Nobel Peace Prizes are awarded not in Stockholm but in Oslo, and so that is where this past Friday the 2004 winner, the Kenyan vice-minister for the environment Wangari Maathai, was the honored guest of the Norwegian royal family for her awards ceremony. Naturally, she was given the floor in Oslo’s City Hall, and made use of it to deliver various remarks, reported by among others Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Maathi [sic]: Africans Must Resolve Conflicts Themselves). The first African woman ever to win the prize, and at the same time the first environmentalist, whose organization is credited with planting more than 30 million trees on that continent, asserted in her remarks the tight relationship between conservation of the environment and conservation of peace. But ultimately, solutions for Africa’s many conflicts, and for its poverty, must come out of Africa itself. She also expressed her hope that her accomplishment inspire other African women and girls to fulfill their own potential.
The Berliner Morgenpost account (Nobel Prize for Peace to African Woman) added further interesting details. For the first time the awards ceremony there in Oslo featured African rhythms and dances. The 64-year-old Mrs. Maathai declared that “Industry and international institutions must understand that economic justice and ecological soundness are worth more than profit at any price,” and that “much still remains to leave a world full of beauty and wonder to our children.” (Oh, words of absolute music to the left-wing German audience to which the Berliner Morgenpost caters!)
I’m glad to see this coverage, as it offers me another chance that I missed back in October when all the Nobel prize-winners were announced – namely the chance to pronounce my own judgment on the Peace Prize search committee’s work, which is: “Not bad – but.”
Mrs. Maathai is OK, but clearly they could have done even better for what they were trying to do with their 2004 choice, perhaps if they had had better advisors. Like James G. Watt, for example, otherwise famous for his role in the 1980s as President Ronald Reagan’s rather controversial Secretary of the Interior. He was in fact forced into an early exit from that position in 1983, when he proudly informed the press that his staff contained “a black . . . a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent.”
NOT DISADVANTAGED ENOUGH
It looks from this vantage-point that Mr. Watt missed out on a good high-profile project to keep him busy during his retirement, one that would have offered him a much more gratifying outlet for the exercise of his skills. OK, so Ms. Maathai is female, black, African, and a noted tree-planter and environmental activist generally. But really, if they had just tried a little harder it’s hard to see how this year’s search committee and/or their consultants could not have gone further to find a woman of the same ilk but also afflicted by AIDS, say, and/or perhaps a quadriplegic, in her childhood laboriously making her way to school each day through the Kenyan savannah on a rough home-made cart, her push-stick in her teeth. And maybe also blind, as an extra-added bonus, guided on her journeys schoolward and back by her trusty mixed-breed mutt?
What is clear here is that a slightly renaming of Alfred Nobel’s famous “Nobel Peace [pron.: pees] Prize” is now in order to satisfy truth-in-content laws, namely to “Nobel PC [peesee] Prize” – together with a drastic decrease in how seriously anyone takes it. “Wangari Maathai?” I thought, when I first heard news of the award two months ago: “Who’s that?” (Me, along with a couple other billion people.) The more I found out about her subsequently – starting with the larger-than-usual effort just to get a handle on her name – the more it became clear that this was the year the Peace Prize committee was hell-bent to check off as many boxes on the politically-correct checklist as they possibly could with their chosen winner, and any relationship of the resulting award to the cause of actually furthering “peace” be damned.
HISTORICAL CONTEXT WOULD BE HANDY
The committee would have gone about its task much better by starting with one preliminary step: simply going back through the history of past Peace laureates to establish some sense of the true achievements attesting to the quality and dignity of past winners. Lech Walesa (1983), who stood up against a repressive Communist government; Mikhail Gorbachev (1990), who tempered the repressive nature of such Communist governments (fatally, as it turned out); Desmond Tutu (1984), outspoken critic of apartheid; Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk (1993), buriers of apartheid; and Kim Dae-Jung (2000), who survived long years of imprisonment in a police state to eventually emerge and lead that state into democracy. (The exact same thing can be said of Václav Havel; but no, he’s probably too European and too white to win this honor before he passes away.) And if there is no one out there of this calibre to be found in any given year, then simply don’t award any Peace Prize. That list of Peace laureates has notations for quite a few years reading something like “The prize money was allocated to the Special Fund of this prize section,” meaning “No Prize this year” – including years 1914 – 1916 (and 1918) and 1939 – 1943, which makes a heck of a lot of sense. (In the missing years there, the winner was rightly the International Committee of the Red Cross.)
But instead the historical standard for its awarding are lowered enough to find some winner each year, “Peace” becomes “PC,” and the “PC Prize” thereby has rather come to resemble the Noble Prize for Literature. Only those unwilling to think about the phenomenon very much can still believe that that is a prize for the world’s “best” current living writer; actually, true art of any kind simply does not lend itself to valid evaluation on the basis of naming the “best” or even compiling lists of “Top 40 hits.” (Or, if you persist in thinking that the “best” writers can indeed be named, and therefore should be crowned with the Prize, then just consider the many world-class authors which the Nobel committee never got around to honoring while they were still alive, e.g. Leo Tolstoi.) Rather, it is clear that, whatever its original aim, the Prize for Literature has morphed into what as a practical matter is a high-profile reader’s guide or pointer to good world authors that you might have missed. Ever hear before of this year’s winner, Austria’s Elfriede Jelinek? Me neither. And I know you never heard of Hungary’s Imre Kertész, the 2002 winner (by which I mean never heard of him before he won the award, but also likely since). Other winners: J.M. Coetzee (2003), V.S. Naipaul (2001), Günter Grass (1999) – OK, a little more well-known, but not by much. (Although I concede that 1993′s Toni Morrison is quite likely a favorite of Oprah’s Book Club, not that that necessarily figured in her winning the award.)
Generally, though, the Literature Nobel’s function is simply, in effect, “Hey there, here’s a great author/poet/dramatist you probably don’t know about, since he/she comes from some obscure place you probably couldn’t even locate on a map. Nonetheless, you really should try out some of his/her work in translation.” Given this, the implicit policy of the Literature search committee of trying to parcel the Prize out year-by-year on the basis of such criteria as which country’s (or at least region’s) “turn” it is to win it, whether there have been too many male winners lately so that it is now “time” for a female, and so on, is perfectly acceptable. We’re looking to these folks for handy literature tips, and so we want those tips to be widely varied from year to year. Having seen it awarded to an Austrian playwright this year, we would all surely be disappointed if next year the Prize went to too-similar an author. No, at least keep the Literature Prize out of Europe for 2005. Let some African writer win it, say; maybe a woman again – so many more men have won the Prize than women, you know – one who writes poignantly about the sad deterioration of the Dark Continent’s natural beauty in the face of onrushing globalization. Come to think of it: Wangari Maathai for the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature! That would be fine with me.
WHAT’S IN PEACE FASHION
But only if this were a trade-in arrangement involving the surrendering of her 2004 Peace Prize. Because the Peace Prize is not supposed to be like the Literature Prize. The Peace Prize is supposed to involve recognition of some absolute merit (i.e. not relative to whomever may have won the Prize before), some absolute courage – indeed, overwhelmingly courage of the political sort, performed on a truly historical scale, and if that happens to need to be recognized by awardees coming from the same continent two years in a row (or more), so be it. Thus, it’s awarding is not supposed to be susceptible to base calculations about “fairness” or whose “turn” it is to win it next. Not “supposed” to be; but with this year’s award to Africa’s own “Mary Appleseed,” together with last year’s to the female Iranian human-rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, it’s clear that Third World females are what’s “in” now. (Picking up again from the 1992 award.) And I’m sorry, but I won’t accept the lame equation of “environmental protection = peace” as legitimate in this context.
To be sure, the stature of the Peace Prize has already been under fire by many in the past because of its awarding to figures without previous personal histories that were particularly “peaceful,” and/or to figures who failed to go on and satisfactorily finish the “peace mission” for which they had somewhat prematurely received the Prize. Examples here are Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in 1973, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin in 1978, Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin in 1994, and John Hume and David Trimble in 1998.
And as for the idea of awarding the Prize in the cause of trees: Hey, I like trees as much as the next guy. I live in a neighborhood where a whole bunch of them live, too, and I’m even rather glad of that fact. Some of them are good friends. If you can get beyond their often-wooden personalities, you’ll find that most of them are well-rooted, upstanding members of the local community.
Anyway: It’s the Nobel Peace Prize I’m worried about, namely over how much longer we need even care about to whom it is awarded.