Friday, October 9, 2009

Obama Winning the Noble Peace Prize: it is No Joke

Earlier this morning, a friend of mine sent me an email:

Did you hear about President Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize? So far, I approve of Obama in general, but really, it's like awarding the prize in biology to SETI because, "Well, sure, there haven't been any results yet, but they might at some point."

I assumed that this was some sort of joke that I had missed the punch-line for. Just to be certain I did a search and lo and behold it was real and not even something out of the Onion. Now Obama can join Yasser Arafat, Al Gore and Jimmy Carter in making this an absolutely worthless prize. One can only imagine what was going through the minds of the committee: “We are sorry you did not get the Olympics. Would a Noble Prize make you feel better?” This actually hurts Obama because it plays into the right wing stereotype of liberal elites of the world just waiting to kiss his feet, making Obama look even more ridiculous. I have nothing against Obama. I did not vote for him and oppose his politics but I find him to be likeable personally. He could make for a fine regular president if everyone agreed to stop making something historic out of him. Even his supporters have to agree that Obama has done nothing yet. He has not even pulled us out of Iraq and Afghanistan. He has not even made a serious attempt yet at bringing an end to the Palestinian conflict. I believe that Obama is smart enough and charismatic enough to do great things in this world and it would not shock me if, after serving two terms, he managed to do something that did deserve a peace prize. Now he will never get the chance.

As someone who long since lost faith in the value of the Noble Prize for many of its decisions in years past, I wish I would be able to cheer and say “see I told you so.” The problem is that I know that there are people in religious fundamentalist circles who are doing the same thing. One of the key elements of the Rabbi Avigdor Miller style polemic is to delegitimize secular authority, from politics, to literature, to science. Rabbi Miller was very open about this: “If you wish to know the value of the Nobel Prize awarded to a scientist for ‘discovering’ how the Universe began, then consider the Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to the writer of smutty Yiddish novels [Isaac Bashevis Singer]” (Awake my Glory pg. 108).

I am someone who is actively fighting the war against religious fundamentalism. This means not just writing polemics from afar to make me feel better about myself, but actually engaging those under the fundamentalist sway on a personal level in an effort to win hearts and minds. I am not sure to what extent this applies to other groups, but the religious fundamentalism of Haredim relies on a “great-men” model of authority. It builds up its leadership, gedolim, to an almost cult-like status. To reach out to Haredim it becomes important to build a counter edifice of great men. For me this means not just non-Haredi rabbis, but secular politicians, writers, thinkers, and scientists. The moment that one’s list of heroes includes those “outside the faith,” one will have to formulate a theology under which this can be accomplished. This means the end for any religious fundamentalist system that operates on the model of saying that “we, by definition, have the truth, we are right and everyone else is walking in darkness." Whether I like them or not, I need for there to be secular institutions like the Noble Prize award to serve as models of excellence. Now that the Noble Prize has sold itself out for partisan politics, I all the poorer for it.

1 comment:

Garnel Ironheart said...

Years ago a friend of mine went for the Rhodes scholarship and didn't get it. We were all stunned. This was a guy who got 101% in the courses he was weak in.

Then I started paying attention. Bill Clinton was a Rhodes scholar. Bob Rae, premier of Ontario from 1990-1995 and the most incompetent provincial leader ever, was a Rhodes scholar. The guy in my clinic group in med school who was a total jerk and would routinely steal other people's answers to make himself look good for the teaching clinician got it too.
Some prizes aren't worth having.