when the dust clears

Words about and images of matters political, social, and military

The Nobel Committee’s concrete symbolism

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With friends and family I watched Senator Barack Obama accept the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination on TV in my 73-year-old mother’s living room. As I recall, I was the only Obama skeptic in the room. Whether by nature or nurture—most likely both—I have acquired a wariness of bandwagons and a deep mistrust of politicians. Being born into the Vietnam and Watergate years and into the era of crushed hopes that followed the seemingly back-to-back assassinations of visionary public servants—Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, the Kennedys, Malcolm X—probably has something to do with it.

“All governments are run by liars and nothing they say should be believed,” I.F. Stone famously said. There was plenty of evidence to support his maxim, in my view, and not much to refute it, so I believed him.

I am also a black American who is suspicious of identity politics—the “support the black man because he’s black” argument. I have a keen sense of history, and I recognize and celebrate the tremendous achievements of great Americans such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, A. Philip Randolph, and Bayard Rustin, but from what I have read and seen, one cannot discern leadership ability, intelligence, or integrity—or the absence of any of these—from a person’s skin color, though many folks have tried.

I liked Senator Obama but didn’t know him. I didn’t see a track record packed with visible achievements. Of course, by then I did see him as the smartest, most lucid, and “presidential” of all the candidates, and I planned to vote for him. But being a cynic and a journalist who’s more comfortable on the outside of the party looking in, literally—I’m a registered independent—than at the buffet table, I couldn’t work up the powerful enthusiasm I saw in my loved ones.

I said this to my mother as I prepared to leave her apartment. Frustration or surprise—I’m not sure which—flashed across her face before her expression settled into the familiar look of maternal forbearance that precedes a lecture. I set down my knapsack and braced myself.

“You have to understand what it’s like to be my age and witness….” She searched for words and gestured toward the TV, which was slowly filling with lip-flapping talking heads. “This…”

“I remember visiting Washington, DC, the nation’s capital, with my father. It would have been 1952.” They were on road trip from Queens, NY, to Mexico. “I saw a sign pointing to a water fountain. It said ‘Whites’ Only.’ There was another sign: ‘No Niggers or Dogs Allowed.’ I’ll never forget that,” my mother said.

A northern girl with a powerful sense of right and wrong—and a potentially dangerous naïveté—my mother drank from the fountain and then used the restroom. She recalls getting a fierce stare from an elderly white woman, but there were no other consequences for her transgression of the social order.

Earlier, just up the road in Baltimore, her father (my grandfather to be) made her dash into a diner to grab coffee and sandwiches. He was a strong and bitter man, a New York City police officer almost light-skinned enough to pass for white—emphasis on the “almost.” Rather than subject himself to the humiliation he knew was in store, he sent his daughter, who at 16 years old was too young to know that she was being used.

“I had brushed the stool next to a local cop who was eating. The minute my body touched the stool, his hand went to his gun,” she told me. “I was petrified. I didn’t see anything but the hand on the gun.” She backed out slowly.

“As a northerner, I didn’t suffer the full extent of Jim Crow,” my mother added. “I didn’t experience the depth of what southerners, particularly black men, did, but my recollections are still vivid.”

“I understand the symbolism,” I told her. She shook her head and cut me off. This isn’t just symbolism, she insisted. Obama, with the presidential nomination, at the podium surrounded by applauding Americans—this was real. “The word that comes to mind is ‘unbelievable.’ It seems unbelievable to me that someone black might be elected president.” This is history, her history and our nation’s history, being upended and remade.


The election is long over, but the surprising announcement that Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize brought me back to nomination day and this conversation with my mother.

The announcement of the award had a big impact on me, but the reaction and pundifying that followed hit me harder. Obama fans were, of course, thrilled. But folks on the right called it, among other things, “a farce.”

This current round of Obama bashing by the partisan chattering class and faux news media that amplify it was predictably reflexive. It has a familiar nativist undertone, and it is of a piece with the sustained, wholesale attack on the president—his policies, whether they are deviations from or continuations of Bush-era policies,  and his person. These pundits are absolutely mortified that Obama is laboring to disconnect U.S. policy from a wildly fantastic and needlessly belligerent zero-sum ideology and reconnect it to pragmatism and the reality of a fractious, volatile, yet in many ways still hopeful world.

But even I had mixed feelings about Obama’s Nobel. I agree with much of the substantive criticism made by people who know something about leadership. Lech Walesa says it’s premature. “He has achieved nothing. He’s stumbling. He hasn’t achieved any of his promises and nothing is working,” said Egyptian human rights activist Hisham Qasim. “He promised to close Guantánamo and now that’s not going to happen, and the Arab-Israeli conflict looks like it’s going to get very nasty.” Harsh words with large grains of truth.

The fact that President Obama inherited the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan doesn’t lessen my frustration and anger at the lack of clear policies, but it does put things into their necessary context—he’s struggling to pull us out of several deep and deadly holes dug by the previous administration. Even in the best-case scenario, “success” won’t mean grand resolutions to these monumental problems, but small progress toward better days, less loss of life, and eventual stability.

“Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future,” the Nobel Committee pronounced. “His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.”

On that day the committee spoke with one voice, but all was not perfectly hunky-dory in Oslo. There was some dissension in the ranks, said a story in Verdens Gang, the Norwegian daily, reported Reuters. Thorbjørn Jagland, the head of the Nobel Committee—the Labour Party president of parliament and the newly elected secretary general of the Council of Europe—pushed Obama. Kaci Kullmann Five, former leader of the Conservative Party and Inger-Marie Ytterhorn, a former member of parliament from the right-wing Progress Party, were against. Ågot Valle, from the Socialist Left Part (no need to describe which end of the political spectrum they’re coming from) also objected to the award because of Obama’s Afghanistan policy. But there was a circling of the wagons and Obama got the nod. Both Valle and Ytterhorn have since defended the decision. So has my mother. And so have I.

There are many women and men who have more concrete peacemaking achievements under their belts. Human Rights Watch identified some excellent candidates. Mathilde Muhindo, head of the Olame Center, a women’s rights NGO in the Democratic Republic of Congo, fights endemic violence against women. Also on HRW’s short list: Egyptian opposition leader Ayman Nour and Chinese dissidents Hu Jia, Gao Zhisheng, Chen Guangcheng, and the person who’d get my vote, the much-jailed Liu Xiaobo.

But the Nobel is about politics. The committee was sending signals and attempting to nudge toward meaningful, peaceful fruition what its members regard as positive beginnings. In a sense, Obama earned this Nobel in the way he won the presidency: by channeling the hopes and aspirations of those ignored under previous administrations; by speaking of diplomacy and cooperation rather than force, force, force; by ushering in a still largely symbolic but a new morning in America, where empathy isn’t a dirty word but a guiding principle.

Certainly, he has a long way to go to realize this promise. “As a Nobel laureate, President Obama has a special responsibility to speak up for activists jailed and persecuted for promoting human rights,” Ken Roth, Human Rights Watch’s executive director wrote on their website. “The president will honor his Nobel Prize when he puts a meaningful end to the debacle at Guantánamo by trying or releasing all of the prisoners held there.”

“The journey will be difficult. The road will be long,” the senator from Illinois said in the final moments of his nomination speech at the Democratic Convention. “I face this challenge with profound humility, and knowledge of my own limitations. But I also face it with limitless faith in the capacity of the American people. “

The president didn’t try to fool us. He didn’t tell us to go shopping. He didn’t say, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” In fact, he has allowed for disagreement, as messy as that is. More importantly, he has challenged us to assume our responsibilities as citizens. to participate in our democracy.  Perhaps this was the Nobel Committee’s implicit message, through Obama, to all Americans.


Written by bxpnyc

2009/10/18 at 12:49

One Response

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  1. Hmmm, I want to agree, but I am still not convinced. I want him to earn it. And I (think I) believe he will. But the grand thing for him to do would have been to ask the committee to hold on to it for a little while. Just for safekeeping while he works on it.

    Minna Skau

    2009/10/26 at 03:01

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