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Oct 11, 2009 8:57 am


Obama's prize: Noble hopes in an ignoble world



(first published in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Saturday October 10, 2009)

As liberals rejoice in Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize and conservatives grumble, let's be honest: It is too early too tell. Awarding this prize either may be prescient or premature. Regardless, the award reflects the noble aspirations of the award committee and the prize winner.

The committee beautifully described Mr. Obama's greatest accomplishment thus far. “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future,” the citation says. The fact that despite its racist past, despite the stains of slavery and Jim Crow, the United States sent a black man to the White House was a modern miracle. That this President was only 47 when elected, and had, by his own description, a “funny name,” is even more amazing especially following 9/11.

Mr. Obama's election in November, 2008, and his inauguration in 2009 bequeathed to the world two magical moments. On election night, the tears streaming down black and white faces the world over said it all. At the inauguration, the iconography was extraordinary. There was the defining image from the 2008 campaign of a thoughtful, messianic Mr. Obama looking off into the distance, with the four-letter word HOPE emblazoned in light blue on a black and red background. There were drawings of Mr. Obama surrounded by ghosts of African-Americans past, the trailblazers ranging from secretaries of state Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice to the first serious black presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm.

Images juxtaposed Mr. Obama with Martin Luther King, linking the August, 1963, March on Washington that filled the Mall from the Lincoln Monument with the January, 2009, Obama inauguration that filled the Mall from the Capitol to the Lincoln Monument. Some artists depicted Barack and Michelle Obama as the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten – King Tut's father – and his Chief Consort Nefertiti.

There were slogans galore: “Yes We Did,” “A Legacy of Hope,” “the Healing Process Has Begun,” and “Thank you Jesus, We Never Would Have Made it Without You.”

Since then, such images and slogans have filled our global village. I have seen home shrines to Mr. Obama in Chateguay and have heard of elaborate shrines in huts in Kenya. During this dark recession year, America's single greatest export has been the hope Mr. Obama transmitted to billions of the disillusioned, the oppressed, the discriminated against throughout the world. This achievement alone deserves a Nobel.

Alas, even with Mr. Obama in office, the world is menaced by ignoble characters who disdain his noble aspirations. The jury is still out whether Mr. Obama's politics of hope and diplomacy of engagement can work in a world of al-Qaeda killers, North Korean dictators, Iranian madmen, Iraqi insurgents, Taliban fanatics, Afghan warlords, Pakistani generals, Russian strongmen, Saudi Sheiks, Sudanese slaughterers, Guinean rapists and Hamas terrorists.

So far, there have been no major disasters on Mr. Obama's watch – but no major successes either. North Korea and Iran continue to develop nuclear power: North Korea launched missiles on July 4 to defy Mr. Obama, while Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole an election and cracked down on democratic forces with barely a peep from the U.S. President. Mr. Obama has kept pressing al-Qaeda with drone attacks, the Taliban with talk of more troops, Iraqi anarchists by refusing to withdraw precipitously.

But the Russians seem to think he can be pushed around, horrific crimes like the mass murder in Darfur and the mass military rapes of opposition protesters in Guinea continue to occur (inevitably, alas). And in a striking, but characteristic contrast from the Middle East, this week, Prof. Ada Yonath won Israel's ninth Nobel prize – and the first chemistry Nobel for a woman since 1964 – even as Hamas and other Palestinian agitators called for violence in Jerusalem.

The contrast between noble societies that invest in science and ignoble societies addicted to terror, between noble political cultures that produce hope-generators like Barack Obama and ignoble political cultures that produce mass killers, remains stunning – and daunting.

Good people throughout the world should unite in hoping that the aspirations embedded in this award to a rookie President quickly transform into impressive achievements. Thus far, Mr. Obama has dazzled the world with his poetry. Let us hope that when we look back on this moment, his Nobel prize will be a milestone in his ability to turn his transcendent poetry into workable, governable prose, the hopes into feats, and, nations' swords into plowshares.



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