Facts, Fake News, and Fiction

15418395_10154138347379103_2426340092127106366_oThis past weekend, as the 2016 Nobel Prize winners received their awards on the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s (actual) death in 1896, the western world continued to grapple with a “post-truth” political landscape that threatens the very foundations of the laureates’ achievements: evidence-based research and discovery. In his introductory remarks, Carl-Henrik Heldin, chairman of the board of the Nobel Foundation, said, “The grim truth is that we can no longer take it for granted that people believe in science, facts, and knowledge.”

In my own explorations into the origins of the peace prize, I’ve been surprised at how often historical “facts” have been twisted and manipulated into false narratives, even in supposedly authoritative, academic texts. Take, for instance, this excerpt from the Encyclopedia Brittanica’s biographical entry on Nobel, which chronicles a bit of “fake news” concerning his (supposed) death in 1888:

The French newspapers reported Ludvig’s death but confused him with (his brother) Alfred, and one paper sported the headline “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead”). Perhaps Alfred Nobel established the prizes to avoid precisely the sort of posthumous reputation suggested by this premature obituary. (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alfred-Nobel)

nyt-early-obitI’ve found versions of this story repeated throughout my research, though neither I nor many of the historians who have studied Nobel’s life have been able to document or verify the headline quoted above. I have, however, been able to verify that the false obituary did appear in newspapers around the world, including in The New York Times (see right). In many instances, Nobel biographers draw a direct correlation between the mistaken obituary and his development of the peace prize, despite the fact that eight years (and at least two prior drafts of his last will and testament, neither of which included a peace prize) separate the two events.

Once we have the “merchant of death” story in mind, however, we start looking for other facts and details that support this intriguing (and admittedly entertaining) narrative. This is called confirmation bias: starting with a hypothesis and seeking out evidence that supports it rather than remaining objective and drawing one’s conclusions from the evidence itself. Sadly, we expect to find an abundance of confirmation bias in politics, but it’s doubly distressing to see it infiltrating academic texts. As a false correlation like the one above is referenced and footnoted throughout subsequent works, it becomes harder and harder for us to discern the “fake news” from the facts. Key words such as “perhaps” from the original encyclopedia entry have a way of disappearing in subsequent retellings.

As someone writing a fictionalized account of the origins of the peace prize, I’m tempted by some of the more dramatic and entertaining options available, such as suggestions of a romantic relationship between the two protagonists, Nobel and Bertha von Suttner. Fiction, however, prefers to revel in complexities, not settle for simplistic explanations. By extension, historical fiction insists upon careful research and analysis, with the central narrative(s) supported by both evidence and logic.

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Taken from a plaster cast of his face, Alfred Nobel’s “death mask” rests atop engraved lines from his last will and testament.

This isn’t always possible, especially when theorizing about what drove and distracted major and minor figures in the 19th century. Like a good detective, the historical fiction writer looks for probable cause, not merely plausible cause. The latter may attract a wider readership (by suggesting that Abraham Lincoln was a vampire hunter, for example), but it borders on being irresponsible. When you consider that the creators of “fake news” are, in fact, peddling this same sort of fiction, you can begin to appreciate the rising anxiety levels of already anxious writers today.

Fiction posing as fact is not a new phenomenon, nor is the eager gullibility of the general public. Literature may invite us as readers to “suspend our disbelief” when entering imagined worlds of the past, but readers should do so sparingly, and then only temporarily. Above all, we should continue to question and explore the topics that interest us and influence our lives beyond the final pages.

Some might protest that homework ends in adulthood, but that’s hardly true in any civilized society. Many farmers continue to research and practice new ways to improve their crop yields just as doctors constantly research and practice new life-saving procedures. Likewise, our civic duty demands a critical attentiveness to the present-day news and, as a kind of “healthy skepticism,” a steadfast desire to verify the truth of that news. This is the ongoing and absolutely vital kind of education promoted by both Nobel and Suttner throughout their lifetimes. Without it, we remain vulnerable to all manner of future horrors and atrocities, as Suttner herself warned right up until her own death—just days before the violent outbreak of World War I.

Response to a Demagogue

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General Georges Boulanger, who served for many years as France’s Minister of War

During this U.S. presidential election cycle, I’ve been working on a section of Peace at Last that features General Georges Boulanger, a handsome and charismatic French demagogue from the late 1800s who rallied the French public to take up arms against Germany in the hopes of avenging the nation’s prior defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. On election night in January of 1889, emboldened mobs took to the streets of Paris and exhorted Boulanger to seize control of the government and establish a new, populist, authoritarian regime. Instead, and quite unexpectedly, Boulanger chose to pass up the opportunity and spend the evening with his mistress.

Perhaps because of his businessman’s knowledge of each country’s military capabilities, Alfred Nobel strongly believed that Germany would have readily defeated France if Boulanger had initiated a second war between the nations. He also clearly understood the dangers of demagoguery and how a man such as Boulanger could incite and inflame the vengeful sentiments of the uneducated masses. A resident of Paris at the time, Nobel noted in a letter, “In former days, governments used to be more narrow-minded and aggressive than their subjects. Nowadays, it seems as though the governments endeavor to appease the idiotic passions of a public roused into hysteria by pernicious newspapers.”

In 1892, shortly after Nobel and Bertha von Suttner had discussed the idea of establishing a global prize for peacemakers, he shared his darkening cynicism about mankind in a letter to the Baroness. “A new tyranny—that from the lower strata—stirs in the darkness,” he wrote, “and one can hear its distant rumble.”

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Just months after the death of his mistress, General Boulanger went to her grave with a pistol in hand and took his own life.

In the United States, that rumble no longer sounds in the distance. Unlike France in the late 19th century, it appears that the demagogue will have his day. Though the origins of Donald Trump’s electoral appeal may differ somewhat from Boulanger’s, the parallels are hard to ignore: a sensationalist press, an ill-informed public, and a list of grievances that have remained unresolved for decades.

Throughout his final years, Nobel found it difficult to overcome the growing sense of despair and depression he felt on reading the daily news. To her credit, Suttner remained an uplifting influence in his life, nursing his wounded idealism despite the mounting evidence of bigotry, prejudice, and nationalism spreading throughout Europe. When he revised his will shortly before his death, Nobel finally followed through on his promise to fund the peace prize that he and Suttner had envisioned.

From a period of turmoil and adversity, then, at least one great and affirming good emerged. I remain hopeful that peace-affirming beliefs such as those embodied by both Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner will guide the world in its responses to the unfolding events of our own time.

The 2016 Nobel Peace Prize

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Juan Manuel Santos, President of Colombia and 2016 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

Congratulations to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who was named the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize laureate this morning for his efforts to end the long civil war in his country. The award comes shortly after a referendum on the peace agreement in Colombia failed by a slim margin among voters, but the members of the prize committee remained optimistic and expressed their hopes that the peace negotiations would continue toward an agreeable resolution for all parties involved.

Some critics have argued that because such an agreement has not yet been secured and ratified, the Peace Prize award is premature. This same argument has accompanied announcements in many previous years as well. It’s worth recalling that in an 1893 letter, Bertha von Suttner argued with Alfred Nobel over the nature of the yet-to-be-established peace prize after they had discussed the idea together in Zurich. She, too, saw the award not as a contest to be won or as recognition for a particular achievement but as a means of supporting and assisting ongoing efforts to establish a more just and peaceful word. She wrote, “What people who work for peace need most of all is not prizes. They need the means to allow them to work.”

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Outside the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway, on the morning of the 2016 Peace Prize announcement

In his will, Nobel advised that the peace prize should be awarded 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.” President Santos represents the peace-seeking idealism at the heart of Nobel’s bequest, especially as he works toward the dissolution and disarmament of rebel armies within his country.

As Santos and the psychologist Steven Pinker pointed out in an op-ed piece this past summer (see my previous post here), should he and his fellow Colombians succeed in their efforts to secure peace in their country, they will have brought an end to the last remaining armed conflict in the western hemisphere. They wrote, “Progress toward peace moves slowly and uncertainly, but it is propelled by determination, ingenuity and the will of millions — and by the realization that peace is not a utopian ideal but an eminently attainable outcome.”

Here’s hoping that this year’s Peace Prize will guide Colombia and all of the Americas toward that outcome.

Swords into Ploughshares

 

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“Let Us Beat Our Swords into Ploughshares,” a sculpture by Evgeny Vuchetich presented to the United Nations in 1959 and on display at its headquarters in New York City

God shall judge among the nations, and shall decide for many peoples: and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
—Isaiah 2:4

 

For decades now I’ve looked to the literary journal Ploughshares as a symbol of the positive influence that writing can have on establishing a more just and peaceful world. Derived from the biblical quote above, the publication’s name refers to the constructive and creative application of the tools crafted to help civilize the world, language and literature among them.

With that clearly in mind, I submitted the first excerpt from Peace at Last, a chapter entitled “Koppargruva,” to the editors in the hopes that it might find a meaningful home there. I’m ever so thankful that it has.

This conflation of good and evil, construction and destruction, haunted Alfred Nobel throughout his life and features prominently in this excerpt. His patented applications of explosives (nitroglycerin, dynamite, and gelignite most notable among them) led to incredible advances in the mining and railway industries and, in so doing, helped to transform the world at an unprecedented rate. However, military applications of the same technology, at first held at arm’s length by Nobel, caused death and destruction at similarly unprecedented levels.

Throughout his life, Nobel considered ways to balance the destructive power of his explosives with more constructive and unifying pursuits. Working together with Bertha von Suttner, he funded pacifist societies throughout Europe and eventually, also at her insistence, endowed the peace prize that now bears his name. For him, this represented one way to establish a more progressive and positive legacy despite society’s depiction of him as a “merchant of death.”

“Cannot swords be turned to ploughshares?” Ronald Reagan asked in his address to the 42d Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City nearly a century later. He continued, “Can we and all nations not live in peace? In our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all the members of humanity. Perhaps we need some outside, universal threat to make us recognize this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences world-wide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world. And yet, I ask you, is not an alien force already among us? What could be more alien than war and the threat of war?”

These questions and concerns, debated for centuries, still trouble society today. They can inspire us toward aspiration and optimism just as easily as they can lead us to despair and cynicism. They’re the motivation behind my devotion to Peace at Last, for in Alfred and Bertha I see both sword and ploughshare. They’re also at the core of the moral crisis depicted in “Koppargruva,” one of the early “Nobel” chapters from the book.

The Ploughshares “Solos” version of “Koppargruva” is now available directly from the Ploughshares Web site (https://www.pshares.org/solos/koppargruva-solo-52) and can also be purchased and downloaded via iBooks (Apple iTunes) and Kindle (amazon.com, where it’s a dollar more for some reason).

The title can also be found on kobo.com, where new registrants are frequently treated to an instant $5 credit. Might I suggest adding Bertha von Suttner’s Lay Down Your Arms ($2.99) to your cart along with “Koppargruva”? You’d still have two cents left to put toward another purchase…

“Koppargruva”

koppargruva6The first excerpt from the novel, “Koppargruva,” is now available for download as part of the Ploughshares “Solos” series. Here’s a slightly amended description from the journal’s Web site:

“Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite and inspiration for the Nobel Peace Prize, visited the United States twice. ‘Koppargruva,’ from Hugh Coyle’s forthcoming book Peace at Last, is a fictionalized account of one of those excursions. Dubbed a killer by American journalists because of recent accidental nitroglycerin blasts in Panama and San Francisco, Nobel faces his tarnished reputation head on while searching for any sliver of redemption.”

The Solo includes a question and answer section following the excerpt in which I discuss the evolution of this particular chapter as well as the novel itself.

In the days ahead, I’ll be posting more information about “Koppargruva” and explain why it means so much to have it appear in Ploughshares. I’ll also provide links for interested readers to download the book via various digital platforms, such as Amazon and iTunes, once they are available. For now, you can purchase and download a copy (suitable for either Kindle or iBooks) on the journal’s Web site here and/or subscribe to the entire “Solos” series of publications, which features ten titles per year: https://www.pshares.org/solos/koppargruva-solo-52

Feel free to send along any questions you might have about this particular chapter as well. I’d be happy to answer them as much as possible without giving away too many details and surprises from the rest of the book!

 

 

The Path Toward Peace

 

ADNBogotabigThe recipient(s) of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize will soon be announced (October 7), and this week’s news offered strong support for the negotiators who have solidified the Colombian peace treaty, which, if it stands, would mark the end to a war that has lasted nearly half a century. In addition, as Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos and Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker noted in a recent co-authored op-ed piece, the western hemisphere will have reached a more far-reaching milestone: “Today, there are no military governments in the Americas. No countries are fighting one another. And no governments are battling major insurgencies.”

This historic moment barely registered in the lists of most-shared news stories. Instead, countless doom-and-gloom fears and anxieties continued to dominate social media from nearly every point on the political sphere. Some of my most well-intentioned pacifist friends continue to bemoan the “fact” that our world is more violent and war-torn than ever before.

51t3xTY8DQLIn fact, the “facts” don’t support such pessimism and cynicism.

As Steven Pinker pointed out in his well-researched book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, “Violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.” Rather than recognize and build on this moment of hope and optimism, many have sought to rebut his claims and focus attention on recent horrific instances of terrorism or the loudest voices of hatred, contempt, and intolerance in our society. Some have also attempted to redefine the word “violence” to include a broader range of complaints and offenses that can justify their own dire perspectives.

I won’t take up those arguments here or attempt an explanation of why they persist in our culture despite evidence to the contrary. Truth be told, I struggle with these same issues every day in my own dark-leaning psyche. Regardless, I won’t allow the lure of negativity to detract from the hopes of a fully peaceful South America, especially not in this end-of-summer moment while the positive glow of the Rio Olympics still shines from Brazil.

I will, however, argue that we need to make such stories of peace more popular and share them more widely when they occur. To explain why, I offer this short yet inspirational excerpt from Pinker’s book: “Peace first became a popular sensation with the publication of two bestsellers. In 1889 the Austrian novelist Bertha von Suttner published a work of fiction called Die Waffen Nieder! (Lay Down Your Arms!), a first-person account of the gruesomeness of war. And in 1909 the British journalist Norman Angell published a pamphlet called Europe’s Optical Illusion, later expanded as The Great Illusion, which argued that war was economically futile.”die-waffen-nieder-072396855

I had never heard about Bertha von Suttner upon reading this, but I was greatly intrigued, and so I began doing some research into her life and works. Every book opens another, and this certainly held true here: Pinker’s book led me to seek out and open Suttner’s book, which led me to open up biographies of Alfred Nobel, which led me to begin writing my own historical novel, Peace at Last. This project seemed the most viable path to employ my own talents and interests in the hopes of promoting and perpetuating global peace.

Such a stance doesn’t come without its detractors, and the voices of yesteryear still echo too loudly today. As Pinker wrote, “For all its literary popularity, the antiwar movement seemed too idealistic at the time to be taken seriously by the political mainstream. Suttner was called ‘a gentle perfume of absurdity,’ and her German Peace Society ‘a comical sewing bee composed of sentimental aunts of both sexes.’ Angells’ friends told him to ‘avoid that stuff or you’ll be classed with cranks and faddists, with devotees of Higher Thought who go about in sandals and long beards, and live on nuts.’”1200x630bf

Nay-saying and name-calling is nothing new. The pessimists continue to challenge the idealists; those who seek to profit from war continue to rail against those who continue to point out the proven and vastly greater economic benefits of peace. Luckily for all of us, the trend over time continues toward peace. The news from South America this week supports that momentum, and so we should all celebrate the Colombians’ efforts and work with them toward preserving our newly war-free western hemisphere.

The Clinton Connection

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The Kurhaus Hotel in The Hague shortly after the First International Peace Conference. Hillary Clinton chose to stay here while visiting The Hague because she was a great admirer of Bertha von Suttner, who held many influential salons in the hotel. 

During a visit to The Hague in the Netherlands last June, my husband and I spent several nights at the beautiful seaside Kurhaus Hotel. There, during the late spring and early summer of 1899, Bertha von Suttner and her husband Artur had hosted frequent salons, to which they invited delegates and guests attending the International Peace Conference taking place in the city. Over a century later, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted on staying at the Kurhaus during a spring-time conference related to the situation in Afghanistan. According to Steven van Hoogstraten, a former director of the Carnegie Foundation, Clinton chose the hotel because she was a “great admirer” of Bertha von Suttner. Clearly, the secretary felt a strong connection to the first female Nobel Peace Prize winner and wished, however symbolically, to follow in her footsteps. One question, however, haunted us after our stay: would the appreciation have been mutual?

Because she was a woman, Bertha was not allowed to take part in the official proceedings of the First Hague Peace Conference.* Even so, having secured funding as a freelance journalist, she traveled to the Hague with high hopes for the event. On the opening day, she wrote in her private journal, “This is the first time since history began to be written that the representatives of the governments have come together to find a means for ‘securing a permanent, genuine peace’ for the world.”

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State representatives–men only–from many nations gathered at the First International Peace Conference in The Hague.

For Bertha, this meant substantive actions toward global disarmament and the formation of an international court of arbitration. Since she couldn’t participate directly in the conference’s daily discussions, she organized many end-of-day activities as a way of gathering information and, whenever possible, negotiating strongly in favor of reducing weapons production and decreasing military fortification throughout the world. Sadly, despite some small successes and concessions related to arbitration, the conference ultimately failed to live up to her expectations.

Like Bertha before her, Clinton held private meetings and small salons at the Kurhaus as part of her diplomatic mission. Unlike Bertha and her fellow pacifists, however, Clinton’s responses to international conflict often called for militaristic solutions and a substantial build-up of the weapons of war. During her tenure at the State Department, the administration negotiated a substantially larger number of arms sales than the Bush/Cheney administration had during its previous term.** Gun control, a controversial issue within the United States, obviously remains problematic on the international front as well. As such, Secretary of State Clinton’s approach to security and conflict resolution stood sharply at odds with Suttner’s core beliefs about disarmament.

Perhaps Clinton’s appreciation of Bertha related more to their roles as powerful women in traditionally male-dominated environments, and yet one would hope that the admiration didn’t stop short at gender identification. While Bertha applauded and supported various women’s issues of the day, such as suffrage and access to education, she placed the moral imperative of pacifism ahead of them and prioritized her efforts accordingly. In fact, she spent a great deal of energy trying to keep the philosophy of pacifism free from any simplistic male/female dichotomy. She was well aware that women could be just as militaristic as men. By the same logic, a man’s allegiance to the peace movement didn’t require or result in any sort of “feminization.”

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Today, a bust of Bertha von Suttner greets visitors in the main lobby of the Peace Palace in The Hague.

During her lifetime, Bertha’s dreams of disarmament and a “permanent, genuine” world peace would remain just that: distant dreams. Her pacifism was frequently mocked as idealistic, impractical, and unpatriotic. Criticism came from all quarters, causing her to respond, “The moral element has to penetrate all questions of politics. Only then can we win. … We must not become ‘practical politicians.’” (Letter to Alfred Fried, March 23, 1898)

With all this in mind, it’s easy to imagine that a meeting between Suttner and Clinton might have turned cool despite whatever high regard one held for the other. Bertha had already experienced firsthand the dismissive attitude of another female leader, Queen Wilhemina of the Netherlands, who, despite hosting the Peace Conference at her palace in The Hague, remained opposed to the pacifist agenda. Bertha described their encounter this way: “The young Queen, graciously smiling, asks me, just as she probably asks most of the others, if this is the first time I have ever visited The Hague and how I like it. I include in my reply my observation that my sojourn in Holland is made particularly happy by the greatness of the cause that brought me there. The gracious little sovereign nods at that but says nothing.”

NOTES:

* It’s worth pointing out that many international peace gatherings preceded The Hague Peace Conference, which was a “first” in that it brought together state representatives from foreign governments rather than members of the various peace congresses throughout the world. Women played a strong and active role in these congresses. In fact, Bertha was both founder and president of the Austrian peace society and served as vice-president of the international association that organized nearly-annual gatherings throughout Europe and the United States.

** For more details about these weapons sales agreements and links to State Department records, see this article in the International Business Times.