Retreat from Afghanistan immediately, so that the Taliban can seize power and commit a Pol Pot-ish genocide on everybody they accuse of collaboration (i.e., half of the nation's population)? Insult some of his most powerful allies, only to lose the support that is necessary for establishing lasting peace? The reality is that the legacy of George W. Bush is almost impossible to cope with, especially in the Middle East. The US have caused an absolute chaos in parts of the region - but ignoring it and leaving it to bleed, of which some people seem to be in favour, is not exactly what I would call acting responsibly. Many people seemed to have had completely unrealistic expectations, and are now criticising Obama for not radically overturning the existing world order. As if any of the previous Nobel peace prize laureates was capable of doing that. As if anyone would be.
It's like we're all on the Titanic together. The ship is moving way too fast, and there are plenty of icebergs around, but the vast majority of the passengers is quite oblivious to the outside world. Sure, many have opinions about the ship - which direction it should take, what colour the dining rooms should have, who the captain should be, and so on - but very few have been up in the crow's nest to actually look around, and very few know how the engines work. Some wonder: who made this ship, where is it headed, how does it work. Many others are too busy arguing about the colours of the dining rooms, or the contents of the menu. Actually, most of the passengers have never seen the dining rooms - they are trying to survive life in the third class, between the rats, and may not even know they're on a ship.
Since a while, there is a new captain on the ship. At first, he was very popular among crew and passengers, as he seemed to really know something about the direction of the ship and its outside world - in sharp contrast to the last captain, who was dangerously ignorant of both. But the new captain has lost some of his popularity, as some crew members didn't agree with his decisions. 'Why bring first aid kits to the third class, if they don't want them? Let's repaint our dining room walls instead!'
The captain is not omnipotent, and he knows it. He needs his crew. He needs his personal advisors as much as he needs the workers in the engine rooms. Most of all, he needs the support of his passengers. He doesn't know everything, but he does know that the ship is approaching an iceberg. And he knows that if they don't want to hit it, the passengers should stop arguing and fighting each other, and stop threatening that they will set fire to each other's rooms.
He is a good speaker, but they find it hard to listen. At times, he feels remarkably powerless, despite the fact that he's the most powerful person on the ship. He realises he can't possibly make the ship turn around, as it's going way too fast - even though that seems to be what some passengers expect him to do. All he can do is try to make it change its direction a little. He doesn't even know what is the right way to do so. Nobody does. But at least he wants to give it a try, and he calls on his crew and passengers to help him. There's an iceberg out there, after all.
Now let's have a look at what Obama has done, for a change, in stead of what he has not (yet). To quote Mohamed el-Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency: 'In less than a year he brought a radical change in the way we look at ourselves, in the way we look at our world. He is restoring the basic core values that every one of us should live by - dialogue, respect, democracy, due process, human rights, a security system that does not depend on nuclear weapons.' Obama, in short, is not only using his power to implement actual policies; he also makes serious efforts to contribute to a positive change in the ways people think about religious and cultural differences, collective responsibility, and conflict resolution. After a decade in which Huntingtonian cultural essentialism and mythical, almost apocalyptic beliefs in violently clashing civilisations have constituted the dominant worldview in much international policymaking, his pluralist plea for the acceptance of differences and mutual recognition of shared interests - the most fundamental of which is the desire for peace - is a brave and beautiful attempt to try to establish a paradigm shift. Obama has the courage to do what few people do: believe, dream, and imagine. Moreover, he has the skills and power to share his beliefs and dreams with others, to spread optimisim and hope. That is a remarkable achievement, especially in these uncertain and confusing times, which are so full of icebergs.
Some people who react to the decision dismiss the importance of visions, dreams, and values. It's about concrete actions, they argue, not about intentions. But they underestimate the power of ideas. We should not forget that our lives are made up of stories, that the world is in the eye of the beholder. Ideas and stories have the power to transform, literally, as the way people perceive the world is always coloured and informed by their worldviews. Words can lead to political action, to violence, to emancipation, to protest or to revolution. They can stimulate discrimination or acceptance. They are not harmless; they are powerful. Therefore, Obama's speech in Cairo was a political deed, nothing less. So was the speech in which he stated his commitment to get rid of all nuclear weapons. The very fact that the president of the US makes such a statement constitutes a significant paradigmatic change.
Thus, people who react to this prize by saying dismissively 'I have dreams too, I should have received that Nobel prize' completely underestimate the power and political relevance of words, especially when spoken by somebody in his position. But go ahead. Share your dreams, be optimistic, and be vulnerable. Who knows, you might get that prize one day.
I'm not saying he is infallable. Nobody is. He is the most powerful person in the world - of course he will have to make choices that some people don't like. Of course he won't turn the US into a social-liberal paradise overnight. Of course he will have a hard time finding and staying on the Middle Way, when everyone's trying to push him in different directions. And of course he will make decisions and support policies that I personally disagree with (I do think he should be more critical of Netanyahu and his settler friends, for instance). But nonetheless, the zeal with which he has advocated his ideals of religious tolerance, peaceful co-existence and nuclear non-proliferation, and the tentative move towards a paradigm shift in American foreign policy that he seems to have established, do seem like a great achievement to me.
I don't know whether he deserves that prize or not. I don't know the conditions, I don't have the information the insiders have. I'm not a crew member of the ship. But as a passenger (one who sometimes wonders where the ship is going) I'm happy he got it. I find his words and ideas personally inspiring, I share his naïve hope for more and better understanding and the overcoming of prejudices, and I hope he will make a contribution to the fight against climate change. He's not the Saviour, and there are many things he won't be able to achieve - but he is a visionary, with a powerful message. I like visionaries. And I like the fact that the Nobel prize committee had the courage to award to prize to a beginning president, who may succeed, but who may also become disillusioned and fail. In any case, it is a brave and significant political act of support.
Good luck, Mr. President. You've only just begun.