A Response to COVID-19

With the COVID-19 pandemic currently looming large in all our lives, it’s difficult to maintain focus on our normal workloads. In addition to practicing social distancing, observing quarantines, and sanitizing relentlessly, all extremely important responsibilities during this health crisis, we need to remain vigilant about the viral disinformation and pseudo-science that routinely infects social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The lives of our friends and family members may very well depend on it.

That’s why the following quote from Alfred Nobel has been on my mind lately: “To spread knowledge is to spread well-being. I mean general well-being, not individual prosperity, and with the arrival of such well-being, the greater part of the evil we have inherited from the dark ages will disappear. The advances in scientific research and its ever-expanding fields of interest arouse a hope in us that pernicious microbes, both those of the soul and body, will gradually be eradicated and that the only war humanity will wage in the future will be the war against these microbes.”

 (Note: The quote originally appeared in an early Nobel biography written by Henrik Schück, one of the first chairpersons of the Nobel Foundation’s Board of Directors. I have taken the liberty of adding the word “pernicious” to describe microbes in this translation, as the current English definition of “microbes” is broader and more neutral than the original application of the term.) 

French scientist Louis Pasteur, whose work in the 1800s validated the “germ theory” of disease by demonstrating the link between microbes and contagion

Nobel’s words resonate not only because of his enduring faith in science, but also because of his unique understanding of the dangerous gap that often exists between public and private interests. In nearly every endeavor, Nobel trusted science to provide a clear and rational solution to a specific problem. He valued facts and data over opinion and conjecture. His letters contain frequent diatribes against those who challenged his idealism, including politicians, lawyers, “quack” doctors, and even his closest, profit-minded business associates. Our often scattershot responses to the COVID-19 epidemic today would have appalled him, I’m sure. Would they have surprised him? Possibly, but mostly because he believed that, by now, humanity would have outgrown any lingering distrust of science. 

Such a distrust, which has grown epidemic in its own right here in the United States, represents one of the more sickening “microbes…of the soul” that Nobel mentions above. People with little or no knowledge of medicine and epidemiology spread untested rumors and proven fallacies about COVID-19, and for what purpose? Most often private interests. Some seek to address the growing psychological dissonance around their personal political affiliations; others hope to be applauded for performing public acts of altruism, however indirect or ill-conceived. The most selfish of all hope to make a quick profit or protect their existing investments from contagion.

Early plague doctors, outfitted in heavy coats and hats, filtered air through a beak-like prostheses to prevent exposure to the so-called “miasma” of disease.

“We do not yet know.” Throughout my reading about both Nobel’s life and the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve found these five simple and truthful words repeated by some of the most intelligent and compassionate people in history. They are humbling, true, and yet they have inspired explorers to venture into uncharted territories just as much as they have guided scientists toward examining previously inexplicable mysteries. Success was never guaranteed. In fact, as Nobel well knew, repeated failure would often precede the most significant discoveries. Some might have called this optimism. Nobel, whose melancholic nature leaned more toward pessimism, preferred to call it idealism. 

As Nobel said, “to spread knowledge is to spread well-being.” Diseases that once ravaged entire populations have been tamed and vanquished by scientific break-throughs, some of which provide the foundation for our current understanding of COVID-19. To accept and promote that knowledge is to reduce the global impact of the virus and save lives. To spread ignorance is to facilitate unwarranted fear and delusion. In too many instances, such disinformation leads to death.

Without scientific understanding, it was easy to envision disease as a specter from beyond against which the traditional weapons of war were powerless.

In these challenging times especially, the world needs to leave behind, once and for all, “the evil we have inherited from the dark ages,” including all the debunked snake-oil remedies and hero-worship mythologies that adulated military leaders over the medical professionals who continue to work so tirelessly to save lives and maintain the health of our civil societies. This is why Nobel chose to establish his prizes in the fields of science and pacifism. Therein lay his best hopes for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Therein, too, lies our strongest hope for the twenty-first.

Sweet Peace

The best part of historical research occurs when unexpected passions intersect. In today’s instance, it was peace-work and chocolate. 

While following various threads in multiple search engines, I came upon these candy wrappers from the French company Guérin-Boutron. The elite chocolatier, established in Paris in 1775, achieved notoriety throughout Europe for their colorful labels. At the turn of the 19th century, they produced a collection featuring 84 “Benefactors of Humanity.” Along with familiar notables such as Pythagoras, Hippocrates, Isaac Newton, and Galileo, the company also paid homage to both Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner for their contributions to the world.

As we enter the 2020s, it’s worth reflecting on which historical figures we might include on a similar series of collectible artwork. Likewise, we should identify and support those who might lead the world toward greater wisdom and harmony in the years ahead.

A Place at the Table

As friends and families around the United States gather together for their Thanksgiving dinners today, many (according to a plethora of trendy newspaper stories) dread the sort of political discussion that raises the risk of appetite loss and/or indigestion. I recall holidays at home with my own family and my mother’s requests that I refrain from bringing up subjects such as nuclear disarmament or gay rights at the table. She, too, would remain politely silent despite the antagonistic comments of others. One in particular, an offhand remark that doctors shouldn’t treat people with HIV/AIDS because they deserve to die, still burns in my heart.

“The Dinner Table” by Judy Chicago, 1979

With that in mind, my Thanksgiving morning this year was spent reading about Judy Chicago and the various women commemorated in her installation, “The Dinner Table.” This year marks the 40th anniversary of the masterpiece, widely regarded as a cornerstone of feminist art. When asked about what had inspired her, Chicago recalled an actual dinner party she had attended in 1974: “The men at the table were all professors,” she said, “and the women all had doctorates but weren’t professors. The women had all the talent, and they sat there silent while the men held forth.” 

The artist Judy Chicago

For centuries, women had no “place at the table” when it came to political discourse. Chicago’s imaginary banquet hall features a triangular table with 39 place settings for influential female figures. The contributions from an additional 999 women are honored with names inscribed on “The Heritage Floor.” These women, Bertha von Suttner among them, represent the foundations upon which feminist progress was built.

Though Bertha was invited to numerous international parliamentary conferences during her lifetime, she attended only as a guest, since governmental business was the nearly exclusive province of men. (Royalty allowed for some rare exceptions.) Likewise, in political discussions of the day, her viewpoints and ideas were often summarily dismissed solely because she was a woman. This explains why she, along with many other female writers of her time, used a gender-neutral pseudonym, “B. Oulotte,” when publishing her early political and philosophical essays. (Bertha’s nickname in the Suttner household was “Boulotte,” which roughly translates to “Fatty.”) For her landmark book The Machine Age, Bertha went by the name “Jemand,” the German word for “someone” or “anyone.” As she explained in her Memoirs: “I was afraid that if the book were signed with a woman’s name, it would not reach the readers for whom it was expressly designed, for in scientific circles there remains so much prejudice against the capacity of women as thinkers.” 

The International Congress of Women held in Den Haag, the Netherlands, in April of 1915

This Thanksgiving, we should feel grateful for the progress made over the past century, not only in women’s rights but in the rights of other previously silenced and marginalized peoples. Much hard work remains. Even so, our holiday dinner-table conversations can build upon that progress and inspire us to learn how the voices of yesterday helped to lift up our voices today.

What’s in a Name?

During the impeachment inquiries against the president of the United States of America, many spectators were confused by the various pronunciations of Kyiv (Kiev), the capital of Ukraine. As it turns out, most Americans rely on the Russian pronunciation over the native rendition. In a way, this comes as no surprise. Not only do foreigners frequently mispronounce international place names; in many instances, they spell the proper names of countries and cities in nearly unrecognizable ways, even when relying on a common alphabet. Endonyms (the names people and places use for themselves) no longer match exonyms (the names given to people and places by foreigners). (To see an interactive map of the world featuring country names in their original languages, click here.)

If we could take one definitive step toward respecting one another on this planet, might we not start by calling each other by our given names? 

World in Languages

Country names are one thing, but settling on universal names for bodies of water could prove to be a far greater challenge.

Local place names often reflect a region’s cultural history. For example, the names of many geographical features in the U.S., such as Lake Winnipesaukee and the Mississipi River, have deep roots in indigenous languages. Throughout history, however, colonizing forces around the globe imposed their own languages on subjugated nations, often ignoring long-standing nomenclature. Tribal power shifts within countries have also affected both the spelling and pronunciations of local names. The various exonyms for today’s Deutschland (Alemania in Spanish, Germany in English, Niemcy in Polish, Saksa in Finnish, Tyskland in Scandinavian languages) result from numerous geopolitical and linguistic shifts that took place over the region’s history.

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István Türr, also known as Stephan, Stefano, and Étienne.

On the personal level as well, the names of people often change dramatically in translation. That’s why I was called José in my high school language class, as there was no Spanish equivalent for Hugh. In her memoirs, Bertha von Suttner recalls greeting the chairman of the 1896 Budapest Peace Congress, the Hungarian General István Türr, with a sign that read “Wilkommen, Stephan Türr.” During the congress itself, the Italian delegation called Türr Stefano while the French representatives referred to him as Étienne. Would it have been so difficult for everyone to agree to call him by his given name, in his native language?

Apparently, such due respect might be more difficult than we imagine. Phonemes in some languages (i.e. the sounds that make up a given word) have no counterparts in others. In extreme instances, oral physiology has adapted to some sounds (or their absence) to such a degree that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to pronounce certain foreign words properly. Many people have difficulty saying my name properly, so much so that calls of “hey Hugh!” sound more like “hey you!” depending on the regional accent. That explains why, when I worked in a record shop, with loud music constantly playing in the background, I received the nickname Bert. I rarely looked up when someone across the store called my name.

Bertha and other 19th-century pacifists, including Alfred Nobel himself, regarded a universal language as one possible pathway toward peace. Even so, the developers of these languages, such as Volapük and the more recent Esperanto, faced nearly insurmountable challenges. Some historians claim that Martin Schleyer’s devotion to the umlaut doomed Volapük. It certainly opened his efforts up to ridicule, as this limerick from the Milwaukee Sentinel shows:

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Johann Martin Schleyer, the founder of the universal language Volapük

A charming young student of Grük
Once tried to acquire Volapük
But it sounded so bad
That her friends called her mad,
And she quit it in less than a wük.

The French author and caricaturist John Grand-Carteret, having described Bertha as “the apostle of peace and civilization,” proclaimed her work to represent “the feminine Volapük of the future, a language that…will permit the women of all countries to utter the cry, ‘Die Waffen Nieder!’” It wasn’t enough for women to raise their voices; they needed to modify their native languages (ironically called the “mother tongues” in English) to communicate their needs and desires more effectively as well. Even the German title of Bertha’s most popular book remains difficult to translate into English. Initial editions bore the clumsy title Ground Arms!, while subsequent versions were updated with Lay Down Your Arms! I’d suggest that Lower Your Weapons! is a more accurate translation, though it lacks the clear military reference of its predecessors.

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The emblem for the international language Volapük bears the inscription “One mankind, one language.”

Despite the clear challenges, it would serve humanity well to attempt the languages of others, if only in speaking the names of people and places. Doing so would not only show respect for others; it would further our continuing education about the rich array of languages and cultures around the world. It might also provide a necessary first step toward adopting a global language, one that might bring us all closer together rather than driving us farther and farther apart.

Introducing the Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize

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Nino Kalandarishvili holds up the inaugural Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize alongside Salome Adamia and Petra Keppler.

This spring, Nino Kalandarishvili became the first recipient of the Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize in Zugdidi, Georgia. The ceremony took place on the grounds of the Dadiani Palace, where Ekaterina Dadiani, the last Princess of Mingrelia, welcomed Bertha and her husband Artur immediately following their elopement from Vienna, Austria. Shunned by Artur’s disapproving parents, the Suttners would remain in Georgia for nine years. Forced to move from place to place, they relied on teaching and writing to avoid falling into abject poverty, a challenging contrast from their aristocratic backgrounds. 

While in the Caucasus region, Bertha and Artur witnessed growing tensions and conflicts between local residents, visiting expatriates, and the warring Turks and Russians. It’s entirely likely that the seeds of Bertha’s groundbreaking novel Lay Down Your Arms! first germinated in Georgian soil. With that in mind, Zugdidi provides a fitting venue for honoring peacemakers in our own time.

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Promotional materials for the prize include an image of the Dadiani Palace in Zugdidi.

Initiated by the Georgian youth group Trust for Peace, the Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize received international support from Zugdidi’s municipal government, the Austrian Embassy in Tblisi, the Bertha von Suttner Peace Institute of the Netherlands, the Women’s Network for Peace of Germany, and the youth welfare group Act for Transformation, also of Germany.

In her role as chair of the Institute for the Study of Nationalism and Conflicts (http://isnc.ge/), Nino Kalandarishvili has been actively promoting civil dialogue and mediation among numerous communities, both within and beyond national borders. Her bridge-building work brings her into constant contact with politicians and refugees, diplomats and activists. The inaugural Peace Prize recognizes the many ways in which her inspirational personality and professional perseverance contribute toward the success of her efforts toward conflict resolution. She personifies the stated goals of the Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize: “to honor the contribution of activists participating in peacemaking activities, to promote peaceful attitudes in society, and to engage young people in the process of building international trust and cooperation.” 

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The 2019 Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize

To learn more about the annual Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize and its sponsors, you can click on the links above as well as those listed on the “Resources” page.

On Brexit and the European Union

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With so much debate roiling around the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, I’ve found myself wondering, “If Brexit succeeds, should UK citizens be asked to forfeit their Nobel Peace Prize?”

The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize to the entire European Union in 2012, noting that “the work of the EU represents ‘fraternity between nations’ and amounts to a form of the ‘peace congresses’ to which Alfred Nobel refers as criteria for the Peace Prize in his 1895 will.”

Medal and diploma of the Nobel peace Prize

The 2012 Nobel Peace Prize medal and diploma, which honors the EU motto “United in Diversity.”

 

Nigel Farage, then leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), disagreed and called the decision “baffling.” He further claimed that the committe had dragged the award “into total disrepute.” Since then, Farage has continued to campaign vociferously against the idea of a united Europe, earning him the moniker “Mr. Brexit” from Donald Trump.

It’s worth noting that Farage began his career as a trader on the London Metal Exchange and that the UK was not one of the six founding members of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), which many consider to be the precursor to the European Union itself. Former Atlantic editor Robert Wright noted, “It’s possible that, had far-seeing leaders not in 1951 created the European Coal and Steel Community, and had this not led to a series of free trade agreements among European nations, economic nationalism would have started trade wars that led to real wars.”

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An engraving of Bertha von Suttner appeared on Austria’s 1,000 schilling note prior to the adoption of the Euro.

The ECSC formed after World War II as a result of the Paris Treaty, which intended to foster a new era of economic cooperation and supranationalism. (Please be careful not to read that last word as “supernationalism.” Supranationalism refers to an aggregate political entity above the level of state or country, not a claim that any one nation or empire is superior to others or has comic-book-style superpowers.) In his favorable response to the question “Did the European Union deserve a Nobel Peace Prize?” author Steven Pinker wrote, “The EU grew out of the European Coal and Steel Community, which was designed in 1950 to reduce the chances of a recrudescence of war between Germany and its neighbors. The rationale came right out of Immanuel Kant’s 1795 essay ‘Perpetual Peace’: democracy, free trade and an international community should discourage leaders from dragging their countries into war. More than half a century of Western European peace later, we can see that the architects of European economic unification had a point.”

In his essay, Kant argued that scientific reason and respect for the rule of law were prerequisites for the formation of a Völkerbund, or “union of nations.” While allowing that such a political entity might result in enhanced economic prosperity, his prime objective was to eliminate war as a means of settling disputes between nations. Though Darwin hadn’t yet been born, Kant saw a European confederation in evolutionary terms, part of a natural progression of human society and civilization.

 

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This sort of idealism sat well with Alfred Nobel and his fellow Enlightenment thinkers. It also inspired Bertha von Suttner and her fellow pacifists E.T. Moneta and S.J. Capper (himself a Brit) to propose “A Confederation of European States” back in 1892 at the International Peace Congress in Bern, Switzerland. “At the time the idea had not yet begun to be understood at all,” Bertha wrote in her memoirs. “It was generally confounded with the idea of the United States, that the North American pattern was being proscribed for Europe.”

Here, in full, is the Suttner/Capper/Moneta proposal:

“Whereas both the injury caused by armed peace and the danger that is ever threatening the whole of Europe from a possible great war have their basis in the condition of lawlessness in which the different states of Europe stand toward one another;

Whereas a confederation of European states, which would be desirable also in the interest of commercial relations of all countries, would do away with this condition of lawlessness and create permanent legal relations in Europe;

And finally, whereas such a confederation would in no wise impair the independence of the individual nations as regards their internal affairs, and therefore as regards their forms of governance;

The Congress invites the European peace societies and their adherents to exert themselves, as the highest aim or their propaganda, for the formation of a confederation of states on the basis of the solidarity of their interests. It moreover invites all the societies in the world, especially at the time of political elections, to draw attention to the necessity of a permanent congress of nations, to which every international question should be submitted, so that every conflict may be settled by law and not by force.”

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The 1892 International Peace Congress convened in Bern, Switzerland.

 

At the time, Europe had yet to endure the sort of “great war” that Suttner and her colleagues envisioned in 1892. Nations might have agreed with their proposed “European Confederation” in theory, but in practice, world leaders continued to promote military tradition and to finance standing armies, favoring costly force over the rule of moral law in settling international conflicts. Peace remained the pipe dream of philosophers such as Kant, and, as the first of two world wars soon demonstrated, the world paid dearly for the oversight.

Today, some world leaders are once again stoking the furnaces of misguided patriotism and despotism, insisting on separatism and isolationism in place of cooperation and unification. Stubborn partisanship has replaced rational political discourse in both the public square and the chambers of government.

Shortly after the Nobel committee’s announcement in 2012, Wall Street Journal writer Simon Nixon remarked that the EU was “on the brink of failure.” With so much at stake, he considered the awarding of the Peace Prize to be an “inspired decision.” Like the Nobel Committee, citizens of the world today should continue to feel inspired and work to support and strengthen the European Union’s stated commitment to “the ideals of international unity, solidarity, and harmony“—with or without the United Kingdom.

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Notes on the Nobel Nomination Process

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The Nobel Institute in Oslo, Norway

Despite what you may have read in the news, the nomination and decision-making process for the Nobel Peace Prize is designed to be private, not public. In fact, the statutes of the Nobel Foundation insist that “neither the names of nominators nor of nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize may be divulged until fifty years have elapsed.” 

In other words, the very act of talking about nominating someone or claiming to be nominated for the prize may disqualify a candidate. Those who engage in such behavior are expressing an overt disregard for the established guidelines.  

This year (2019), the committee received 301 nominations for the prize. The record was 376 individuals and organizations in 2016. You can learn more details about the nomination and decision-making processes here: https://www.nobelprize.org/nomination/peace/ 

The Norwegian Nobel Committee (as well as the related committees in Stockholm, which administer all awards other than the peace prize) follows strict guidelines in determining who is worthy of the annual honor. These derive from Alfred Nobel’s intentions, as outlined in his last will and testament. Contrary to what some may believe, the prize was not developed with long-standing institutions or powerful politicians in mind. Nobel wrote that the peace prize should go to “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

Over the years, committee members have argued for broader interpretations of Nobel’s mandate. Some have noted that today’s peacemakers are hardly carbon copies of the award’s first intended recipient, Bertha von Suttner, whose primary focus was ending war via global disarmament. (You can read more about the disputes that erupted when Suttner was overlooked for the first few prizes in my previous post, “The Red Cross Controversy.”) Even so, any world leader who is currently expanding military budgets and promoting new weapons programs is likely to be quickly and easily dismissed as the committee prepares its short list and discusses the finalists.

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Kaci Five, former chairperson of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee

Finally, it’s worth noting that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee prefers the word “laureate,” not “winner,” to describe the recipients. The award, after all, is an honor, not part of a competition, despite what many would-be medalists may believe. When asked about other contenders for the prize in 2016, Kaci Five, then chairperson of the Peace Prize Committee (and, sadly, deceased now), kindly refused to name or discuss them. “The award is intended to focus attention solely on this year’s laureate,” she replied before once again citing the statutes: “Investigations and opinions concerning the award of a prize may not be divulged until at least fifty years have elapsed.” 

So, while we can all debate who should or should not be considered for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, don’t pay much attention to whatever claims you may read in the press. This year’s committee will convene behind closed doors and make its decision with the same three questions firmly in mind: Who has done the most to promote friendship and cooperation among nations? Who has done the most to eliminate or reduce armies and/or weapons stockpiles in the world? Who has done the most to bring people together to promote and work effectively toward global peace and unity? 

No matter what the committee’s final decision may be, we might all benefit from asking ourselves this related question: What have I done recently to promote the cause of peace in my part of the world?