We usually care little for news of prizes—we refuse to watch the Academy Awards, for example, and we’re always hard-pressed to name the regining National Hockey League MVP. But we can’t help but take note of this morning’s news regarding our president’s newly minted Nobel laureate status. Talk about a topic sure to stay on people’s lips for days or weeks…
Much of the forthcoming chatter, of course, will center on whether or not President Obama deserves the prize. To us, however, the more interesting question is why the voting committee opted for such an unusual choice—a man who cannot be connected to a specific diplomatic or humanitarian achievement, but rather embodies the hope many have for the creation of a more harmonious international system. In that sense, we see Obama’s victory as echoing an even more controversial episode in Nobel history: the 1935 awarding of the Peace Prize to Carl von Ossietzky.
On the surface, Obama and Ossietzky would seem to have little in common: one is a pragmatic American politician, the other a pacifist (and tragically consumptive) German journalist. But the similarity comes in how the Nobel committee viewed their selection of these men—as acts of symbolism. And if you think we’re being derogatory in using that “S” word, think again—the 1935 presentation speech does a good job of explaining why symbolism matters:
But, many people ask, has Ossietzky really contributed so much to peace? Has he not become a symbol of the struggle for peace rather than its champion?
In my opinion this is not so. But even if it were, how great is the significance of the symbol in our life! In religion, in politics, in public affairs, in peace and war, we rally round symbols. We understand the power they hold over us. Moreover, as a rallying point, a symbol may well be preferable to a personality. Men can all too often be compared to the «hulder», the wicked Norwegian fairy, beautiful when looked at from the front, but hollow in the back. Such is not the case with the symbol because the symbol is born of an idea and is the bearer of an idea. It exists through the idea which first created it and reflects it faithfully and without distortion.
It also bears mentioning that Ossietzky’s victory was far more controversial than Obama’s can ever be—so controversial, in fact, that it led to a wholesale revamp of the voting rules, so that politics would be excised from the process.
Yet we’re a political species. And if one of our highest prizes remains infused with politics despite mighty efforts to the contrary, is that really the worst thing in the world?