‘When you receive the Nobel Peace Prize, you are crowned a ‘champion of peace,’” Jay Nordlinger writes in his new book, Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World. What exactly does that mean? Jay has a chat about the winners, the prize, and its implications with Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Why write a book on the Nobel Peace Prize?
JAY NORDLINGER: It’s a hugely interesting subject. It gives you a neat history of the 20th century and a big cast of characters. It also forces you to think about some of the biggest issues: war and peace, freedom and tyranny, etc.
NORDLINGER: Same reason!
LOPEZ: Who are “they”?
NORDLINGER: As in “Peace, They Say”? Well, everybody(ish): the Norwegian Nobel Committee, the laureates, European political elites, the New York Times, NPR, Brown University . . . You know: “they.” The world. Opinionmakers.
LOPEZ: To quote one Jay Nordlinger, “What is peace, anyway?”
NORDLINGER: Peace? Oh, yes. In fact, most of the world is probably at peace right now, by most definitions of “peace.”
LOPEZ: “The cause of peace is not to be confused with the cause of pacifism.” Is that widely recognized?
NORDLINGER: Not widely enough. “Peace through Strength,” baby. (Old Reagan slogan.)
LOPEZ: How can the prize be a weapon? Do you endorse that use?
NORDLINGER: The prize can be a weapon because of its prestige, and the respect it commands. Let’s look at a couple of cases.
In 1987, the Nobel Committee told Oscar Arias, the president of Costa Rica, that they were giving him the prize to use as a weapon against Reagan. (Arias and Reagan were at odds over Central American policy, particularly where Nicaragua was concerned.)
Four years before, the committee had given the prize to Lech Walesa, the Solidarity leader in Poland. Walesa told me that, without the Nobel prize, Solidarity could never have succeeded.
On balance, I endorse the use of the Nobel as a weapon. The prize probably helped to keep Andrei Sakharov (the 1975 laureate) alive. How do you like the award to Al Gore (2007)? That was designed to give his global-warming campaign a huge boost.
In the prize business, as in other spheres, you take the good with the bad. And you argue about what is good and what is bad.
LOPEZ: How was writing Peace, They Say philosophically nourishing?
NORDLINGER: Because it made you ponder those big questions concerning war and peace, freedom and tyranny, etc. It made you decide what you regard as true, or most true.
LOPEZ: There are some tremendous people who have been nominated over the years — that must be an uplifting tour to take?
NORDLINGER: Yes, I enjoyed meeting a great many of the laureates (and nominees). Some were uplifting, such as Albert John Lutuli, an early anti-apartheid leader in South Africa. But even the scoundrels, I enjoyed meeting!
LOPEZ: “If you win the prize,” you write, “people will recite a Beatitude to you, and about you: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.’ (They don’t so often recite the second part of that Beatitude: ‘for they shall be called the children of God.’ Perhaps those words seem unfit for secular society.)” Is that just a right-winger religious zinger or is it a real concern? How can you recognize a Mother Teresa and be a secularist?
NORDLINGER: True, the committee honored Mother Teresa in 1979. It has also honored other religious leaders, and religious people, over the years: e.g., Nathan Söderblom, the primate of Sweden, in 1930. And Bishop Belo of East Timor in 1996.
I was just saying that, when people — people in general — recite that Beatitude, they usually say “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and leave it at that. It’s normal..
LOPEZ: Where does Barack Obama rate on the “least deserving laureate” list?
NORDLINGER: In my view, there have been many laureates less deserving than President O! But he’s somewhere on the list, yes. I have a feeling he agrees, too.
LOPEZ: Who is the most deserving non-laureate?
NORDLINGER: Most people would say Gandhi, I think. You and I, Kathryn, might well say Reagan.
LOPEZ: How did Hitler get nominated?
NORDLINGER: Some Swedish parliamentarian thought it was a good idea. Hitler had signed the Munich Agreement, after all.
LOPEZ: Why is Nobel himself more interesting than anyone who ever got the prize?
NORDLINGER: Oh, Kathryn, he is so interesting — certainly as interesting as any of the winners. He was a brilliant chemical engineer, probably a genius. And he was a brilliant entrepreneur. And an excellent writer, particularly in his letters, of which there are thousands and thousands. He was complicated, probing, humane — a great man. A great man, really. Wrong about some things — like most of us? — but great.
I loved reading his letters.
LOPEZ: Who did you enjoy writing about the most?
NORDLINGER: That’s a toughie. They were all just about equal. Fridtjof Nansen, the 1922 winner — what a mensch. Athlete, scientist, explorer, author, professor, diplomat, executive, humanitarian. A real-life Indiana Jones, but maybe more impressive. One of the most talented men of the 20th century.
LOPEZ: Who would you like all readers to walk away from your book really getting to know a bit and why?
NORDLINGER: Well, in a way, the more obscure ones are more important than the famous ones — because they’re obscure, and deserve to be known better (many of them). I found Ludwig Quidde, a German pacifist who won in 1927, very, very impressive.
But frankly, I prefer to think of the Nobel peace laureates as a class — men and women who had a lot to do with the making of the 20th century, and reflected that century. And now, of course, we’re more than a decade into the 21st.
Honestly, the laureates are all interesting, every one. As I was writing the book, some of my friends said, “Concentrate on the interesting ones; skip over the uninteresting ones.” But, really, there’s not a dullard in the bunch. Dullards tend not to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
LOPEZ: Explain how Nobel had a “child-like hopefulness and brute tough-mindedness.” Is the “mixture” something noble?
NORDLINGER: Like most of us, Nobel had moments of optimism and idealism, and moments of pessimism and cynicism. Some days, he had great hope for humanity. Other days, he said, “We’re doomed.” Very human.
I think Nobel had a grasp on the slippery nature of the world. His experience of the world was very broad — exceptionally broad — and he made good mental use of his experience.
LOPEZ: Is there a laureate whose life you’d most like to emulate or see emulated?
NORDLINGER: I think I’ll again mention Sakharov — the soul of self-sacrifice. He had it made, at the top of the Soviet heap: a leading scientist who had won every award in the Kremlin’s treasure chest. And he threw it all away to appeal for human rights and democracy. He suffered intensely for his convictions, but would have it no other way. A toweringly great man.
So were other laureates, including Carl von Ossietzky, a political prisoner of the Nazis.
LOPEZ: Which laureate would you have loved to interview? What would you ask?
NORDLINGER: Oh, gee, all of them. Let me name someone contemporary. One day, I hope to interview the 2010 laureate, Liu Xiaobo, who now sits in a Chinese prison. I would like to ask him how, in his opinion, Free World governments — particularly the American government — should deal with the Chinese government.
LOPEZ: Did you read through all of the speeches? Are there any we could all afford to reread right about now?
NORDLINGER: I read all the Nobel lectures, acceptance speeches, “presentation speeches,” banquet toasts — everything. They are all worth reading, absolutely. I tell you something I singled out — indeed, linked to — recently: George C. Marshall’s Nobel lecture, 1953. It is the Nobel lecture least like a Nobel lecture. He explains why demilitarization and disarmament are disastrous for free countries.
After every conflict, we “draw down.” And we pay for it dearly — too often with the blood of our people.
LOPEZ: You’ve written millions of words over the years, but this is your first book. Did you enjoy the experience? Do you recommend it?
NORDLINGER: True, this is my first book-book, but I had a collection back in ‘07 (here!). I did enjoy the experience, yes, and recommend it. But how sweet it must be to be able to work on a book full-time — to write a book without holding down another job or other jobs. To have the writing of the book be your job.
Hell, I could knock out one every few months, Joyce Carol Oates–style! (I sound like I’m complaining. I shouldn’t complain. I love journalism, and the related stuff I do.)
LOPEZ: You call out the Nobel Committee for “moral equivalence” during the Cold War. Can such an institution have moral authority?
NORDLINGER: Hmmm — good question. I would say the committee’s authority was badly diminished during that period. And others. Now that you mention it, this is, in part, what my book is about.
LOPEZ: You note Mother Teresa’s “most unusual Nobel lecture.” She said, “I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a direct war, a direct killing — direct murder by the mother herself.” You add that “obviously, [the lecture] did not sit well with many.” Couldn’t the committee have anticipated she would give such a talk? Do you have a favorite disapproving review?
NORDLINGER: Yes, the committee could have anticipated it. Whether they did, I’m not sure. A favorite disapproving review? I can’t think of one in particular, where Mother Teresa is concerned. But let me cite a headline in Life magazine, when the Nobel Committee gave the peace prize to Linus Pauling, for his anti-nuclear activism. This was in 1963. Life said, “A Weird Insult from Norway.”
LOPEZ: Any predictions for this year’s peace prize? Who deserves it in your mind?
NORDLINGER: I’m afraid I have no predictions for this year’s prize. John McLaughlin would scold me! Who deserves it? For more than 60 years, the committee passed over Chinese freedom figures. Finally, in 2010, they honored one. Would they ever honor a Cuban freedom figure? A dissident, a prisoner of conscience — Oscar Biscet, maybe? I doubt it. I would sooner expect to see the committee in Che Guevara T-shirts.
Armando Valladares, the great ex-political prisoner sometimes called “the Cuban Solzhenitsyn,” told me, “If the Cuban dictatorship were right-wing instead of left-wing, we would have won two or three Nobel prizes already.” I believe it.
Of course, if the Cuban dictatorship were right-wing instead of left-wing, the world would have demanded its downfall decades ago.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.