10 December 2009
"Obama accepts peace prize, defends war."
That was the headline on the MSN homepage this morning in all its surreal grandeur, and here is the President's speech accepting the Nobel Prize. He defends war by asserting the persistence of evil, here defined as those with whom negotiation is futile. Like many people, Barack Obama equates peace with a condition of justice which is inevitably partially defined. That is, peace will come, on this view, when one vision of justice prevails over the others, or the others are proven unjust and repudiated. This is the sort of peace that can be and often is imposed by force, and requires force to be maintained on the premise that evil is a permanent element in human nature. But there's a second idea of peace that also has many adherents, and it's probably the ideal people think of when they imagine likely deserving recipients of the Nobel. That idea bases peace on renunciation, and implicitly rejects the notion upheld by both al Qaeda and America that certain things are non-negotiable. This is what we think of when we speak of pacifism, and while pacifists may believe that permanent peace does depend to some extent on some sort of justice, they emphasize the essential importance of renunciation, the resolution that nothing I desire -- or nothing I own -- is worth killing over. I don't know exactly what Mr. Nobel had in mind when he instituted the prize, but I wonder whether he appreciated the ambiguity of peace, or whether such ambiguity exists in his native language. In the future, the Nobel Committee might consider renaming the "Peace Prize" to make clear what they mean to reward. That way apparent contradictions like the award to Obama might be avoided.