Friday, October 09, 2009

Prize Logic, Part One

So, have you heard about President Obama winning the Nobel Prize? If you'd suggested this to me yesterday, I wouldn't have believed it, let alone been able to put forth an argument for it, so I won't pretend it made intuitive sense when I woke up this morning.

I do think this prize makes more sense when you think about the nature of the Nobels for Peace, and for Literature, and understand how they work. If you think of the Nobels, or similar prizes, as straightforward and objective rewards for merit, then it seems obvious that Obama should continue paying his dues, and maybe the Middle East's dues, before it's his turn.

Of course, the Peace Prize, unlike the other Nobels, has never been about completed labors. It's not a gold watch for a retiree. They didn't wait for global warming to end to give the Prize to Gore. They didn't wait for Poland to free itself from Communism to give the Prize to Lech Walesa, who won in 1983. This is the twentieth anniversary of the 14th Dalai Lama winning the Prize; his homeland remains under Chinese rule. And the 1991 winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, is still under house arrest. The prize has always been for the struggles the recipient undertakes rather than the struggles they win. A prize that's about ending war forever has never been solely about results.

But the larger problem is that no award like the Nobel Peace Prize is or ever could be an objective recognition of merit. There is no way to assess the question objectively. (The Prize for Literature, like all arts prizes, faces the same question.) The Nobel Prize is not a box score. It is an action, taken by the committee.

That action does two things: it attempts to build up the prestige of the Prize itself, and it lends the Prize's accumulated prestige to the winners, as additional leverage in their struggles.

The first is less obvious, so I'll deal with it first, and save the second for another post. The Prize always seems to be a straightforward consecration of the winner by the Prize committee. But the Nobel, like any other prize, is only as prestigious as the list of previous winners make it. Sure, the Prize comes with 1.4 million dollars, and that's not hay. But if a bunch of rich donors started giving out a 3 million dollar prize ever year, and always ended up giving it to obscure state legislators with crank theories, the prize would never matter to anyone. The Nobel Peace Prize matters because Albert Schweitzer and Martin Luther King and Theodore Roosevelt and George C. Marshall won it. Has it gone to the occasional dud? Sure. It's impossible to get it right every time. But part of the Prize Committee's business is choosing recipients who will sustain and increase the prize's luster. In the long run, it's Dr. King and President Roosevelt and the Dalai Lama who make the prize big, more than it's the other way around.

(This, very clearly, is how the Prize for Literature works. Even if it's been given to a few second-raters over the years, the fact that it's gone to Yeats and Faulkner and Garcia Marquez makes it virtually impossible to refuse. And understanding the prize decisions are based on the attempt to promote the Prize's own future prestige makes those decisions easier to understand.)

The Prize Committee didn't just give Obama something. They also attempted to attach themselves to him, to make his stature and charisma part of the Prize going forward. (Ask not what the Nobel can do for you ....) It's an investment decision, although the investment is in symbolic capital. The committee invested the Prize's authority in President Obama, speculating that over time his historical profile would make that authority grow.

Giving the sixth Peace Prize to Theodore Roosevelt was probably one of the smartest investments the Peace Prize Committee ever made, associating the prize with a charismatic international statesman and a rising world power. The previous winners had been pacifists and international activists: worthy people, but with nothing like Roosevelt's clout or stature. Giving Roosevelt the Prize changed its nature, and increased its influence.

The Prize Committee's decision can be understood as a sign that it wants to grab onto Obama's coattails, and more importantly to associate itself with the United States and its international power, just as the 1906 Prize Committee did. Clearly, the committee does not imagine the United States as a power in decline. Rather, they seem excited about America returning to a position of world leadership. Obama gets the prize, I suspect, for coming back to the world table as Chairman of the Board, a position that Bush abdicated.

American leadership, American international diplomacy, American power is in again, and the Nobel Peace Prize Committee wants to buy in early. I think that's the best news I, as an American, can have.

More thoughts in the next post.

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