This week Bernard Darnton wonders who’s the best, and hosts a Nobel Peace Prize laureate smackdown.
Obituaries for Norman Borlaug, in the words of The Wall Street Journal “the man who defused the population bomb,” have made for inspiring reading. He applied a powerful intellect and ferocious hard work and saved hundreds of millions of people from hunger. He was truly one of humanity’s heroes – and yet in 1970 he won a Nobel Peace Prize.
This made me wonder: what fraction of Peace Prizes goes to heroes and what fraction goes to fu- … let’s just say non-heroes.
The obvious reason that I’m dubious about the Nobel Peace Prize is the 2007 award to Al Bore. I simply don’t understand how nagging people about their heated towel rails contributes to world peace. Also dubious is his Oscar. Regardless of whether you think it would be a good idea to invest in beach-front property in Tuvalu, you have to wonder what the Academy was smoking when it decided to give the Best Documentary award to a PowerPoint presentation. That’s like awarding a Michelin star to the Wattie’s factory.
1994 marked the Peace Prize’s low point, when it was shared by Palestinian terrorist leader Yasser Arafat. The award was for “efforts to create peace in the Middle East.” So that all worked out then. Arafat spent decades running an organisation committed to shooting people. If you can get a medal for stopping shooting people, where are all the awards for those of us who never started shooting people in the first place?
To be fair to the committee that dishes out the awards, the relevant criterion in Nobel’s will is “the holding and promotion of peace conferences.” Arafat, having run out of cash to blow people up after the Soviet Union collapsed, certainly went to a peace conference or two.
Another former terrorist to get the Peace Prize is Nelson Mandela. Here we’re getting back into the realm of the good guys. Mandela is definitely the world’s favourite ex-terrorist. His armed struggle was arguably defensive and his bombs weren’t aimed to kill. He gained worldwide sympathy while spending twenty-seven years in jail; however, with the alternative being living with Winnie Mandela, Robben Island may have seemed like paradise.
Bringing apartheid to an end peacefully is certainly deserving of a medal, even if his ANC colleagues have regularly bollocksed up the running of the country since. South Africa’s banning of the New Zealand Māori rugby team on the grounds that it’s racially selected is deserving of another medal.
One of the other good guys on the awards list is Muhammad Yunus. He founded Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and popularised microcredit, the lending of small sums of money to the very poor. Critics of microcredit say that loaning the poor money to start or expand businesses and lift themselves out of poverty allows governments to cut back on welfare programmes. Supporters say the same thing. Give the man a medal.
Contrary to my initial reflexive thoughts, there are good and brave people on the Peace Prize recipients ‘roll – Martin Luther King, Jr., Lech Walesa, and Aung San Suu Kyi. There are also a similar number of warmongers whose waning powers were confused with efforts for peace. But neither group forms the longest list.
The biggest fraction of prizes goes to bureaucrats and quangoes. Most years the Nobel Committee falls back on the “holding and promotion of peace conferences” clause – the organising of talkathons – to find its laureates. The Borlaugs and Yunuses are rare jewels who achieved lasting benefits for humanity. If only we could find one person a year of their calibre.
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