Untruth and hatred at times have been synonymous with the prize. Rigoberta Menchú Tum, an indigenous Guatemalan, Castro supporter, and human-rights activist, won the 1992 prize largely on the basis of a supposedly inspirational autobiography (I, Rigoberta Menchú). The “memoir” later turned out to have been ghostwritten by Westerners and only loosely based on Menchú’s activism, the details of which were in many places deliberately falsified. The 2004 winner, African environmentalist Wangari Maathai, went on record alleging that the AIDS virus was the creation of nefarious Westerners intent on wiping out black Africans. The Catholic lay leader, author, and Castro aficionado Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, who won in 1980, later claimed that the United States was guilty of “state terrorism” for going into Afghanistan after al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and compared George W. Bush to Hitler. A 1976 winner, Irish peace activist Betty Williams, publicly seethed, “I would love to kill George Bush.” Nordlinger’s sober and judicious review of these travesties, presented sine ira et studio, is all the more damning for his understatement.
Nordlinger writes in an accessible, sometimes journalistic style, without footnotes or bibliography. No matter: His survey of Peace Prize winners, and of the politics and ideology behind the awards, is a product of an immense amount of research, and reflects a careful organization and tone. He has a special gift of irony, and the more dispassionately he narrates the last 30 years of the award, the more we grow outraged — while somehow not being surprised, given that we learn that daydreaming and fantasy have always played prominent roles in selecting winners.