The Oslo Syndrome
Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World
reviewed by Bradley W. Anderson
The Nobel Peace Prize is perhaps the most sought-after award on the planet. Nobel laureates, by dint of being invited to Oslo to receive the laying on of hands by the prize's committee members, become gurus on the international scene, treated as though endowed with biblically proportioned gifts of prophecy and moral authority.
Jay Nordlinger's Peace, They Say is not just a history of the Nobel Peace Prize. It is also a chronicle of the modern peace movement, which has been characterized by both well-intentioned idealism and well-documented follies. In his account, Nordlinger details what the international community has found fashionable at any given time—who's up, who's down, what's in, what's out.
By including at least a short account of every laureate from the founding of the prize to the present time, he also puts the achievement of this award into a certain mildly skeptical context, since some laureates are clearly more worthy of being called peacemakers than others. There have been laureates who have worked effectively because they have seen the world and mankind as they actually are. On the other hand, there have been all too many utopian dreamers who were convinced, as Nordlinger puts it, that the world is in "a great transition phase," the end of which will see a world government, perfect order, and peace without end.
Memories of Christendom
In Nordlinger's narrative, we also catch glimpses of an earlier time when many still had cultural memories and ideals of a civilization then still known as Christendom. When John Mott, the American founder of the YMCA, won the Prize in 1946, the committee lauded him as "a tireless fighter in the service of Christ." In later years, one doesn't again hear such language from the committee, but one does occasionally hear uncomfortable words from the laureates themselves.
There was, for instance, Albert John Lutuli, Zulu leader of the African National Congress, who was the winner in 1960 for his nonviolent approach to attempting to end apartheid in South Africa. Standing in tribal dress (perhaps the only way to get away with saying such things even in those days), Lutuli said in his acceptance address that "as a Christian and patriot," he
There was also Mother Teresa, the 1979 winner for her lifetime of work in the slums of Calcutta, who doubtless caused many a listener's toes to curl with embarrassment when she stated that the "greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion."
The early years of the Nobel Peace Prize were filled with idealism—well-meaning but often naïve. Even after World War I's harsh call to reality, there was a resurgence in the conviction that nations could be talked, shamed, and cajoled into acting peacefully, and this objective was given an even greater sense of urgency by the conviction that Europe couldn't survive another war.
That peace workers could put an end to war proved to be as naïve a dream after World War I as it was before it, but even so, as Europe currently stares the possibility of cultural extinction in the face, one can't help but feel that they were indeed right about just how fragile the West really was—even if not in the ways they imagined.
There have been a few times when the Nobel Peace Prize rewarded genuine efforts to promote peace in the classic sense, such as the work done between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat in the Middle East. At other times, the prize was given in a way that promoted human liberty, such as the awards to Andre Sakharov and Lech Walesa, two men who helped relieve Cold War oppression.
As the years have gone by, however, and human nature has failed to change (much to the surprise and chagrin of the Nobel Committee and its admirers), the awards seem increasingly to be given with an eye toward promoting the award itself rather than the work supposedly celebrated. Like many things in celebrity culture, it is increasingly famous primarily for being famous. Everything from tree planting to global warming activism has been rewarded under the questionable banner of "peace."
Making Rock Stars
The story of the Nobel Peace Prize is more fascinating than its skeptics (present company included) might like to admit, and Nordlinger has written a highly readable account. He never fails to provide fascinating facts and anecdotes about even the best-known laureates, and he draws attention to the more obscure prize-winners, who are often more interesting than the famous ones.
What is next for the prize? Nordlinger (quite safely, one suspects) predicts that the definition of "peace" will expand to include new fashions. He mentions two in particular: animal rights and gay marriage. The latter in particular could bring Christian faith and morals into conflict with the Nobel Peace Prize in ways that haven't yet been seen.
This prize will doubtlessly continue to grab headlines and demonstrate a knack for creating rock stars out of just about any personage who is politically and culturally au courant. Given our own celebrity-besotted culture, it is perhaps too much to hope that America and her leaders will ever take their eyes off this particular prize.
Until then, it is useful to have dispassionate eyes turned onto the proceedings. This book by Jay Nordlinger carries out the much-needed task of putting the Nobel Peace Prize into some semblance of perspective. After all, the title of the book quotes the words of Jeremiah: "'Peace, peace,' they say. . . ." Unspoken is the prophet's clear-eyed prophetic assessment: "when there is no peace." •
Bradley W. Anderson writes from Billings, Montana.
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“The Oslo Syndrome” first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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