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In recent years the Nobel committee has been willing to wade into controversies. A couple of years ago it awarded its economic prize to Paul Krugman, in what appeared to be a swipe at a sitting president and the still (inexplicably) dominant Chicago school of economics. Their selection reverberated politically as well; witness the various freakouts among conservative observers and commentators.
This year Nobel awarded the economics prize to Peter Diamond, thus making Richard Shelby look like a dumb hillbilly. By highlighting reflexive Republican opposition (one might say America has been Gop-blocked) the selection puts conservatives on the defensive. Considering the damage their royalist economic policies have wrought, this is a very good thing.
Their science awards have been political too. The 2007 award was another direct challenge to the American right, which even now continues to pretend the issue does not even exist. Considering the resolute ignorance of modern conservatives, awarding a science prize at all may be provocative.
That is what makes its Peace Prize awards somewhat curious. I remember reading years ago (I don’t remember the source) that it might be awarded to political leaders or activists just about anywhere, but only non-Western dissidents could win. Looking at the list from the past thirty years or so that certainly seems to hold up. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Dalai Lama and Oscar Arias Sánchez all have won for raising their voices against local governments, but no one in the West has.
In the same way some people were greatly agitated by calling those displaced by hurricane Katrina “refugees,” there may be a reluctance to refer to dissidents in our backyard. Such people only exist in other cultures, where foreign regimes use heavy handed tactics to suppress dissent. But the fact is, we stifle those we don’t want to hear, too. We do it with more subtlety - nothing as gauche as house arrest or imprisonment, thank you - but we unquestionably find ways to ostracize those who tell us things we do not want to hear.
One example of a Western dissident is Scott Ritter. Back when America’s leaders were nearly trembling with excitement at the prospect of launching a war of aggression, Ritter was one of a handful of well-placed voices raising legitimate questions. He consistently pointed out that Iraq most likely did not have WMD. For his efforts he was mercilessly attacked, made the target of a smear campaign and sneeringly mocked as suffering from Stockholm syndrome. Washington political and media elites turned on him, launching all manner of character assassination but never taking on the substance of his arguments.
It worked. He was (and remains) marginalized. For all the static Paul Krugman has gotten in challenging Milton Friedman’s acolytes, how much worse was it for Ritter? How much higher were the stakes, more uniform the opposition and more coordinated the attacks? By October 2002 Ritter had been making the argument for months that “we cannot go to war on guesswork, hypothesis and speculation.” How much would it have legitimized him to have won the Nobel Peace prize at that crucial moment?
Liu Xiaobo’s recent win of the prize brought this back to mind, because it looks somewhat timid. Right now America is engaged in a hot war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. People are getting killed there on a daily basis. Is there anyone trying to bring that war to an end? Someone being targeted by a smear campaign? Whose critics are not engaging on the facts? Who maybe could use the shot in the arm of good PR that a Nobel would bring? Of course there is: Julian Assange. His posting of video of an Apache helicopter attack in Iraq in 2007 gave the world an unvarnished look at what happens when America’s war machine goes wrong. Then he followed up with a massive document dump from Afghanistan. By the end of summer there was a precipitous drop in support for the war.
WikiLeaks seems partially responsible for that. Awarding the Nobel to Assange would certainly be controversial, but the committee has not shied from that elsewhere. If not Assange then some other thorn in the side of America’s war cheerleaders. It would probably not be any more welcome than Xiaobo’s win was to China, but isn’t that kind of the point? It seems that in this one area the committee has a blind spot, one that mitigates the good it can do. It has the reputation to be able to withstand some hostility from presumed allies. It would be nice to see them risk a little bit of that.