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Nobel Hot Potato

October 13, 2009

Last Friday I woke up to the news that the Norwegians awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to President Barack Obama.  Confined to bed with the flu, I had plenty of time to watch the president’s public statement on the honor and respect paid him by that committee.  Apparently, he and I had the same initial reaction: “That’s odd,” and “This is an unwelcome hot potato,” neither of which he said, of course.

Since then, many commentators have spoken of the Nobel Committee being “tone deaf” and “naïve.”  The committee apparently had no idea that honoring Obama now with the Peace Prize could trouble his presidency and hand his opponents yet another stick with which to whip him.

Obama opponents on the right saw the prize as the Europeans giving the Bush administration a gratuitous poke in the eye rather than being an award to Obama (How, they declaimed, could a guy nine months in office and having done nothing get an award? Obviously, this is Bush bashing.)

Obama opponents in some peace and justice movements took it as premature – “Words aren’t enough; at least, wait ‘til he’s accomplished something for peace!”

Many seemed to worry that, if Obama has the Nobel Peace Prize now, he won’t have to work for it by actually getting out of Iraq, ending the U.S. war in Afghanistan, cobbling together a real Two State Solution between the Israelis and Palestinians, getting the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) ratified, and passing a real Climate and Energy Security Act.  Historian Howard Zinn posed the inconvenient question:  how does a guy in command of two wars get a peace prize?

Intended or not, the Norwegians handed Obama a political hot potato, as well as a coveted international award.

I thought Obama handled that hot potato with poise and grace. My first thought was: “Good for him. He accepted the prize not as an honor for accomplishments but as a call to action to build a new world for peace with justice.”  He didn’t seek the award, but he’ll try to use it for goals he’s set out.  Those goals include a world without nuclear weapons, and ratification of the CTBT is the next step on the way to that goal.  FCNL is hard at work for CTBT ratification.

On second thought, I wondered whether we U.S.-Americans are the ones who are “tone deaf” and “naïve.”  Were we able to hear the message from Norway?  No, we’re too busy expounding our off-the-cuff opinions to take time to listen, and, besides, who cares what those herring eating Norgies think?!

Actually, we in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) care.  In 1947, the Norwegians honored the war relief work of all Quakers, saying “It is through silent assistance from the nameless to the nameless that they have worked to promote the fraternity between nations cited in the will of Alfred Nobel.”  The Friends Service Council (London) and the American Friends Service Committee (Philadelphia) accepted that Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of all Friends.  As a recipient of the award, Friends have nominated others for the prize ever since.

No, Quakers didn’t nominate Barack Obama for the prize this year.  AFSC nominated a now 80 year old scholar of nonviolence, Gene Sharp.   He devoted more than 50 years to studying nonviolent action, documenting the strategies employed for nonviolent transformation, analyzing how they have operated, and making the results of his research accessible to the widest possible audience.  Thirty years ago, I toured him through some Ohio college campuses to speak about the potential of nonviolence for conducting conflict peacefully toward fruitful outcomes.

Why would the Nobel Committee select Barack Obama over a guy with a 50 year record for nonviolence?  I think the answer is pretty clear and makes good sense to an objective observer, but we U.S.-Americans are not objective observes.  We don’t see our country as others see us.  We probably can’t understand, for example, the Norwegians and the Kenyans who celebrate the announcement that Obama will get the Nobel Peace Prize.

Others—those abroad—have watched the growing militarization of the United States.  With the end of the Cold War, many thought that the global militarization would end.  Instead they watched each successive U.S. administration become more strident and arrogant, until the Americans …

* were threatening “full spectrum domination” of the world;

* were not only caught torturing human beings but heard justifying the torture;

* were engaged in a war of choice in Iraq that was based on fabricated intelligence and lies;

* were seen engaging in domestic spying on its own citizens;

* were creating “law free zones,” such as in Bagram and Guantanamo, where human beings—some children!—could disappear for years;

* were observed to be so mean spirited that they would scoff at concerns over millions of their own people having no health care;

* were turning their backs on their Enlightment roots and rejecting science, and

* were conducting finances and businesses without regard to ethics or integrity, wreaking the global economy.

For those abroad who had idolized America and feared the Soviet Union, the American Dream had morphed into the American Nightmare.  Many feared it might have no end.

What has been Obama’s accomplishment, then?  I suppose that from the view abroad, Obama got himself elected president of the United States and made a promise to end that nightmare. He led a movement of concerned people to stand up to the establishment and say that America needs to turn back to its better self.

In a sense, Obama’s election is seen abroad as the apotheosis of the long movements for civil rights, for international cooperation, for nuclear disarmament, and for human rights.  From abroad, Obama’s accomplishment – and the accomplishment of those who elected him – looks like a new captain of the ship of state taking the helm.

From abroad, Obama taking the White House looks like a huge achievement that promises a new direction.  For that, if we listen, we can hear others say to us that he deserves a first Nobel Peace Prize.  Also, just as FSC and AFSC accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for all Quakers, when President Obama accepts that prize, he accepts it for all who stood up to the dark side of American power and got  him elected.  In that sense, this Nobel is to the American progressive movements too.

Here at home, we tend to look ahead rather than behind.  If we looked behind, we might see Obama’s first nine months in office as what happens to a progressive movement when it takes power.  The forces for the status quo redouble their efforts, and the progressive movements relax.  The promised change gets stalled.  The president takes the heat.  We know that being elected president isn’t enough.  That’s just a first step.  Now, the real work begins to rescind bad past policy and to create good new policy.

People all over this country will have to organize and mobilize strong movements to demand that President Obama do what he was elected to do.  Congress, the Pentagon, the military industrial complex, the fossil fuel industries, and other entrenched interests are not going to take new directions just because he says so.

If we want a world free of nuclear weapons, then we have to make a compelling demand on the Senate to back President Obama’s call for Senate ratification of the CTBT. If we want an end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, then we will have to make a compelling demand on Congress to stop funding that military occupation.  If we want an end to the U.S. war in Afghanistan, then we will have to mobilize an effective lobby campaign to persuade Congress to stop funding that war.

What many of my colleagues in leadership positions have said of President Obama really applies to us: words don’t count; what counts is action.  Especially today, actions speak louder than words.  His hot potato is our hot potato, too.

So far, our community – what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “a coalition of conscience” – has been generating a lot of words but not a lot of lobbying.  We need a nationwide concert of action on Congress in support of those goals that President Obama names and that the Nobel Committee just endorsed.  We can start by taking action on Congress to stop funding the U.S. War in Afghanistan and on the Senate to ratify the CTBT now!

9 Comments
  1. Barb permalink
    October 13, 2009 3:14 pm

    take time to read the (linked) speech given by Nobel Committee when Quakers were awarded the Peace Prize in 1947. Worth the read!

  2. Tom Ewell permalink
    October 13, 2009 4:05 pm

    Thanks, Joe, for this wise and inspiring commentary. We do need not just to support Obama, we need to support our own often too easily silenced self that has to be reminded – perhaps daily! – that we CAN change our country and our world from a commitment of “full spectrum dominance” to one of cooperation and civil, humane society.

    I especially appreciated your comment that we need to do more direct lobbying with Congress – that words and analysis don’t influence on their own. What influences Congress (besides their financial backers!) are thoughtful, caring, persevering people across the country who engage the members of Congress, and especially their staff people, in encouraging and educating them to side with the effort to bring justice, peace and integrity to our people and our planet.
    This is ultimately the leadership role of FCNL, but it also ultimately the role of each of us if we are to have a vital and compassionate society and democracy.

  3. JEAN T HUESTON permalink
    October 13, 2009 4:50 pm

    For years I felt the behavioring of the UGLY AMERICANS.
    Can we finally enjoy the pride dreamed by caring and racional AMERICAN?
    YES WE CAN!

  4. Spencer Selander permalink
    October 14, 2009 6:55 am

    Those who thought electing Obama and a Democratic majority in Congress would fix everything were extremely naive – Bush didn’t rise to power in a vacuum, and the forces that led to that nightmare regime are still strong.

    All the political shift has done for progressives is provide entree to the halls of power; we now have greater ability to influence federal government actions and policies. Those who want peace and social justice to replace imperialism and militarism need to redouble their efforts, not rest on their laurels. We’ve only begun the process of changing course away from the military State to which we were so clearly headed.

    The Nobel Prize should be seen as a call to action not just to President Obama, but to all of us who hope to abolish the corporate/military dominance of our country.

  5. Marjorie E. Nelson permalink
    October 14, 2009 12:18 pm

    Thank you, Joe. You speak my mind.
    At last Friday night’s gathering of a Quaker Eights Potluck, I asked other Friends there what their reaction was to the announcement of Nobel Peace Prize. To a person, we all said our first reaction was surprise at what seemed to be a premature award. I then went on to share my second reaction. “Upon reflection,” I said, “I wonder, if once again, we Americans are isolated and unaware of the world’s reaction to Obama’s election. I remember how surprised and shocked I was in the mid-sixties when I travelled through Europe to see the extent and depth of anti-American feeling for our involvement in the Vietnam War. We were completely unaware of this in the U.S. Perhaps, today we are equally isolated from the impact of Obama being elected President.” Then one of the other Friends concurred, commenting that on his trip to Italy this summer he observed a wide-spread and profound admiration for President Obama and what he was already accomplishing.
    And I agree with you, that having cast a vote for Obama is not enough. We must continue to work for peace – through communication with our government and by our individual efforts.
    God Bless you; wish you a full recovery from the flu.
    Marjorie

  6. Joyce Shaffer permalink
    October 14, 2009 1:54 pm

    President Obama’s skill in organizing plans for the present and future problems faced by the U.S. is extraordinary. His personal presence in so many action-planning situations is what is crucial to implementing those well-thought-out plans. These qualities are precious right now for those who can see the the path as valuable beyond measure.

  7. Rod O'Shea permalink
    October 14, 2009 4:23 pm

    So many of the things you say speak my mind. However, shouldn’t we as Freinds “lobby” all the injustices of nations. Most of our writings are mirrors of what and how you describe here in this article.
    You never mentioned the actions of other nations who have a consistent record of bashing the US during the tenure of scores of presidents be they Bush, Clinton, Carter, Kennedy, Truman, FDR, Reagan, Bush Sr., Nixon, and further back beyond Wilson; religious groups including ours, who remain silent or cheer terrorist when they are released from Great Britian to Lybya; Islamic American Citizens are meekly heard if at all when horrendous acts are committed here and abroad….India, Indonesia, Australia, England, China, France, Germany, Spain and others who have felt their blood spilled; You use the bromide of Bush being the devil forgetting that the Nobel Prize was awarded to tyrants in the past. Your reporting of the issues have indeed a lot of company. Fro example, I saw time a time again in articles on Obana’s reward how Rev Martin King was awarded the peace prize for intergration in our country. He was in fact awarded it for his stand, which costs him his life, against the Vietnam War.

    I hear a constant stream of how awful we are as a culture pale when compared to the Society of Friends. It seems to me we could advance our leadings by giving balanced actions and reactions to events.

  8. October 17, 2009 1:19 am

    I agree that people outside our borders understand our national influence better than we do. During my international work in the mid-90s, I was fortunate in meeting peace and human rights advocates from every corner of the globe. I was sometimes overwhelmed by the harsh criticisms of the U.S., but I also began to see how much our social change movements have inspired many people, often the same ones who were tough critics. I learned that people from many countries – rich and poor – are amazed by our opportunities to organize and make change, and to re-invent ourselves and our communities.

    I’ve had it with people half-joking that they want to pass as Canadians when traveling overseas. They get it backwards. Those of us who are working to do the right thing, even in humble ways, are welcome around the world. During rough times in particular, we show a side of the U.S. that doesn’t often make the news.

    I just started to read Scottish comedian and late night talk show host Craig Ferguson’s book American on Purpose. I highly recommend the video of his talk show monologue on voting last year. It’s called “If you don’t vote, you’re a moron,” and it’s on YouTube.com. Sometimes it takes a recent immigrant to set the rest of us straight.

  9. November 14, 2012 4:29 pm

    ” The president also mentions that he was in charge of two wars when he received the peace prize in the first place. Undeterred by his constant jailing, Xiaobo took his political ideas to the Internet, which he called “God’s gift to China”. Earlier today, the Norwegian Nobel Committee declared Liu Xiaobo the winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.

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