Who cares who wins the Nobel Peace Prize?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Oct. 9 2009 5:59 PM

Who Cares Who Won the Nobel Peace Prize?

We pay far too much attention to the views of five obscure Norwegians.

Why did they give it to him? Does he deserve it? Should he have accepted it? Who should have gotten it instead? What would he say? The nation is speaking of nothing but President Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize. Here is a better question for us to ask ourselves: Why should we care?

Think about it: The Nobel Committee consists of five Norwegians, selected by the Norwegian parliament. In his will, Alfred Nobel, the Swedish dynamite tycoon who thought up this whole thing, specifically wanted Norwegians to choose the winner, apparently because Norwegians, being outside the European mainstream, would be less likely to be politically corrupt. The trouble is that Norwegians, being outside the European mainstream, are also more likely to be eccentric. Norway is a wonderful country, and Norwegians have some of the highest living standards in the world—thanks to their low numbers and their large deposits of oil and gas—but the last time I was there, I got into an argument with someone about which country was more evil: the United States or North Korea. This being a few years ago, at the height of the Bush terror, you can guess which side the Norwegian was on.

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Perhaps as a result of their eccentricity, the five Norwegians who choose the Nobel Peace Prize winner have made quite a few odd decisions over the years. Look at the most recent American winners. In what sense did Al Gore, whatever you think about his movie on global warming, fulfill the wishes of Alfred Nobel, who wanted his money to go to "to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses"? Jimmy Carter won in 2002, presumably for his skill in being an ex-president, though I'm not sure where he created any peace or reduced any standing armies. The Nobel Peace Prize, like all prizes, is a roll of the dice, and thus it sometimes goes to apparently deserving people—Martin Luther King won it, as did the Dalai Lama—but a lot of times it doesn't. Gandhi never won it, but Yasser Arafat did. Need I say more? Generally, the committee is accused of left-wing bias, and there is indeed something to that—although, of course, there is something profoundly left-wing about the very idea of promoting peace congresses in the first place. But sometimes the award decision seems not so much left-wing as strange. And there isn't much that is left-wing about Henry Kissinger, the 1973 laureate.

The same, I'm afraid, is true of the Nobel Prize in literature, which is selected by Swedish judges. Sweden is a larger and more cosmopolitan place than Norway. Nevertheless, almost without fail, the Nobel laureate turns out to be an obscure writer, usually European, whose works are hardly known outside of a few German-speaking and Germano-centric countries. (Exceptions are made for Frenchmen whose books are hardly known in English and Harold Pinter.) I'm afraid that is true of this year's winner, Herta Müller, fascinating though her life story seems to be. At least her subjects—totalitarianism, dictatorship—are more worthy than those of, say, Elfriede Jelinek, the 2004 Nobel laureate, who was infamous for her writings on sexual perversity. Once again, plenty of great writers win it. But Leo Tolstoy, for example, did not.

Presumably the enormous sums of money that go with these prizes explains some of their magic. So does the fact that they also go to scientists, though I gather that the process for selecting those laureates is almost as unpredictable. Of course, I am all in favor of randomly distributing large sums of money to hardworking writers, chemists, physicists, and even the occasional peace activist, particularly if they aren't rich and famous already. Why not? As long as the rest of us don't take the decision-making process of five Scandinavians too seriously.

AP Video: Obama Reacts to Winning Nobel Peace Prize

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