The Nobel Prize for Irony

by Derrick G. Jeter

Discovering intriguing ironies are one of the joys of studying history. The serendipities of times and events are a historian’s delight, even if the subject is not delightful. For example, it was ironic that Abraham Lincoln, who was seen as the savior of the Union and the savior of the black race from slavery, was assassinated on Good Friday, shot by an actor in a theater. It was ironic that the body of John F. Kennedy was being carried from the White House, placed on a cortege, marched to the Capitol to lay in state, while the body of his assassin was being carried out of the Dallas Police Department’s garage, after being fatally shot himself, placed in an ambulance, and rushed to the same hospital in which JFK received treatment for the gunshot wound that took his life.

Just recently, history has given us another irony. While not nearly as consequential as the assassinations of sitting United States Presidents—in fact, it’s almost downright silly—it does offers insights into human folly. I’m speaking of the Nobel Peace Prize that was award to Barack Obama on October 9, 2009.

Much tongue wagging has occurred over the surprise award and many have written about it. Some have commented on the premature nature of the award. What, after all, has Obama actually done—after only nine months in office—to bring about peace and receive the award? Almost everyone agrees, both on the political right and left that the answer is: clearly nothing. It used to be you actually had to accomplish something worthwhile to win an award as prestigious as the Nobel Peace Prize. Apparently, not any more. Others wrote about how awarding the prize to one who hasn’t literally done anything of note diminishes the prize. Fair enough, but the prize lost much of it luster in 1994 when the Nobel committee awarded the prize to Yasser Arafat. And still others worried that the prize could be seen as influence peddling, particularly on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and on climate change—meddling by liberal, elitist Europeans to persuade a liberal, elitist European-style American President to adopt a liberal, elitist European mindset in American foreign policy. I’m not so sure the Nobel Peace Prize is all that persuasive in this regard; it seems like its just preaching to the choir. While others cry foul and call it simply anti-Bush: “Obama won the prize because he isn’t George W. Bush.” That he isn’t. And then there are the wonkish types who either say the prize could turn into a political plus for Obama and America (especially if it gives him/us credibility in leveraging Russia and China on Iran’s nuclear ambitions), or be a political albatross (if it is seen like Obama is giving in to or agreeing with Europe’s naiveté about how the real world works, or it appears that he is continuing the “Apology Tour”).

I don’t want to trivialize the potential implications of the award, but I find the announcement of Obama as the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize Laureates ironic. The Saturday evening before the announcement Saturday Night Live performed a skit in which Obama was grading his accomplishments thus far. On global warming, gays in the military, immigration reform, limits on executive power, and torture prosecutions the total score was “Not Done.” Less than a week later, the Nobel committee awarded Obama the prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strength international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” The juxtaposition of the SNL skit and the language of the Nobel committee’s statement is rich—“Not Done” and “extraordinary efforts”; the two are oxymorons. Extraordinary efforts usually produce results, accomplishments, “dones,” not “Not Done[s].” The chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Thorbjørn Jagland took pains to justify the award by saying that Obama has “created a new international climate, [one in which he has] given hope for a better future [based on] values and attitudes shared by the majority of the world’s population.” In other words, Obama was awarded the prize for not being George W. Bush and for preaching hope of accomplishing some utopian vision that somehow encapsulates the majority of the world’s values and attitudes. Now that is an audacious hope if there every was one!

Obviously, to the committee, Obama is enlightened, and with his enlightenment the world will become more civil, and with our renewed civility we’ll become more tolerant of each others’ values and attitudes, and with our worldwide majority expressions of tolerance we can now engage in one giant group hug.

But the world is a big place, with many divergent peoples, religions, values, and attitudes. Yet, somehow (without actually doing anything in office), Obama has captured the hope and dreams of the majority of the world’s population. Ironic, isn’t it that the very day of the announcement he had a scheduled meeting with the cabinet to discuss whether more troops were needed in the war in Afghanistan? I wonder what the world’s values and attitudes are regarding American military power on display in a foreign country? To say nothing of the fact that the prize was for peace.

Oh, well. What are you going do? Let’s all gather round for a group hug, what’d ya say?