The Ignoble Nominees

Replicas of the Nobel Peace Prize inside the Nobelinstitutt building in Oslo, Norway.

This year, the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee reports that they have received 318 valid nominations for the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize. Per the committee’s standing rules, they will not publicly confirm, identify, or discuss any of these candidates for fifty years, a guideline that they likewise expect the wide range of nominating officials to honor. These stipulations, as well as details of the decision-making process itself, are clearly spelled out on the agency’s Web site. Even so, whenever the annual awards season nears, various parties begin to boast about their nominations and declaim the likelihood, pro or con, of their becoming one of the distinguished laureates. The prize itself becomes a political tool, an opportunity to promote self over society in ways that run counter to Nobel’s core ideals.

When Nobel envisioned the peace prize in his last will and testament, he established three criteria directly linked to the ongoing work of Bertha von Suttner and her contemporary pacifists: “fraternity between nations,” “the abolition and reduction of standing armies,” and “the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” Future Nobel wannabes can quickly estimate their eligibility by evaluating their own efforts toward these three goals. Not surprisingly, perhaps, many who outwardly crave such a high honor are often among the least deserving. Any male U.S. politician who brags about developing new weapons of mass destruction, for example, might just as well campaign for the title of highest-scoring female South American soccer star. Such behavior not only demonstrates both disregard and disrespect for Nobel’s clearly stated wishes; it demeans the efforts of legitimate peacemakers around the globe.

The Peace Prize decision-making process. Nominations must be made by February 1.

Still, critics continue to point out that none of the five Nobel awards has avoided controversy of some sort during their history. The achievements of female scientists, such as Marie Curie, have long been shadowed by male counterparts; theories based on racist assumptions, such as eugenics, have been discredited over time. Likewise, some peace prize laureates, despite showing good faith and promise in their initial peacemaking efforts, eventually failed in their efforts or fell back upon more violent solutions in response to events around them. One recent article by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic suggested that, because of this, the world should abandon the peace prize altogether, though this seems akin to shutting down an entire university after one or two scholarship recipients courted scandal after graduation, a common enough occurrence.

Most people around the world continue to anticipate the annual announcements of the Nobel awards as opportunities to restore our faith in humanity, especially in dark and dire times such as these. We look forward to hearing about new discoveries and initiatives in various fields that might, as Nobel envisioned, “confer the greatest benefit on mankind.” We reject nihilism and, instead, embrace the idealism of young peacemakers, such as Malala Yousafzi and Nadia Murad, whose enduring optimism helped them transform personal trauma into societal progress.

Personally, I welcome the announcement of a surprise laureate, someone who has toiled until now in relative silence and obscurity. The world stands ready to receive these new heroes, peace pioneers who inspire hope and progress and don’t tempt us down the dark path to cynicism. As historian Burton Feldman reflects in his book The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy, and Prestige: “The peace movement is dedicated to the greater good, not private glory.” The more pompous Nobel wannabes of the world would do well to remember that. 

(The charts above appear on the Web site of the Nobel Prize Organization, which you are encouraged to visit by clicking here.)

Symbolic Gestures

Kafka-as-pupil

Young Franz Kafka

Much has changed since my last post here, especially after the U.S. election last November. I’ve been tempted to comment on the many parallels between the daily news and the historical events I’ve been researching (among them terrorism in the early 1890s, anti-immigration and anti-Semitic policies of that day, the looming specter of doomsday devices, and even disputes over Venezuelan sovereignty).

At the same time, I’ve felt a greater urgency to complete the final chapters and not be overly distracted by all the hype and click-bait published in the media, both social and professional. On several occasions I’ve thought about Franz Kafka’s dispassionate and seemingly self-centered journal entry on the outbreak of World War I: “Germany has declared war on Russia. Went swimming in the afternoon.”

(Brief historical aside: Kafka’s spirit haunts me as I write this book, especially after I learned that Bertha von Suttner’s birthplace, the Kinsky Palace in Prague, was later converted into the grammar school that Kafka attended as a child. It now houses the Franz Kafka Bookshop. See http://www.prague.cz/kinsky-palace/ for more details.)

 

Prague_Palace_Kinsky_PC

The Kinsky Palace in Prague, birthplace of Bertha von Suttner and, later, the site of a grammar school attended by Franz Kafka

There’s a vast psychological distance between those two sentences in Kafka’s journal, and yet by now many of us are all too familiar with it, perhaps to the point of feeling overwhelmed and completely powerless in the face of current events. What can one single person do in this place and time to create a better future for our world? For some, the answer is to take to the streets with banners and placards, to spend hours arguing with legislators on the telephone, to post and repost fact-based articles detailing the most demanding issues of the day. For others, the answer is to persist and persevere along our chosen paths. “Stay in your lane,” advised the poet and journalist Ted Genoways, urging fellow writers to do what they do best: write. The benefits may not be realized in the short-term, especially for those of us working on epic-length novels, but we maintain faith in the positive, long-term effects.

In the meantime, we should look to our health as individuals and prepare ourselves for what promises to be a long-term challenge. When has this not been the case? Losing sleep, courting depression, indulging addictions: none of these helps with solutions.

The trend toward aggressive militarism in the United States, for example, didn’t begin with the contested election of Donald Trump, nor did the nation’s long-running struggle with racism and xenophobia. When I began writing this book years ago, these ugly and immoral aspects of American life were already deeply ingrained in our culture. Just compare how a 19th-century female pacifist like Bertha von Suttner would have responded to the wildly popular movie “Wonder Woman” and so many viewers’ claims that here, at last, was a positive role model for young women. To use a modern catch-phrase, “I can’t even.”

Today is the International Day of Peace, one of many symbolic annual events such as Earth Day that neatly package a grand idea into twenty four hours of observation. Many (like me, I’ll admit) will post a banner or meme on their Facebook walls before returning relatively unaffected to our daily work. Some, like the real wonder woman, Nobel Peace prize winner Malala Yousafzi, may continue to act on their beliefs in human goodness and progress, perhaps placing one brick atop another to construct a new and sturdy schoolhouse for young women in a war-ravaged nation. (More likely, Malala will be hunkered down in the library doing her homework after classes at Oxford University, continuing to improve herself even as she works to improve the world.)

 

Screen Shot 2017-09-02 at 5.02.37 PMSymbolic gestures such as International Peace Day remind us that the work of peace is varied and ongoing. Bertha von Suttner was a firm believer in the power of advertising and propaganda; in fact, these were among the primary goals of the many peace societies she helped to found throughout Europe. Together with other luminaries of the day, she helped craft a pin for society members to wear, something visible to promote the cause in public. “Peace is sought for by Justice,” the emblem read, reminding members of the ideology behind their movement. Today, we carry that idealism forward according to our individual gifts and talents. On days like International Peace Day, it’s worth pausing to consider what our efforts can achieve collectively.

So on this day, remind others that our labors for peace are ongoing and that we must continue to do what we can do. Read a newspaper to stay engaged. Volunteer to help a friend or neighbor in need. Share your hopes for a better world. Purchase a book to stay enlightened. And swim a few laps to stay healthy.