Obama as Nobel Laureate: To see ourselves as others see us

Posted 10 October 2009 by

One of the first things I heard today on Weekend Edition Saturday was Scott Simon’s essay “Gandhi, King, Walesa, Mandela—Obama?” The essay ends with this twist.

The president said yesterday, “I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who’ve been honored by this prize.” He deserves to be taken at his word.

That was a good twist of the words. Any writer would be happy to pull that off as cleanly as Simon did. From our perspective in the United States, Barack Obama had only been elected president of the United States when he was nominated for the Peace Laureate. While his election is a notable achievement in and of itself, the Nobel selection committee does not award a Peace Laureate on that alone, or else George W. Bush would be a Peace Laureate.

Simon starts his essay by mentioning one person that never received the Peace Laureate, Mohandas Gandhi. Good point. Although, records left by the selection committee shows it is not that simple.

In 1947, the selection committee feared showing favor to India over Pakistan during the wars resulting from India’s partition. Gandhi’s assassination in January 1948 was two days before the closing date for that year’s Nobel Peace Prize nominations. The committee did not award the Peace Laureate in 1948, saying there was “no suitable living candidate.” The Nobel website has a complete discussion about Gandhi not receiving the Peace Laureate.

Simon mentions Henry Kissinger receiving the Peace Laureate in 1973. He quotes Tom Lehrer, the satirist, saying “A world that gives Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize is beyond satire.”

It should be noted that Le Duc Tho was selected to receive the Peace Laureate with Henry Kissinger. Le Duc Tho said he couldn’t receive the Peace Laureate due to conditions in his country, and was not present to receive it. The Nobel website lists Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho as joint winners for 1973, even though Le Duc Tho was never presented with it. This remains the only time the Peace Laureate was refused.

During the essay, Simon gave me the visual image of a black hand reaching out to a white hand with the award of one Peace Laureate.

By the time Nelson Mandela and Frederik de Klerk shared the Nobel in 1993, Mr. Mandela had spent a third of his life jailed and banned, but accepted Mr. de Klerk’s hand to overturn the historic crime of apartheid.

Simon followed his South African example with one a bit more local.

Jane Addams won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, after spending 40 years helping to feed, teach and care for thousands of immigrants who built and enriched Chicago.

This example would speak powerfully to Simon, who comes from Chicago. Some of Simon’s genius is the way he takes Chicago history and make it speak as a universal to all of us as American history, a metaphor for our life together today.

Then, it hit me.

Addams did great work in Chicago, worthy of recognition. Even so, I did not zero in on Addams when reviewing the list of Peace Laureates like Simon did. Either Simon lacks perspective on Addams, I lack the personal connection to Addams, or there is a combination of the two. I suspect it is a combination of the two.

Many months ago I traded tweets with @nprscottsimon about Elijah Parish Lovejoy. Simon wanted suggestions for people from Illinois, living or dead, as possible replacements for governor. (I guess since death doesn’t remove the ability to vote in Illinois, it doesn’t remove the ability to be governor, either.) Being raised in St. Louis, I suggested Lovejoy, who is was a part of local history for me. Simon said didn’t know about Lovejoy, but was touched by this martyr for freedom of the press and the abolition of slavery.

I admit that I thought that the Nobel selection committee was a bit early in this award to Obama. But, I don’t have the same perspective as the committee. This is the same as the perspective I have towards Jane Addams, or Scott Simon has towards Elijah Lovejoy.

What is the Nobel selection committee perspective about the United States when it awards the Peace Laureate to an African American who becomes our president?

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