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Why not a Nobel for Western dissidents?

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

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.

Reader Comments (5)

Hey danps.
As a Scandinavian – and due to the closer proximity, also more knowledgeable of the Nobel Prizes – is there a law to that effect, I wonder? ;) – I have a couple of comments to your post, which I first read at Corrente.

The various Nobel Prizes are decided by d i f f e r e n t institutions.

•Physics and Chemistry by The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
•Physiology or Medicine by The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet.
•Literature by The Swedish Academy, 'De Aderton' (The Eighteen.)
The Economic prize is established by the Sveriges Riksbank in m e m o r y of Alfred Nobel and not as such a Nobel Prize.
The above are all Swedish.

•The Nobel Peace Prize recipient is selected by a committee of five persons elected by the N o r w e g i a n Parliament.

So as for the Swedish prizes I'm not all that sure, that you can call the selection political, where as for the Peace Prize there's absolutely no doubt that it is political – and a way for the Norwegians to profile themselves. I could write a LOT about how I see the selection this and the previous year, but will spare you my rant! Let me only say that with four women in the committee I found and find it a p p a l i n g that they couldn't find a woman to receive the (once) prestigious prize.

As for Assange? Let's wait and see how the Swedish Director of Prosecution concludes after the (lengthy) investigation into the rape and sexual harassment accusations before we bestove more praise or prizes on him.

BTW – as I followed the US presidental election from early 2008 on US blogs, and was constantly amazed and appaled at what the "established media" reported, much of which was 'by courtesy of AP', I smile in a sort of bittersweet way when I see your sig-line. ;)

All the best,
Pia R.

October 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPia R.

Pia, thanks so much for the feedback. I have to start with this: I send out an email to some folks when my posts go up, and here is what I wrote about it this week:

Maybe some kind of internecine Scandinavian feud makes the Norway-based Nobel committee deeply reluctant to honor a Swede.
I meant that as completely facetious and wild conspiracy mongering. I've since had several folks inform me of the somewhat politicized nature of the selection process, and it's been very enlightening.

Assange is admirable for his work with WikiLeaks, and I think it deserves to be evaluated on those merits alone. He may well be flawed in other respects, but we usually don't get heroes sent out of central casting. Even if the worst of the rumors swirling around him are true, he still has rendered valuable service through WikiLeaks and deserves recognition for it.

Glad you like the tag line. A few years ago they went after a tiny blogger for infringement and still claim to be entitled to pay for excerpts as little as four words. While I think its Washington bureau is pretty weak at times, my disclaimer has more to due with making sure I'm not the next fly they try to swat than concerns about shoddy reporting. That's just a happy coincidence.

October 16, 2010 | Registered CommenterDan

Great article.

Another candidate, besides WikiLeaks, would be Sibel Edmonds, or Ray McGovern/Coleen Rowley/Col Ann Wright, and all the other courageous whistleblowers in the U.S. government.

October 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTruth Excavator

Dan you might want to read this article from FP. The URL is very long so I made it into a "preview" tinyURL:

Also, about this year's choice, in an interview the Chairman of the NPP Committee talked at l e n g t h about how China better get used to being criticized! It's as if the fact that Chinese government representatives warned the Committee in advance NOT to give the prize to Liu, made them do just that. But not in a David vs Goliath kind of way, more like the little mouse believing itself to be a big elephant.

So maybe if you want the prize to go to an American in the future you better get someone important to pester the committee with warnings NOT to do so, heh.

About the reason for your tag line, lol! I'll now see it both your way … and mine. Still like it. ;)

October 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPia R.

Thanks for the FP link Pia - good read! Interesting context on this year's award too. Please drop by any time for more enlightenment!

October 17, 2010 | Registered CommenterDan

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