About self-righteousness and Al Gore

I am old enough... well, there are many ways to end that sentence, but for now: I am old enough to remember, from my school years, the disdainful reaction in my home town to the news that Martin Luther King had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.


The reaction was, of course, racial at its root. This was a majority-white, minority-Hispanic small town with very few black residents, which went for Barry Goldwater over Lyndon Johnson in the presidential election that same fall.


But the stated form of the objection concerned not King's race but his obnoxiousness as a man. He was a windbag. He was pompous and self-dramatizing, He was holier than thou. Plus, he had started getting involved where he didn't belong, in raising questions about the Vietnam War. Through the rest of Martin Luther King's life, the father of my best home-town friend always went out of his way to refer sneeringly to "Martin Luther Nobel."


As is the case now with some similar complaints about Al Gore, the criticisms weren't about nothing.

Gore can be pompous, lecturing, pedantic, and all the rest. I agree with the argument in his book The Assault on Reason but wish he made the point with fewer larded-in references to Jurgen Habermas. (Think of of how, yes, Bill Clinton would make similar points about the simplifications and distortions of today's nutty media world.) But in retrospect the criticisms of King look very small, and -- without equating the stature of the two men -- I think something similar will be true regarding Gore.

Like him or not, he has turned his efforts to an important cause, under historical and political circumstances that would have tempted many people to drown themselves in drink or move to Bhutan. It's interesting about the Nobel Peace Prize -- unlike the quirky and PC-conscious prize for Literature, or the quasi-Nobel* "medal" in economics -- that its list of winners holds up very, very well under historical scrutiny.


There are a few choices that look fishy in retrospect. (Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in 1973??? Arafat as co-winner with Peres and Rabin in 1994?) But the great majority stand up very well. Desmond Tutu, and then Mandela and deKlerk. Albert Schweitzer. George C. Marshall. Lech Walesa, Willy Brandt, and Mikhail Gorbachev. The Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi. The Norwegian Nobel Institute has earned the benefit of the doubt for choosing people whose achievements will stand up over time.


So: might this award make Gore sound even more righteous? Maybe, but who cares. He has earned it. A lot of other people have the big head on much flimsier grounds.


* The Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, often misleadingly referred to as the Nobel Prize in Economics, has become a within-the-guild recognition for academic economists. It would be of broader public interest to have instead a Nobel Prize in Architecture and Design.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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