On Brexit and the European Union

EU Brexit

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.”

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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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Confronting Sexual Violence

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Nadia Murad shares her stories of violence and her demand for justice at the Global Citizen festival.

Yesterday, the Norwegian Nobel Committee honored Nadia Murad of Iraq and Dr. Denis Mukwege of the Democratic Republic of the Congo with the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.” As both a victim and witness of rape, and female enslavement, Ms. Murad has spoken out around the world and raised awareness of this heinous aspect of the war against her community, the Yazidi people of northern Iraq. Dr. Mukwege has become famous throughout Africa for his role as “The Man Who Mends Women,” helping victims to overcome the physical and emotional trauma associated with sexual violence and genital mutilation.

Because men are the major perpetrators of sex crimes and their victims are mostly women, the world remains largely unaware of the scope and nature of this violence. Too often, media reports shy away from the gruesome details and sickening images. We ask how human beings can act in such depraved and amoral ways as if that negates their very occurrence. 

Critics of Bertha von Suttner’s novel Lay Down Your Arms! expressed concerns about the similarly graphic descriptions of war in its pages. Having conducted numerous interviews with soldiers and other witnesses of battlefield horrors, she chastised the “gentle reader” that we might otherwise associate with 19th-century literature. “Oh, away with your prudery! Away with your affected decorum!” she wrote in the book. “That is cruel ethics, I would have you know—cruel and cowardly. … This looking aside, with the physical and the spiritual eye, allows so much misery and injustice to persist. If only we had the courage to look steadily upon our fellow humans who are pining in pain and misery, along with the courage to reflect upon what we saw!”

Both Ms. Murad and Dr. Mukwege have witnessed such pain and misery first-hand. They have spoken out forcefully, sharing their stories while seeking reparations. For Ms. Murad, this means demanding justice for the Yazidis at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. For Dr. Mukwege, it means constructing hospitals, clinics, and legal centers in his homeland to help repair, both surgically and psychologically, the many victims of sexual violence.

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Dr. Denis Mukwege has provided critical medical services to victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence.

“This is the only way Yazidis will possibly be able to move on with our lives, mourn our dead, and try to rebuild what we lost,” Ms. Murad said of her efforts. “A trial tells the militants that the world in the twenty-first century is built in a way that values life and humanity above mere power and fear, and that not only are we capable of protecting the most vulnerable, but that we will, no matter what.”

Dr. Mukwege acknowledges the difficulties of empowering witnesses to testify against their victimizers, especially since sexual violence remains a taboo subject in many cultures. “The women we treat are only the tip of the iceberg because many of them are afraid to say they have been raped for fear of being rejected by their husbands,” he said. “We’ve found that when they are doing well physically, when they feel strong enough psychologically and when they are economically independent, that’s when women start seeking justice,” he added.

colin-np-5.jpgIt has been ten years since the UN Security Council adopted a resolution classifying sexual violence as both a war crime and a threat to international peace and security. The decision of this year’s Norwegian Nobel Committee serves to highlight that important and long-overdue decree and reminds us that, in times of both war and peace, Bertha’s calls for disarmament—and Alfred Nobel’s echo of her demand in creating the Peace Prize—can mean lowering one’s hands and fists along with laying down one’s guns and rifles.
You can read the full announcement from the Norwegian Nobel Committee here: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2018/press-release/

To read an interview with Nadia Murad:

https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/555106/the-last-girl-by-nadia-murad/

To read an interview with Denis Mukwege:

https://news.un.org/en/story/2016/03/524722-interview-fate-shaped-injustice-one-mans-mission-help-women-dr-congo

91Qwxx4XVyL._RI_To see “The Man Who Mends Women,” a documentary about Dr. Mukwege’s work:

http://mukwege-themovie.com

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…

A “Magnificent Blunder”

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Nobel’s writing desk at the Swedish Club in Paris, where he composed his final will in 1896

When he died in 1896, Alfred Nobel was one of the richest men in the world. People responded with both kudos and criticism when they learned that he had assigned much of his fortune to the establishment of various prizes. Hjalmar Branting, an emerging political leader in Sweden and editor of a Stockholm newspaper, praised the “magnificent intentions” of Nobel’s will but followed up his assessment with the headline “Magnificent Blunder.”

In his analysis, Branting attacked Nobel’s will on philosophical grounds, arguing that “the only road (to peace) is through a merger of the working masses in all countries.” In other words, peace was a goal for common and democratic endeavor, not something to be determined in autocratic fashion by a millionaire. Branting concluded his lengthy critique by saying, “A millionaire might personally be worthy of esteem, but it is better to avoid both the millions and the donations.”

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Hjalmar Branting, the “father” of Sweden’s social democracy

Even so, what else was Nobel to do with his fortune? A bachelor throughout his entire life, he had no sons or daughters of his own. His brothers (and, by extension, their families) had already filled their own coffers to overflowing as leaders in Europe’s growing oil industry. Despite their financial security, they launched one legal battle after another in the courts of several countries, eager (along with the tax collectors) to grab up their share of Nobel’s lingering millions.

In her memoirs, Bertha von Suttner wrote that Nobel felt it was “improper for rich men to leave their property to their relatives,” insisting that “he regarded great inheritances as a misfortune, for they have a paralyzing effect.” Branting would have agreed, arguing that fortunes passed down among family members could lead to a lazy class of men and women who had neither the need nor the motivation to work toward the common good. According to Suttner, Nobel believed that “great accumulations of property should go back to the community and common purposes,” toward “the renewed enrichment of the world.”

Even today, some of the wealthiest individuals in the world pick and choose their charities, endowing a favored few while leaving others to struggle. The so-called “billionaire class” may pick up the slack when and where governments falter, but they risk enabling and prolonging political weakness in the process, compromising the ideal role of government in general. As the “father” of social democracy in Sweden, Branting worked to empower the common, working-class citizen, favoring a “grass-roots” approach to politics over the growing influence of industrial (i.e. corporate) concerns. This may have put him at odds with Nobel’s intentions, but blunder or not, both men had their beliefs validated: The Nobel prizes were finally instituted in 1901, and Branting’s idealism and  achievements would earn him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1921.

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Alfred Nobel’s last will and testament