by Ken Feltman
It seldom happens that a premature shoot of genius ever arrives at maturity.
– Marcus Fabius Quintilian
Thanks to some too-clever Norwegians, President Barack Obama’s job just became harder. The odds that he will be taken less seriously in the United States just soared. These Nobel Peace Prize custodians, with the audacity of the witless, reportedly believed that they took yet another swipe at former President George W. Bush by awarding their prize to a largely untested and unformed American president whose primary qualification may be that he is not Bush.
They must have smiled at their skillfulness: Finally, this would teach the Americans what the world thought of Bush and what the world hoped for Obama, all in one award. Some Norwegian newspaper articles used words suggesting that the Nobel judges believe that Americans are not very sophisticated and, therefore, may not have understood the unspoken message in previous awards to former President Carter and former Vice President Gore. This time, they skipped the nuances and larded on the straight stuff. Obama got the Peace Prize for what they hope he will accomplish. Kind of like awarding the gold medal at the Olympics to a gifted runner who shows up at the starting line. Never mind actually running the race, just award the medal in Alice in Wonderland fashion.
No sweat and tears for the award-givers
These well-to-do Norwegians are not the only ones with a low opinion of Americans. Their opinion is shared by educated and well off Europeans across the continent and in such places as Columbia University, Hollywood and Vermont. It isn’t just Americans who are singled out: At two international conferences, Russians have told me that the United States and Russia have the advantage of being underestimated by Western Europeans.
The supercilious always babble:
- A Frenchman who claimed to have studied such things recently remarked to an American audience that the French use words meaning “uncultured” in describing Americans only slightly less than Americans used words suggesting “cultured” to describe the French.
- A well-born German friend once told me that when he first settled in the U.S., he expected a dearth of “intellectualism” but was pleasantly surprised.
- A Spaniard of high social standing recently suggested to a meeting of business executives from countries throughout the Western Hemisphere that Europe could provide badly needed “enlightened guidance” to “our colonies.”
Americans may not like these preconceived notions. But we can learn from them. One of the roles of the officious is to meddle and annoy.
The above-the-fray Norwegians seem not to know that they may have debased their award. In doing so, they may have debased past recipients and probably future recipients, too. Certainly, they have debased Obama among his fellow countrymen.
Obama was not the brunt of late-night television comics, not the target of jokes. His fellow citizens were guarded in their criticism because it could be mistaken for prejudice. Now, the jokes are everywhere. It’s okay to bash Obama because some Nordic socialites gave him a prize prematurely. Yes, they did say that they recognized his deficiency of accomplishments, but they suggested that he made the world feel good.
Do they honestly believe that Obama can compare with some previous Peace Prize recipients? Of course not. No one can stand with Mother Teresa. She ministered in dirt and disease and, worse, in the squaller beyond despair that is hopelessness. She ministered to the deranged, the dregs, the forgotten, the abandoned, the useless. She gave many the only rest and clean bed they ever had, the only hug, the only compliment.
Most of all, she gave them dignity. She made them feel human. Her selflessness is unmatched and, suddenly, because of a Nobel prize, people are comparing today’s Obama – not tomorrow’s Obama – with Mother Teresa. That isn’t fair to Obama but a few clueless Norwegians must not have considered that downside. Compared with Mother Teresa, Obama suffers from the arrogance of inexperience. Fortunately for all of us, everywhere, Obama is a faster learner than the Nobel Peace Prize crowd.
Nelson Mandela emerged from more than two and a half decades of cruel and unjust imprisonment with no malice, no thought of revenge. With his fellow South African recipient of the Peace Prize, Bishop Tutu, Mandela created a transition of power that stressed reconciliation in a country that was eager for settling scores. He brought a message of dignity to the oppressed and to the oppressors. He blamed no one. He brought them together. Compared with the gentleness of Mandela, Obama’s finger-pointing at those who disagree with his thinking is far less eloquent. Will this award bring a bit of humility with it? Probably.
Can the Nobel award-givers have believed that Obama has done as much as Martin Luther King? Can they have failed to understand that there is a difference between playing a good game and talking a good game? No, from the comfort of prosperity, they sip the sheltered life. They seem never to taste the bitterness of hunger, of loss, of despair. Their great fear is embodied in their remembrance of the great wars of the last century and they give their Peace Prize in an attempt to avoid the confrontations that can lead again to war. Thus, they have ignored candidates of merit to award a prize to a candidate of promise. To his credit, Obama recognizes and speaks about that.
Dukes do not emigrate
More than a few Americans seem to want to use the prize as an opportunity for a little Euro-bashing as well as Obama bashing. These commentators view the Nobel Peace Prize as a toy of today’s advice-giving Europeans, whom they see as the descendants of privilege who stayed behind. Dukes do not emigrate.
True, we Americans are descended from people who were so desperate that they risked death at sea and deprivation at their destination for the hope that they would not live their entire life with the pain of hunger in their bellies. We were wrenched from a fertile Africa and brought in chains to a hostile continent that would be tamed only through the forced labor of the enslaved and indentured. We were so abused in Asia that we were willing to endure a terrible voyage and worse discrimination to have a taste of self-determination, a job, a place to call own own in a hostile land.
We are the progeny of misfits and criminals who were cast out. We are survivors, but just barely. Today, the destitute and the idealistic still come here and struggle as each generation before has struggled. Our president is a product of that struggle. We know how hard we have made it for people of color to advance in our society. We admire Obama for what he has achieved. We want him to fulfill his promise and believe that he will – if left alone by do-gooders from around the globe.
Now, we fear that Obama cannot escape criticism and scrutiny: Will he measure up? Moreover, he is now the target of jokes as Americans try to alleviate an uncomfortable situation in their usual way – humor. But this humor is often tasteless and crude. That is not the award committee’s fault; That is our fault.
Promises to keep
Let’s face it: We admire Obama and have invested so much hope in him that we are protective. We do not want others to make his burden heavier, however well intentioned they may be. When we suspect that they are using Obama to send another message, we object. The Nobel folks have no ancestral heritage comparable to the common, desperate and demeaning heritage that is the legacy of most Americans and most Europeans as well. Now we Americans can learn and understand better how typical Europeans, usually with good humor, have adjusted to the idiosyncrasies of their privileged class. The difference for Americans is that our privileged class is smaller and less permanent.
The Nobel committee is asking Obama and Americans to do what no one can do – to lead the world to their ideal place. The president’s job was hard enough before the prize was awarded. The Peace Prize has been stripped of its gravity, of its dignity, and so has Obama.
Leave him alone. We have all learned something. Now, he has work to do.