As a partial antidote to the Nobel news that the committee decided to cast a vote that made them feel good about themselves and their moral superiority rather than recognize people who have literally risked their lives for years to bring stability and peace to their part of the world, I offer up a photo essay from Big Picture on the Boston Globe web site:
"Earlier this week, 1.5 million people filled the streets of Berlin, Germany to watch a several-day performance by France's Royal de Luxe street theatre company titled "The Berlin Reunion". Part of the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Reunion show featured two massive marionettes, the Big Giant, a deep-sea diver, and his niece, the Little Giantess. The storyline of the performance has the two separated by a wall, thrown up by "land and sea monsters". The Big Giant has just returned from a long and difficult - but successful - expedition to destroy the wall, and now the two are walking the streets of Berlin, seeking each other after many years apart. "
The photo essay is spectacular. Take a few minutes to view it.
The reunion of Berlin, and the eventual reunion of Germany itself, was accomplished by ordinary people seizing a "moment of madness" (to cite my old professor Ari Zolberg's classic essay) to make the impossible real. I remember being crammed into a dorm room, watching a tiny TV with horrible reception showing people pounding away at the Wall with hammers, axes, steel bars, or just using their own hands, ripping down the will of the dictators that they should be a subject and sundered people. We passed around alcohol and screamed in delight every time someone whacked another chunk away or reached through a gap to embrace someone on the other side.
The next day, the school was in party mode. Every class held was about the Wall. Ari was grinning from ear to ear, and we teased him to tell how his essay explained this particular moment, which he did. Reagan had challenged Gorbachev to "tear down the wall", but it was the ordinary person who made it happen. What Gorbachev did do was refrain from doing anything, refusing (whether through principle or necessity is irrelevant) to send in force to quell the uprising. Action and inaction combined to create a world altering event.
I am, perhaps, not as dismayed as some over awarding the prize to Obama. The committee is composed of Whole Foods Nation types and their action says far more about their personal narcissism than it does about anything else. They selected their fantasy of making the world into their image through sheer cool awesomeness. The award itself has a checkered past. As Tom Lehrer wryly commented, awarding that prize to Henry Kissenger made political satire obsolete.
I also note that the actual people in the administration doing the hard work of peace - Clinton, Holbrooke, Mitchell, and the hundreds of State Department staff who don't get their names in the papers but who get the job done - are steadily giving me hope for an effective, humane and coherent US foreign policy. I add in the work done by Robert Gates and Jim Jones and their respective staffs, too. Their tasks are made more difficult by operators like Biden and McChrystal, who try to game policy through leaks and public posturing to force the President's hand and thwart the efforts of the policy team.
If Obama was politically savvy, he would have declined the award. In truth, it is a greater burden than a support*, setting expectations on situations like Afghanistan that won't be met because national interests and political ideals do not coincide, and adding another log to the fires of resentment against Obama for being The Precious; the object of obsessive desire by a sheltered, privileged, powerful socio-economic class and a person whose real world accomplishments are negligible compared to the hype that surrounds him. It would have served him better politically for the committee to have leaked that he had been nominated but declined. I am curious as to who submitted the nomination as it would have to have been done before he even took office. The nomination submission period closed two weeks after the inauguration, but a nomination is not just sending in a name. It involves a nomination package that takes some work to prepare and submit. The groundwork for the nomination came well before the inauguration. That piece of information could also become a political negative.
Overall, the award strikes me as a tone-deaf and politically stupid move on the part of the awards committee. It comes across as hubristic and self-indulgent. It talks to those already in agreement about the superdoublegood wonderfulness of Obama and distances those who are waiting to see tangible results. To the degree that it may complicate the actual work of the State Department, it is harmful.
It does not unify the sundered people.
*Contra the effect of the award for Al Gore, which provided greater legitimacy to his efforts as well as slapped the Bush/Cheney administration in the face.