At Large March 2002

Nobel Sentiments

Pious thoughts from wise fools

To mark the hundredth anniversary of the Nobel Prize, last December, Francis Crick, Nadine Gordimer, and José Saramago, "in consultation with an extensive group of Nobel prize winners," as the press release put it, issued a call to ... do something or other. The statement was signed by 103 Nobel laureates. It is printed in full below, with parenthetical exegesis by someone too dumb ever to get a Nobel, or even a MacArthur genius grant.

The most profound danger to world peace in the coming years will stem not from the irrational acts of states or individuals but from the legitimate demands of the world's dispossessed.

("Irrational" is an interesting word choice. Aren't Nobel Prize winners supposed to understand how rationalization works? Maybe they mean "bad.")

Of these poor and disenfranchised ...

(Why do political bien-pensants automatically roll "dispossessed," "poor," and "disenfranchised" together, as if they have a natural correlation—like "ice," "cold," and "beer"? The Dalai Lama [Peace Prize 1989] is dispossessed. My parish priest is poor. And Alan Greenspan, as a resident of the District of Columbia, is ineligible to vote in congressional elections.)

... the majority live a marginal existence in equatorial climates. Global warming, not of their making but originating with the wealthy few, will affect their fragile ecologies most.

(Did you see that global warming coming out of left field? Anyway, blaming the onset of earth-is-toast on the "wealthy few" seems a tad unscientific for a document that is signed by sixty-five recipients of Nobels in chemistry and physics. The earth had temperature cycles when the wealthy few were lucky trilobites with extra-rich muck to frolic in. And how are we going to solve the problems of those who "live a marginal existence in equatorial climates" such as that of Washington, D.C., if we don't produce more of the industrial prosperity that boils their weather? It's going to take a bunch of Nobel laureates to figure that out. Or not.)

Their situation will be desperate and manifestly unjust.

(Nice verb tense. In Congo, Haiti, Cambodia, and Rwanda their situation right now is ...?)

It cannot be expected, therefore, that in all cases they will be content to await the beneficence of the rich.

(I won't make a wisecrack about "cannot be expected ... to await the beneficence of the rich." Specifically, I won't make the wisecrack "and should go get a job." This would be "manifestly unjust" to the hardworking poor—and dispossessed and disenfranchised—people of the world. Besides, if they got a job, it would worsen global warming.)

If, then, we permit the devastating power of modern weaponry to spread through this combustible human landscape, we invite a conflagration that can engulf both rich and poor.

(Oh, I don't know. We just did that in Afghanistan, and so far it's working pretty well.)

The only hope for the future lies in cooperative international action legitimized by democracy.

(We just did that, too—albeit Great Britain and Russia were almost the only other countries to cooperate without arm-twisting. Russia is sort of a democracy, isn't it?)

It is time to turn our backs on the unilateral search for security, in which we seek to shelter behind walls.

(A good point. Walls collapse. On the other hand, concrete barriers that keep car bombs from being parked too close to public buildings are useful. So are baggage screening and opening the mail with ski mittens on and maybe a missile shield.)

Instead we must persist in the quest for united action to counter global warming and a weaponised world.

("Weaponise" is my favorite modern verb. The pen is mightier than the sword—until you try to weaponise your ballpoint to fight a man who has a saber. Then your head gets sliced off.)

These twin goals will constitute vital components of stability as we move towards the wider degree of social justice that alone gives hope of peace.

(I thought "cooperative international action legitimized by democracy" was "the only hope." But I guess Nobel laureates, like anybody else, are entitled to change their minds. So "social justice" it is. However, you'd expect Nobel laureates to think this thing through. Divide the gross domestic product of the world by the world's population, and everyone could receive $7,200 a year. What kind of basketball are we going to get if Shaquille O'Neal has to take a $21,422,800 pay cut? And a family of four in Tanzania making $28,800 is going to buy a used Toyota, which brings us back to global warming.)

Some of the needed legal instruments are already at hand, such as the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Convention on Climate Change, the Strategic Arms Reduction treaties, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

(And don't forget the Kellogg-Briand Pact, the League of Nations Charter, and the Oslo accords.)

As concerned citizens ...

(The rest of us aren't worried at all.)

... we urge all governments to commit to these goals that constitute steps on the way to the replacement of war by law.

(As in the Nuremberg Laws, the Jim Crow laws, South Africa's apartheid code, whatever legal gimcrackery Stalin used to prop up his show trials.)

To survive in the world we have transformed, we must learn to think in a new way.

(They said it. I didn't.)

As never before, the future of each depends on the good of all.

(No—other way around. The future of all depends on the self-interested good of each. Adam Smith did a lot of work in The Wealth of Nations showing this to be the case. The Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 2: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." Although Adam Smith may have been a little right of center to win a Nobel. Also, he was dead.)

To sum up, here we have a statement beginning with a thesis that had been disproved before it was uttered and ending with a palpable untruth. The logic meanders. The ideas are banal. The text exhibits a remarkable prolixity, considering that it's only 284 words long. Is this the best that 103 Nobel Prize winners can do?

Of course, it's always tempting to make fun of the Nobels. (Sidelight: Alfred Nobel owed his wealth not only to the invention of dynamite [vid. "combustible human landscape," above] but also to investment in his brothers' successful exploration for oil in Azerbaijan [vid. "combustible human landscape," above].) Making fun is especially tempting to those of us who will receive invitations to Stockholm only in the form of brochures from Scandinavian cruise-ship lines. Let me give in to temptation.

Ernest Hemingway but not James Joyce? Toni Morrison but not John Updike? Dario Fo? Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf? (She wrote The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, a fanciful account of a young boy's travels across Sweden on the back of a goose.) And allow me to be the millionth person to point out that among the Nobel Peace Prize winners are Yasir Arafat, Shimon Peres, Henry Kissinger, Le Duc Tho, and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. ("If the mushroom cloud doesn't clear up, call me in the morning.") For all I know, the lists of prizewinners in physics, chemistry, medicine, and economics are just as wack. I'm not competent to judge. Although the Cambridge University professor Brian Josephson (Physics 1973) says, "There is a lot of evidence to support the existence of telepathy." And a co-discoverer of DNA, James Watson (Medicine 1962), is, at age seventy-three, researching the effects of sunshine on sex drive.

Yet let us be generous. Prize-giving of any kind is no cinch. Nobel-committee screw-ups notwithstanding, Nobel Prize winners are smarter than we are. And Nobel Prize winners are doubtless as morally alert as we are. Even the Peace Prize winners are probably, on average, decent people. I scanned the list of hundredth-anniversary-statement signatories and didn't notice anyone in obvious need of a swift kick—the possible exception being the statement co-author José Saramago (Literature 1998), a Portuguese Communist who wrote a novel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, in which Jesus tries to get out of being crucified and sleeps with Mary Magdalene. Henry Kissinger and Yasir Arafat did not apply their John Hancocks.

A hundred and three Nobel laureates have provided us with counsel on the political and social future of the world. Any such advice must be worth listening to, and I guess that includes the advice they've given us this time. But where are the words that stir men's souls? That turn their hearts? That change their minds? Where is the "We hold these truths to be self-evident ..."? Where is even the "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs"? For that matter, where is the "Where's the beef?"

Perhaps the Nobel laureates' statement should be understood as an indictment of our age. We could be living in an era so stupid that even the most intelligent among us are cement-heads. Possibly the statement is simple proof, if proof were needed, that nothing good ever comes out of a committee. But maybe the statement contains a deeper message. Maybe the laureates are speaking, more powerfully than they realize, for radical democratization and perfect egalitarianism. Nothing in their statement indicates that the opinions of common men are worse or more foolish than the opinions of Nobel Prize winners. Let us have our international actions truly "legitimized by democracy." When it comes to questions of "What is to be done?" (to quote Lenin, as José Saramago might do), let's ask any old person. Let's ask Mom. Mom says, "Global warming or no global warming, it's still winter. Wear a hat."

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