On Monday, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia and a recipient last year of the Nobel Peace Prize, came under fire for supportive remarks she made about her country's laws punishing homosexuality. Observers were understandably shocked that a politician recognized with such a well-known humanitarian award would demonize a minority facing increasing persecution in Africa, but her departure from liberal ethical standards is hardly uncharacteristic of Nobel Peace laureates. A cursory review of the Prize's history reveals a series of unfortunate selections, and the Norwegian Nobel Committee ought to acknowledge this farce and suspend itself indefinitely.
Take, for example, FDR's Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Hull received the Prize in 1945 for his role in founding the United Nations. Apparently, his assiduous efforts to enable the further extermination of the Jews were of little import to the Prize Committee. Another laureate, Woodrow Wilson (1920), took decidedly repugnant views on civil rights: Along with his fellow laureate Theodore Roosevelt (1906), he complained vociferously about the threat that "hyphenated Americans" posed to U.S. civil society. More recent offensive nominees have included the acknowledged extortionist Yasser Arafat (1994), the fabricator Rigoberta Menchú (1992), and the incompetent Mohamed ElBaradei (2005). Finally, the Committee mysteriously chose to nominate Barack Obama for the prize in 2009 after his having served as president for less than a year. You may know him as the man who made "drone" a household word.
Of course, the Committee has also made less controversial picks, including Martin Luther King, Jr. (1964), Elie Wiesel (1986), and Lech Walesa (1983). One wonders whether or not they would appreciate their Prizes in the context of their ignominious company, but more damning is the fact that other obvious candidates, including Mohandas Gandhi, Vaclav Havel, and Ken Saro-Wiwa somehow never made it. The Committee is evidently incompetent and, frankly, it's difficult to blame them: Playing God is hard, and given the hubbub that surrounds the Prize, you would expect that being nominated is akin to beatification. Surely, this burden is too much for both conferrer and conferee, and that assumes the Prize actually garners one an improved standard of living. In the case of Aung San Suu Kyi (1991), one can only hope that it didn't cause a paranoid junta to increase her time under house arrest.
Fortunately, the Nobel Committee can do something to end this pointless, harmful charade. In his will, Alfred Nobel also authorized prizes for Physics, Chemistry, and Physiology or Medicine. (The merit of the prize for Literature is debatable.) Achievements in these fields seem to lend themselves to material human progress: Those rewarded with Nobel prizes include the inventors of penicillin, the discoverers of background radiation in the universe, and inventors of new polymers. By contrast, the Peace Prize has been tarnished by political controversies and dashed hopes. Perhaps, given that the natural science prizes are awarded by Swedish academics while the Committee is composed of Norwegian politicians, the latter's outcome is inevitable. Let's celebrate those who have surely contributed to human welfare and relegate subjective calls to the political spheres that are both their natural habitat and their rightful place: The Committee should disband and nominate no more recipients of the Peace Prize.
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