Who wants to be forever associated with the EU or Kissinger? No, as with Gandhi, the real honor is being ignored by Oslo
You have to love the Nobel peace prize committee. No, literally you do – I think it’s an international law or something. Yesterday, they opted against awarding their honour to one of the most obviously inspiring and extraordinary people of the age, 16-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, instead conferring it on the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Still, even Malala’s most passionate advocates will concede the committee’s decision is an improvement on last year’s brave nod to the European Union.
I’ve certainly got nothing against the entirely admirable OPCW – but then, most of us would tick the “strongly disagree” box as far as chemical weapons go. And despite the immensely valuable and successful job the organisation does, it is, you know, their job. The Nobel committee has awarded the prize to an international agency for being an international agency, and while that doesn’t quite constitute bonus-culture-gone-to-Oslo, it feels rather thin on inspiration.
Admittedly, it’s better than rewarding someone for what they might ideally end up doing, as seems to have happened with Barack Obama in 2009. But whenever some entity like the EU allows itself to be feted for performing what should be the duties of its office, I can’t help thinking of that famously edgy Chris Rock routine about the African American men who brag “about stuff a normal man just does”. “They’ll say something like, ‘yeah, well I take care of my kids’. You’re SUPPOSED to, you dumb motherfucker. ‘I ain’t never been to jail’. Whaddya want? A cookie? You’re not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectations-having motherfucker!”
And so with the EU or the leader of the free world accepting plaudits for promoting peace and diplomacy between nations. They’re SUPPOSED to promote peace and diplomacy between nations. Whadda they want? A prize?
Yes, seems to be the answer – just as Angelina Jolie has been thrilled to accept a staggering total of humanitarian awards, most inaugurated just for her, when those who toil at the coalface of the problems to which she gives attention between making movies will never be garlanded in a million years.
Of course, it could be worse. In 1996 Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta won the Nobel peace prize for what the committee called “their work towards a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor” – with the committee bizarrely missing the opportunity to add: “A conflict that, by the way, was a direct result of the actions of our Class of ’73 winner, Mr Henry Kissinger. Let’s keep it in the family, laureates!”
You would have thought the Kissinger win would have been the autoparodic act that rendered the prize a terminal joke, ushering in as it did a slightly unfair school of thought that says no politico’s trophy cabinet is compete unless they’ve done the double, and scooped both a Nobel peace prize and an invitation to The Hague.
Yet in the peace-giving west, the award remains significantly venerated – a testament, surely, to being a dynamite idea in principle (if you’ll forgive the cliched reference to Alfred Nobel’s other gift to the world) but a mostly damp squib in practice. Understandably, it is less revered in the sort of countries to which peace tends to be done.
As for Malala, shot not in the line of duty, but in the line of living her 15-year-old life – that ordeal and the thing of wonder she has turned it into were perhaps a little too peace-prizey to win the peace prize. It’s not the most enormous surprise. Thanks in large part to the committee making it so, the honour has long been seen as so political that damp-squibbery seems to be increasingly what is regarded as expedient. Perhaps the committee’s admiration for Malala was tempered by fretting that giving her the prize could see non-peaceful protests in Pakistan. Add to that its pretensions to nation-building and the rather woolly hope that this will persuade the likes of South Sudan and North Korea to sign up to the chemical weapons treaty, and the OPCW was a shoo-in.
That said, the lesson of Nobel history is that the peace prize committee occasionally finds ways round its most idiotic howlers. Gandhi never won the award – despite being nominated several times – in what is widely regarded as a bit of an oversight, considering he was a textbook case. Thus in 1989, when the prize went to the Dalai Lama, the committee declared that the award was “in part a tribute to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi” – a somewhat excruciating bit of tap-dancing that calls to mind those pontifical pillocks at the academy wheeling out Mr Sidney Poitier to get an honorary academy award in the same year Denzel Washington won best actor and Halle Berry best actress at the Oscars. One suspected a point was being made, though of course the lightness of touch was such that it was impossible to put one’s finger on it.
So perhaps, at some distant point in the future, the Nobel committee will find a crass way to play politics at the same time as giving a retroactive nod to Malala – unless she has become president of Pakistan: in which case she’ll finally be in the sort of day job that tends to catch their eye.