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Nobel Prizes have no real place in global politicking

Publication Date : 16-10-2012


Nobel Prizes have no real place in global politicking

The Nobel Prizes for Literature and Peace this year have become highly politicised — the former by the Chinese state propaganda machine and Beijing-bashing commentators, and the latter by the committee that awards the coveted awards.
The criticism over Mo Yan's winning of the literature prize was spawned in part by China's parading of the novelist's triumph, two years after it imposed a media blackout on Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Peace Prize.

Despite the celebration of Mo's victory by Chinese media as a vindication of national pride, Mo is not the first Chinese person to win the literature prize. Dissident author Gao Xingjian won it in 2000 but that news was mostly silenced at the time.

Some Chinese dissidents, on the other hand, questioned the wisdom of awarding the prestigious prize to someone who is seen as not critical enough of the Chinese government. Artist and activist Ai Weiwei told the Associated Press” it is a shame for the Swedish Nobel Prize committee” to honour an author who is cooperating with a Chinese government “constantly poisoning” its people.

“They mock the ones who dare to raise their voice and opinion, and ignore the sacrifice some have made to gain that right,” the activist said.

While praising Mo's skill as a writer, famous dissident Wei Jingsheng was sceptical about honouring an author who recently transcribed a Mao Zedong speech excerpt for a publication, saying the Nobel committee's decision was made to appease Beijing.

Apparently in response to such criticism, Mo on Friday expressed hopes for the release of fellow Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo from Chinese detention.

This brouhaha over Mo's prize is an unnecessary distraction for the institution that is the Nobel Prize for Literature, which according to Alfred Nobel's last will should be given to authors with “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.”

Most critics are not questioning the value of Mo's work, but the writer's political allegiance. While the Chinese government is no doubt shamelessly brandishing its credentials via Mo, the distracters are equally misleading in their coupling of political viewpoint to literary value. While dissidents such as Wei and Ai have shown extraordinary courage in their campaigning for human rights and freedom in China, they are in this case as narrow-minded as the government they despise. Their snubbing of Mo in 2012 is the sad mirror image of Beijing's snubbing of Gao in 2000.

What's more controversial — and more rightfully so — is the decision by the Norwegian Nobel Committee to award the Peace Prize to the European Union.

The EU has been a symbol of reconcilliation of post-war Europe and deserves the honour for its work “for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” The problem is the timing of the choice.

The head of the committee, Thorbjorn Jagland, suggested that the choice is timed to have an impact on the current struggle over Europe's future amid the eurozone debt crisis. “We want to remind us all what can happen if disintegration starts and if we let extremism and nationalism start growing again in Europe,” he said.

Such “Nobel activism” is problematic as it endangers the long-term prestige and authenticity of the Peace Prize by dragging it into day-to-day political quarrels. The decision to use the prize to make a splash is perhaps based on a noble idea to do good, but it is shortsighted.

What's worse, it probably will not work. In 2009 the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to Barack Obama in the first year of his presidency. They made the decision in the hope of heralding an era of peaceful US foreign policy.

The prize, however, did not stop Obama from escalating the number of drone strikes in the Middle East. It did not stop him from authorising a raid deep into Pakistan without the government's knowledge (let alone approval) to kill terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. Pakistan is not even an enemy of the US — it is supposed to be an ally. The president's decisions are fundamentally based on US national interests. If the prize fails to have significant influence on or to give significant help to somebody aspiring to be a “transformative” president of the world's strongest nation, what impact can it have on the huge bureaucracy in crisis that is the EU?

The news of the EU's prize win is already inspiring more nationalistic rage rather than quelling it. The Guardian reported that the decision was greeted with disbelief by many in Greece, with some saying that their nation is at an economic war partly because of the new Peace Prize winner.

The greatest asset of the Nobel Peace Prize is not its immediate impact but the fact that it celebrates achievements and noble deeds that will outlive our current worries and will set examples for humanity. To use the prize as a political tool is to ruin that invaluable asset.


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