Rasma Says

Musings, deliberations, flashes of unaccounted for brilliance…

Eat Your Humble American Pie

In a country where the motto “Don’t think you’re any better than the rest of us” permeates the collective psyche, the greatest of all sins is arrogance. Even though local news commentators seem unable to say the name Barak Obama without prefacing it with the appellation “The Most Powerful Man in the World” it has been generally expected here that Mr. Obama would show up at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony as a thoroughly appreciative guest of honor at his own party.

As the big day approached, it did not seem that he was. One by one, gala events were crossed off Obama’s list. He declined lunch with the King, would not allow the press more than two questions, would not visit the exhibit honoring him at the Nobel Institute, and not make an appearance at the Children’s Peace Prize ceremony, all tradition doings by Peace Prize recipients. His hosts began to feel, well, snubbed. It was as if you were preparing a party in honor of someone who told you he was going to stick his head in the door and say Thanks Guys! before hurrying off to someplace he’d much rather be.

It was not an attitude that did the Nobel Peace Prize justice.

On the day of his Oslo appearance, Obama did not seem ungrateful or unappreciative, but he did come across as a reluctant honored guest. His reluctance may account for his downplaying the celebratory elements of the event. Throughout the day he repeated the sentiment with which he first received news of his appointment as a Nobel laureate: Who me? In answer to the single question he allowed from the Norwegian press (how would he use the money), Obama said he knows for a fact that there are other people more deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize. He does? Maybe he should have been advisor to the Nobel committee, which concluded there was no one more deserving than him. He went on to say that if and when his actions prove that he deserved it, the prize would be justified and the criticism of it would wane. If his actions bear no fruit, he said, then all the prizes in the world won’t disguise that fact.

Okay…

He also said that after listening to the Nobel Committee’s chairman introduction of himself, he was almost convinced that he deserved the prize. This comment, given while proposing a convivial toast over the fancy post-prize dinner, elicited a jovial response from the well-appointed audience. Hear, hear! Cheers! Skål!

Why are these people laughing? This was not polite self-deprecation, the sort that passes for humility in western society. No, I think Obama was being quite sincere, as well as playing on his talent for cheerful charm. If he can get them all to laugh about this prize thing, well, then it’s not such a big deal one way or the other is it?

It reminds me of my choir director putting her arms around me after our last concert and saying sotto voce, It could have been much worse! I was supposed to laugh and shake my head in agreement. Whoowee! We pulled it off, but boy, WE know we didn’t deserve that ovation!

I didn’t feel like laughing, because she wasn’t joking. She knew as well as anyone that the concert was not our finest moment. It was okay, but not a performance that will go on record as a measure of our standard. So why did we do it? Why did we not wait until we were ready to deliver the best concert we could? It’s a shallow victory to have gotten kudos we believe we didn’t deserve. It lessens our own sense of self-worth and reduces our respect for the audience, our ultimate judge.

No one respects a judge who is too easily impressed by mediocrity.

That’s the feeling I get listening to Obama’s somewhat embarrassed acceptance of the most prestigious prize in the world. All the self-deprecating jokes in the world won’t disguise the fact that he knows what we all suspect is true: maybe someone else should have gotten it. The situation calls for true humility, which takes strength of character and courage, not lame self-deprecating humor. If Mr. Obama indeed could think of more deserving recipients, the act that would have raised his esteem in the eyes of his enemies as well as his fans, would have been to decline the prize and say, You know what guys, I appreciate the gesture, I really do, but let’s say we give it to ___________.

He would have to fill in the blank. I don’t know who it would be, and apparently greater minds than mine don’t either. Perhaps the truth is what one commentator ominously grumbled: if no one has done more for world peace this year than Barak Obama, what does that tell us about the state of world peace?

I remember the year W.H. Auden announced there would be no recipient of the Yale Younger Poets Award. He found no book written by a poet under age thirty worthy, he said, so the prize would not be awarded. Cries of protest raged against the unfairness of his judgment, mostly by MFA students under age thirty, but many people felt that he upheld the standard of the award at the same time as he put a challenge before the literary community: write better, raise your standards, because the award would not sink its own.

History will show, I am quite sure, that during these days following 9-11-2001, the events leading up to WWIII were unfolding. How, the readers of that history will ask, did people not see it coming? Why, they will cry, did no one do anything? How, they will ponder, did The Most Powerful Man in the War-Mongering World, qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize? 

What were we thinking?

In 1983 I arranged to be smuggled into an Afghani refugee camp on the outskirts of Peshawar, Pakistan, on the border with Afghanistan. Why? The eyes of the world were there, focused on the brave rebels struggling in the dusty hills against the Great Satan occupying their country, the USSR. They were the mujihadeen, fighting with sticks and stones and American uzi machine guns to end Russian occupation of their country. They were under U.S. and U.N. protection. I had the opportunity, so I paid them a visit. It was an honor, a thrill. They were our heros. They were the Taliban.

Yes, THE Taliban.

And they were our allies, which mean they were fighting for peace. Then.

Obama is now sending 30,000 additional soldiers into Afghanistan to wrest control of that country away from the Taliban. His 30 minute audience with the Norwegian Prime Minister during his Nobel Peace Prize visit established Norwegian financial support for this effort. Norway has money, but very few soldiers. So far. They’re working on correcting that lack. They want to be part of the game when The World’s Most Powerful Man in the World wages war, backed by Nobel Peace Prize money, on The Most Dangerous Men in the World (Wanted: Dead or Alive!): the sons and grandsons of the men I drank tea with back in Peshawar, back when they were heros. Back when the Great Satan was the other superpower, the bad one.

Now it’s just us. Just the one superpower. So we must be good, right? If we call it peace making, then it’s not war, is it?

History will judge.

2 comments on “Eat Your Humble American Pie

  1. Martin Strand
    11/12/2009

    This is really an unique analysis. By that I mean that I haven't heard anyone else put it this way.

    I don't know if I agree about WWIII coming up, since that actually would need two hostile armies. Today, there aren't really that many, I think.

    However, I'm anxious about the sum of “small” conflicts, and the effects the anti-terror laws might have on fundamental liberties. Obama has so far tackled that first thing reasonably good, especially with his Cairo speech.

  2. I really do admire Obama for his intelligence and eloquence, and I am convinced of his utmost sincerity. I am just categorically opposed to military intervention of the sort we see in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what is right around the door in Iran. History repeats itself without fundamental lessons being learned. Such is the nature of man, alas.

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