Friday, August 3, 2012

From the bookshelf: Peace, They Say -- by Jay Nordlinger

Update: Here is a link to my main review of this book in the journal Touchstone, that was published later (Jan 2013).

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With more than a century’s worth of laureates to choose from, Jay Nordlinger (a senior editor at National Review and music critic for The New Criterion) has said that some well-meaning friends advised him to write only about the interesting ones in Peace, They Say, his history of the Nobel Peace Prize. The trouble with that approach, he says, is that the laureates are all interesting – one doesn’t win “the most famous and controversial prize in the world” by having lived a boring life.

Besides an author’s understandable desire for completeness, however, one suspects that another reason for including at least a short account of every laureate from the founding of the Nobel Peace Prize at the dawn of the last century through the crowning farce of President Obama’s selection in 2009 (he was nominated shortly after taking office) was to put the achievement of this award into a certain mildly skeptical context, since the more deserving laureates stand out clearly from the crowd.

Nordlinger groups decades worth of Nobel Prize winners into chapters he calls “parades” (echoing the Oslo torchlight parade that is held in honor of the winning laureate,) interspersing these chapters with fascinating background material such as the actual nuts and bolts of the selection process, a biography of Alfred Nobel himself, reflections on why certain seemingly obvious candidates weren’t selected, and disquisitions on the meaning of the word “peace.” While all of the winners are indeed interesting, all too many prize winners are interesting in almost everything except for the real reasons they won the prize.

The most memorable highlights of the book are when a personality periodically breaks through the mind-numbing strings of organizers, activists, relief workers, and professional moralizers, arresting our attention with sheer (dare one say it?) manliness. One is Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian who won in 1922. He was a “scientist, explorer, athlete, professor, diplomat, executive, humanitarian,” and Nordlinger describes him as being a more accomplished Indiana Jones, with the additional quality of actually being real. He broke a world speed-skating record, charted the Arctic, was Norway’s first ambassador to Great Britain, curated the Bergen Museum, and engaged in a series of humanitarian missions around the globe at the request of the League of Nations, beginning with taking charge of repatriating hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war to their native lands after the Great War of 1914-1917.

Another is Ralph Bunche, a Detroit native who was a high school sports star and valedictorian, going on to UCLA on a basketball scholarship, where he was again a sports star and valedictorian. Then, on to Harvard and two graduate degrees -- all of this achieved by a black man living c. 1920 in a pre-affirmative action America. Bunche’s politics tended toward the radical in his early days, according to Nordlinger, but unlike so many radicals of his time, he had the awareness to recognize when organizations were controlled by the Communist Party and the good sense to avoid them. After serving in the American intelligence services during WWII, he went on to work for the State Department and then the U.N., where he found himself as the chief mediator between the newly-formed state of Israel and several neighboring Arab states. As with all such efforts in the Middle East, the resulting peace was short-lived, but Bunche stands out for the remarkableness of his personal story, irrespective of his personal politics or the transience of the achievements for which he received the Nobel.

Early winners of the Nobel Peace Prize tended to be idealistic sorts with great fondness for committees, associations, treaties, conferences, and arbitration. Their naïveté is almost touching, knowing what we do about the coming bloodbath that was the Great War, an event that flicked members of the peace movement away like so many fleas.

It is a bit embarrassing, really, to see the silly utopianism of American Secretary of State Frank Kellogg (the 1928 winner) who “outlawed war” with the Kellogg-Briand Pact– a document that in its bearing on reality resembles a court injunction to shut down the earth’s gravitational field. Such laureates were, however, acting at least in part in the spirit of Alfred Nobel, the founder of the prizes that still bear his name today, and who viewed war as the “horror of horrors.”

Nordlinger’s account of Nobel’s life is one of the most intriguing stories in the book, painting a much more complex portrait of the man than the commonly encountered one – namely, that he was a man who felt so guilty about inventing (and spending a lifetime manufacturing and selling) the dynamite that was used in arms-making that he established these prizes to relieve his sense of guilt. While this story fits modern liberal sensibilities and guilt-complexes, it isn’t true.

Nobel as Nordlinger portrays him is a man such as our own age seems unlikely to produce: a polymath and polyglot, deeply read in literature, an amateur but dedicated writer and translator – and all the while, a brilliant scientific inventor and entrepreneur and a hugely successful industrialist unashamed of his accomplishments and of the wealth he accumulated.

While Nordlinger conveys that Nobel’s political views were complex and sometimes contradictory, of interest is his observation that Nobel was “skeptical of democracy, and of the mob,” sentiments that would be abhorrent to those who control the Peace Prize today. Also contrary to the views of many of laureates, Nobel believed that demanding disarmament was “really only to make oneself ridiculous without doing anyone any good.” On one point, Nobel showed a certain prescience: he believed that once weapons became powerful and terrible enough, nations would be forced, out of self interest, to stop going to war. Nordlinger terms this a point of “innocence” on Nobel’s part, but in a sense Nobel was right. Once large stores of nuclear weapons were accumulated, direct war between great powers became a thing of the past. Traditional wars with guns and bullets largely took place on the periphery of the Cold War, and even afterwards wars between nuclear powers have been avoided.

The Prize has evolved into something highly political, and few things show this more clearly than the fact that the last three Democratic administrations contain Nobel laureates (Presidents Obama and Carter, and Vice President Gore.) The last award to someone in a Republican administration (given to Henry Kissinger in 1973 for his work in peace talks with North Vietnam) is, according to Nordlinger, the most unpopular in the history of the Peace Prize.

Perhaps an even greater source of irony is the fact that President George W. Bush, regardless of how history will view his tenure in office, managed to achieve a certain level of immortality in the world of the Nobel Peace Prize by being responsible, in whole or in part, for no fewer than 6 awards. The committee despised him so much that they seem to have been unable to resist giving awards that would be seen as a slap in Bush’s face.

The series of “anti-Bush” awards started with a sort of pre-emptive “warning” award after 9/11, with the run being interrupted only long enough to give the prize to a tree-planter in Kenya (2006) and a Third World “microloan” specialist (2008) -- awards that serve almost as comic relief from the otherwise tedious obsession with Bush during that decade. The awards to former VP Gore (2007) and to the newly-elected President Obama (2009) brought the art to new heights, combining anti-Bush animosity with specious grounds for being given the award (Mr. Gore for his global warming activism and Mr. Obama for not being Mr. Bush.)

Even someone skeptical about the value of the Nobel Peace Prize has to admit that the history of this award is fascinating, especially when presented in the way that Nordlinger does. He highlights obscure laureates who have been unjustly forgotten, and he shares anecdotes about even the best-known selections. In one instance, we learn that Lech Walesa may have owed his award to a handful of Polish protesters at the previous year’s ceremonies, accusing the Nobel Committee of being afraid of challenging the Soviets on anything. In another, he notes that the same committee that gave the award to Begin and Sadat wanted to include President Carter, who had helped broker the talks – but couldn’t, because no-one anywhere on the globe had nominated him.

Nordlinger’s predictions for where the Nobel Peace Prize will go from here tend toward more of the same, including new fashionable causes that will stretch even further what “peace” is, as defined by the committee. Even though skepticism is a subtext of the book, he unfailingly treats both Prize and laureates with the respect and decorum that is a trademark of Nordlinger’s writings. He has to be one of the few writers who could induce this reader to read and thoroughly enjoy a history of the Peace Prize.

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Note: There is a lot to say about this fine book. My main review (equally laudatory) of this book will be appearing in an upcoming issue of Touchstone magazine. I'll provide details when it appears -- a link if available, or a reprint on this website 90 days after it appears, as per that magazine's guidelines.

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