What Kind of People Could Give a Nobel Peace Prize to Obama?

OSLO, Norway -- A few days from now, the president of the United States will fly to this cold, dark, and usually sleepy northern capital to accept a prize that much of the world still holds in deep respect, even though it should have long since been entirely discredited in the minds of civilized men.

As has been widely observed, of course, the awarding of this trophy to Mr. Obama has already helped to underscore the absurdity of taking this honor any more seriously than, say, the Teen Choice Awards. When the Norwegian Nobel Committee -- composed of five people that virtually nobody outside of Norway had ever heard of, and one whom you may have heard of if you’re the kind of person who’s strong on Jeopardy questions about former Scandinavian prime ministers -- announced in early October that after months of solemn deliberation it had decided to award the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama, pretty much the entire U.S. was taken by surprise. In America, after all, we’re used to the idea that an award actually represents some kind of accomplishment. Even Obama lovers wondered: what kind of country would give out an award of such (alleged) importance to a chief executive who had just taken office and had yet to prove himself in any meaningful way?

In an article published on this site at the time, Victor Davis Hanson answered this question very usefully. Thanks to its oil wealth, he explained, “Norway has the leisure to be utopian. ... So Norway loves to give award to all sorts of right-thinking frauds (Menchu), scoundrels (Elbaradei), terrorists (Arafat), Stalinists (Le Doc Tho), Elmer Gantrys (Jimmy Carter) and hucksters (Gore) -- as it sits in judgment of others from Lala land.” Other, bigger countries are compelled to be realistic about the world; Norway can afford to serve up sanctimonious, more-virtuous-than-thou abstractions -- and to award “effort and intention, not achievement.” Hanson suggested that the reader imagine Norway “as the son or daughter of a movie star, one who grew up in Malibu, and feels so terribly about it that he lectures the U.S. about everything from global warming to George Bush’s assorted sins -- confident that he will never have to work at Ace Hardware, and never have to live near South Central L.A. That sums up Norway.”

As someone who has lived in Norway for over ten years, I can testify that Hanson is right on the money. As Obama’s big day in Oslo approaches, however, I feel compelled to add a footnote or two -- not to contradict Hanson, but rather to support and perhaps amplify his points. One key point, for example, is that it is impossible to underestimate the degree to which Norwegians have it drummed into their heads from infancy on that Norway is “the world’s richest country” as well as “the world’s best country to live in.” There is no doubt in their minds that this is true, because, after all, the UN says so, and in no country on earth (this has, incidentally, been proven by a survey) do the people revere the UN more than they do in Norway.

How refreshing it was, then, to read an op-ed that appeared in late October in Aftenposten, the closest thing Norway has to a newspaper of record. In the op-ed, a journalist named Henryk E. Malinowski, who lives in Norway, systematically compared the school his kid attends here to a typical school back in his Polish homeland. Malinowski’s verdict (and I put it somewhat more bluntly than he does): Polish kids and teachers are well-disciplined, well-mannered, and hard-working, while their Norwegian counterparts are -- not to put too fine a point on it -- spoiled, lazy brats. In Polish schools there are more facilities, such as libraries and swimming pools, than in Norway; Polish schools offer an array of free after-school programs directed at kids with a wide range of academic, creative, and athletic interests; in Norway, the only such free program is soccer practice -- and as a result kids “only talk about one thing: soccer. And those who aren’t good at soccer or are interested in other things ‘aren’t part of the group.’” The Polish system, moreover, identifies kids with special gifts early on and gives them special attention; not so in Norway, where excellence, though rather more tolerated now than it was in the post-1968 heyday (when -- and I’m not kidding here -- gifted kids were effectively punished for “showing off” and sticking out), is still not actively encouraged.