Tag Archives: Nobel Peace Prize

Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize address, book connections.

President Barack Obama spoke about the aspiration for peace and the necessity of war in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech today.

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech today in Norway today, President Barack Obama spoke about the aspiration for peace and the necessity of war.

Obama opened his speech with the frank acknowledgment that his accomplishments are “slight” compared with others like Albert Schweitzer who have come before him before moving into a strong defense of the need, at times, for war.

Former warriors turned peacemakers like Nelson Mandela and Yitzhak Rabin have been awarded this honor before, but few so early in their tenure in public life and with so small a history of peacemaking behind.

In The Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela discusses the need for armed struggle in South Africa and the formation in the early 1960s of Umkhonto we Sizwe, or the Spear of the Nation, to carry out those actions. 

For his part, Obama asserted the importance of a clear-eyed assessment of reality.

“I face the world as it is,” he said, perhaps unintentionally echoing the first and cardinal rule of community organizing articulated by Saul Alinsky in Rules for Radicals: Deal with the world as it is, not as it should be.

For Obama, that means confronting the reality both that non-violence, as valuable as it is, would neither have defeated Hitler’s armies nor defeated Al-Qaeda, and that violent conflict is not likely to end in our lifetime.

The president conceded that his recent decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan, and, more generally, that war in general means two inescapable outcomes: “Some will kill. Some will be killed.”

Later in the address, he added that,  “no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy.

At the recommendation of Dart Fellow and Pulitzer Prize winner Amy Dockser Marcus, I just read David Finkel’s harrowing book, The Good Soldiers.  A Washington Post editor, Finkel spent close to a year with a division of Rangers in Iraq during the period of the surge to combat the counterinsurgency there.

I will devote a whole post to this book later, and for now will say that it provides indelible confirmation of Obama’s assertions about Afghanistan and war in general.  It makes for gripping reading.

Dr. King’s presence was significant through Obama’s address.

He mentioned King as a giant of history and as a proponent and practitioner of non-violent direct action.  Obama also quoted directly from King’s 1964  Nobel Peace Prize address

People who want to learn more about King and his speeches would be well advised to look at James Washington’s A Testament of Hope, a collection of many of King’s major addresses throughout the years. 

Clayborne Carson, my undergraduate thesis advisor and director of the King Institute at Stanford University, has overseen the publication of a number of books of King speeches, too.  Taylor Branch talks about what the global recognition of the prize meant to King in the second and third books in his outstanding trilogy about the civil rights leader that took 25 years to complete.

Obama closed his address by talking about alternatives to war, and about acknowledging the reality of war while striving peace.   “We can do that — for that is the story of human progress; that is the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.”

 The New York Times had  a fascinating piece earlier this week about how Obama arrived at his decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.  As with nearly all things, time will tell if that decision, and the doctrine he articulated today in Oslo, prove to be a wise one. 

What we can say for sure is that his tendency to avoid conventional formulations and to accept dichotomies-he has often talked about individual and government responsibility, for example-were on full display for the world to see and her.

Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, relevant books.

President Barack Obama has been named this year's recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

In a surprising, if not stunning, announcement, President Barack Obama has been awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

The conferring of the prize comes just nine months into his tenure as president, and is particularly noteworthy because he assumed office just two weeks before the February 1 deadline.

In its statement, the committee cited Obama’s role in creating a new climate in international relations, referring to his multilateral approach in tackling some of the world’s most pressing problems: reducing the world stock of nuclear arms, easing American conflicts with Muslim nations and strengthening the U.S. role in combating climate change.

To date, while Obama has acknowledged the importance of these issues, his actions on them have yet to yield much specific results.

While it’s been nearly impossible to live in the United States, and even the world, and not know about Obama, here are some books that people interested in either him or other prize winners might find interesting:

Dreams From My Father: This is the bestselling memoir Obama wrote about his childhood and coming of age.  According to a recent book about the Obamas’ marriage, Bill Ayers assisted with the writing.

The Audacity of Hope: This is more of a political primer that Obama wrote in advance of his ultimately successful presidential run.  He advocates the same type of nonpartisan tone the committee mentioned in its conferring the award on him.

Barack and Michelle: Portrait of an American Marriage, by Christopher Andersen.  This recent book traces the relationship between Obama and the woman he calls the rock of the family.

Social Change 2.0, by David Gershon.  Someone who has worked to mobilize large numbers of people for social change during the past 30 years, Gershon writes toward the end of the book how Obama repeatedly throughout the campaign articulated a vision that united rather than divided.  He gives Obama’s speech about race in Philadelphia as an example.

Tomorrow is Another Country, by Allister Sparks.  This book by veteran journalist Sparks gives the back story on the negotiations between the African National Congress and the National Party in South Africa that culminated first in Nelson Mandela’s 1990 release from prison, and later in the country’s first free and democratic elections in April 1994. Mandela and F.W. de Klerk shared the 1993 prize.

Vietnam, by Stanley Karnow.  This thorough work may cast doubt on the Nobel committee’s 1973 conferral of the prize on Henry Kissinger, whose role in the secret war in Cambodia more than undid any diplomatic moves he made toward peace.

Unbowed, A Memoir, by Wangari Maathai. This well written memoir depicts the remarkable life of Maathai, who in 2004 became the first black woman from Africa ever to win the prize. Maathai braved threats to her life and led a movement dedicated to the empowerment of women and the planting of literally millions of trees.  While telling her story, her work also discusses much of Kenyan colonial history.

I, Rigoberta Menchu, by Rigoberta Menchu. The claims of the 1982 winner Menchu have been shown to not be completely true, and some supporters say that the book illustrates a larger truth by showing the oppressive conditions under which many people in Guatemala, especially its indigenous population, endured.

Social Studies Methods Class: Elie Wiesel’s Night

Madoff victim Elie Wiesel recounts his survival of the Holocaust in Night.

Madoff victim Elie Wiesel recounts his survival of the Holocaust in Night.

Disgraced and now imprisoned financier Bernard Madoff has captured plenty of headlines recently. 

The tentacles of his multi-billion dollar Ponzi Scheme have reached throughout the country and have wreaked financial havoc on thousands of families and non-profit organizations.  In many ways, the consequences of his decption have yet to be fully felt, since they came at a time when the economy was already seriously battered.

Madoff’s actions have caused particular anguish in the Jewish community. He is Jewish and used his membership in the community to exploit his religious brothers and sisters.  Some have expressed concerns that his actions will play into long-held stereotypes about Jews as financiers and lead to a rise in antisemitism, while others have struggled to understand the extent and cause of his duplicity.

Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel is one of Madoff’s many victims.  He has called Madoff’s crimes unforgivable. 

Themes of memory, forgiveness, belief and humanity also run throughout Night, Wiesel’s slender and classic memoir that provides an authoritative account of Holocaust survival.

Night opens in Sighet, Transylvania in 1941.  A 12-year-old  Kaballah student, Wiesel and other residents of the community are warned of their impending doom by Moshe the Beadle.  However, the townspeople find Moshe’s predictions incredible, instead concluding that he has lost his mind.

A couple of years later, his predictions turn out to be true.

Wiesel, his family and the rest of the community are forcibly removed from their homes and taken by train to the Auschwitz death camp.  His words about that first night have often been quoted, but bear repetition for their stark power:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith for ever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.
Never.

The repetition and insistence of permanence and memory, the allusions to the Ten Commandments, the combination of images and their consequences all give this excerpt its considerable impact.

Night has many such moments.  He talks about how eight words uttered at the camp’s selection-men to the left, women to the right-means that he and his father are separated from his mother and sisters. 

He never sees them again. 

This is only the beginning for Wiesel and his father, though. 

Night details the appells, or hours long roll calls, which begin early in the morning, the paltry rations which slowly starve and reduce the men’s existence to animal instincts of survival, the collective punishment visited on those who try to rebel and other aspects of unspeakable cruelty they endured.

Wiesel’s father does not handle the physical strain well.  Shortly before the book ends, he dies, but not before Wiesel has come to resent and even have feelings of hatred toward him for his inability to weather the abuse.  Other sons respond similarly, with some even abandoning their fathers on the death march. 

The book ends with Wiesel’s liberation at the Buchenwald camp in 1945.  He looks in a mirror for the first time since before his ordeal and ends the book with the following:

I wanted to see myself in the mirror … I had not seen myself since the ghetto.
From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me.
The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.

Wiesel describes himself in both first and third person, showing again the permanent impact of his experiences, their lethal and dehumanizing consequences, and his struggle to understand his personhood and meaning in the face of the atrocity he has endured.

Night is part of a trilogy-the other two books are Dawn and Day-and is probably the most well known of Wiesel’s many books. 

Originally written in French, the work was pared down extensively from its original version of more than 800 pages.  Facing History and Ourselves has created a study guide and a video, Challenge of Memory, that has clips that accompany specific scenes in the book, which has sparked ongoing discussion about whether it is a memoir or a novel.

In addition to being a prolific writer, speaker and thinker, Wiesel also created The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.  The foundation had  $15.2 million under management by Madoff’s investment firm, and has lost nearly everything.  His life savings have also been wiped out.

And so, now 80, Wiesel faces another challenge. 

While, of course, the financial hardship and betrayal he is grappling with is in no way comparable to his survival more than 60 years ago, what is clear is that Wiesel will meet its with his customary steely resolve and frankness.  He spoken recently about the outpouring of donations from people who learned about the foundation’s plight.  

For those people looking to understand the unspeakable horror Wiesel  and many others endured during World War II, Night is a powerful choice.

Black History Month: Charles Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom

Charles Paynes discusses the grassroots organizing tradition in his history of the civil rights movement in Mississippi.

Charles Paynes discusses the grassroots organizing tradition in his history of the civil rights movement in Mississippi.

Many civil rights histories have Martin Luther King, Jr. as their subject.

The electrifying orator first came to national prominence during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, thrilled the nation during his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the Washington Mall on August 28, 1963, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and expanded his focus to economic issues when he was killed in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

As I wrote last month, King’s life and actions have been thoroughly chronicled, and deservedly so.

But there was another organizing pattern during the civil rights movement that did not focus on charismatic leaders, that was locally based, and that came out of a community tradition of struggle.

Charles Payne writes about this tradition, the people who forged it and the gains they made in what was arguably America’s most racially recalcitrant and dangerous state in I’ve Got the Light of Freedom:  The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle.

Payne starts the book by describing the conditions in Mississippi that activists confronted.

To say that there were daunting would be an understatement.

Efforts at white supremacy enforced by violence, terror and lynching were absolute, as was suppression of the black vote.  The book first chapter is filled with generations of murder, intimidation and oppression of black people by white people in the state.

Yet, despite this climate, in the early 60s, a band of dedicated volunteers worked with local residents to boost the number of voters in places like Greenwood, Mississippi-and succeeded.  Payne writes that by 1964, “Black Greenwood was so much behind the movement that it could have slept a small army of civil rights workers (and did).”

The background to, people involved in, and philosophy behind, this success is the subject of Payne’s book.

He argues that the Mississippi movement, in contrast with the campaigns led by Dr. King, reflected a tradition of “community organizing, a tradition with a different sense of what freedom means and therefore a greater emphasis on the long-term development of leadership of ordinary men and women.”

I’ve Got the Light of Freedom explore the tradition and the people who forged it in the decades before the 1960s.  Amzie Moore, Medgar Evers and Aaron Henry all receive extensive attention from Payne.  Each worked tirelessly with the community, each placed themselves in grave physical danger, and each helped establish a foothold for later workers to use.

Payne also talks in-depth about  the role of the Highlander Center, founded by Myles Horton and where Septima Clark taught citizenship classes for many years. Many of the attendees, including Rosa Parks and Dr. King, went on to play significant roles in the movement.

Payne explains that the tradition was not just rooted in trendsetting men or in supportive external institutions, though.  Rather he writes how the organization tradition came out of a feisty, and not always non-violent,  commitment to struggling for justice. 

In one of the book’s more entertaining sections, Payne writes about Mrs. Laura McGhee, a small, soft-spoken and determined woman who punched out a cop, grabbed a nightstick away from another officer and raised three sons fearlessly dedicated to the movement.

Payne quotes a civil rights worker who say that McGhee’s sons  “out SNCC-ed SNCC.”  The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committe  and its grassroots and long-term approach to social change also receive a lot of attention from Payne, with movement “mother” Ella Baker and legendary organizer Bob Moses being people on whom he focuses in particular.

Still, Payne’s overarching focus is on Mississippi natives who worked with these organizers-people like Hollis Watkins, who I had the honor to meet in South Africa in 1996,  and Fannie Lou Hamer, whose speech at the 1964 Democratic convention in Atlantic City remains a movement highlight.

Together, these people changed the landscape of politics and society in Mississippi.  While the movement did lose steam in the mid-60s-at one point Bob Moses compared SNCC to a boat that simultaneously needed both to be in the water to be effective and to be out of the water to be repaired.  The issue of white people’s role in the movement and the relationship between northern and southern black people both became contentious.

Still, the courage, accomplishments and approach of the people in the Mississippi movement all deserve recognition and gratitude from the rest of us, who have benefited from their efforts.

Payne’s book is a significant step in that important direction.