An expatriated Russian named Yakob Smirnov made a comic reputation a few years ago by capping descriptions of various American situations with "What a country!" ("I went to a hotel. They asked if I want a king or a queen in my room! What a country!") We had fun laughing at his madcap views of American life through his Russian lens.
Jakob's signature exclamation came to mind when I heard that Al Gore had won the Nobel Prize for Peace. But it wasn't the USA I was thinking of. It was Sweden - the real article when it comes to "what a country". I wasn't laughing though.
Sweden is a far-north Scandinavian country mostly noted for tall blondes, socialism and high quality steel. Also, for the Nobel Prizes awarded each year for achievements in economics, physics, medicine, literature, peace, and chemistry.
There is a fundamental irony in the Nobel Peace Prize. Many people today don't realize that Alfred Nobel - the zillionaire who bequeathed the money for the perpetual funding of the Nobel Prizes, starting in 1901 - invented modern high explosives. That's how he became rich. His invention of nitroglycerine produced dynamite - enabling all kinds of civil-engineering projects. It also became the ingredient for war munitions of the twentieth century - bombs, artillery shells, torpedoes, etc. Nobel made modern warfare - with its tens of millions dead and hundreds of millions wounded and maimed - possible. Whatever he accomplished, peace wasn't it.
Those who protest this view claim that Nobel so regretted the destruction his invention had spawned that he established the Prizes to compensate. It's a nice story, except that Nobel died in 1896. During his lifetime, his explosive compound was never used in any wars. Nevertheless, one would think the country that gave us Nobel - who at least indirectly gave us bombs, shells, and tanks - might want to keep a low profile and not call overmuch attention to this.
But one would be wrong. Sweden makes a huge deal every year out of announcing its selections, lionizing the awardees, and bestowing the prizes in a lavish ceremony. Each prize is worth over a million bucks, now, which (as Everette Dirksen used to say) is getting close to "real money". The 1963 film, The Prize - starring Paul Newman, Edward G. Robinson and Elke Sommer - depicted the charming old-world flavor of the whole shtick. The rest of the world laps this up every year. These are, after all, the greatest scientists, writers, and humanitarians in the world.
Except that lately the Nobel Foundation - which chooses the Nobel Laureates - has begun to look a little silly with its Peace Prizes selections. The award has always been highly politicized and controversial, but in recent years it has gone round the bend. The 2001 recipients were the United Nations and Kofi Annan "for their work for a better organized and more peaceful world" . (Say what?) In 2002 Jimmy Carter was recognized "for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development". The award to Mr. Carter - he of the anti-Israel posture and lately-revealed financial connections to Arab countries, going back to the 1970s - is especially suspect and has been widely panned.
Now Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will receive the Prize "for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change". The thing is degenerating into farce. On October 14, William N. Gaillard of the Arizona Republic wrote:
"This time, the Nobel Committee overdosed on too many King Olaf's fish balls. Al Gore was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his misguided solicitude, not his accomplishments. Five years from now, the chicken littles of the environmental movement will become the laughingstock of the civilized world, and we will simply get on with our lives. In the event there is such a thing as ‘global warming,' man neither caused it nor can he do anything about it. It is just there and we'll have to deal with it on its terms and not ours." (Other than that, I think he likes Big Al.)
It was bad enough that Al Gore won an Academy Award for his nonsensical film, "An Inconvenient Truth", which otherwise intelligent people are actually taking seriously. ("Oh, I saw it twice. It's wonderful!" gushed a respectable looking matron near me in a theater crowd one evening.) After the Nobel Prize, Al will be insufferable. There is even wild talk of him entering the presidential race. (I hope he does. Maybe it will derail the "Hillary Express".)
Part of the absurdity of the Nobel Peace Prize has to do with Sweden's history. The state of history-teaching being what it is, more students know about Ingmar Bergman's films than that Sweden was neutral in both world wars. No bomb ever fell on Swedish territory. They made a bundle trading with all belligerents during both wars. One of the factors that allowed Sweden to move into high-class socialism was the vast profits it earned during those wars. It is very advantageous to stay out of a war. (You could ask the Swiss.)
So what? - you might say. Doesn't this simply prove that Swedes stand behind their dedication to peace? No - it simply proves that Swedes are like Quakers, who take the high ground in the presence of evil and ask, "Can't we all just get along?" They depend on others to get their hands dirty, ridding the world of bad guys, so they can strike a non-violent pose. That's basically what Sweden did. They knew they would have been toast (well done) if Hitler had decided he wanted all of that steel (and some of those blondes) for himself. Luckily he didn't, so Swedes were able to live the life of riley while the rest of Europe was locked in a death struggle with the Nazis.
Ditto for the scrap with Kaiser Bill and his gang, 1914-'18. Sweden politely stood aside while England, France, Germany, Austria, Russia, Italy and Turkey bankrupted themselves and lost 20 million dead trying to settle the hegemony of Europe. This is certainly a way to "give peace a chance". Unfortunately, not every country has that option. And fortunately, some that do have options - like the USA - often choose to contend with evil instead of profiting from it.
Knowing a little more about this than the average man on the street, I have a small problem with Sweden becoming some kind of authority on "peace". OK - they're nice people. They managed to stay out of both wars. They have great-looking blondes. Let's leave it there. But Al Gore - a Nobel Peace Laureate for his "work" on global warming? You've got to be kidding.