Nobel Notoriety

Even the Nobel Prize awards are not without their share of controversy

This week the Nobel Prize awards were handed out to those seen to have excelled in a particular field or activity for the benefit of humankind. Yet in a world fundamentally changed by the winds of rampant globaloney (i.e., economic globalisation and international terrorism), even this supposedly detached and serene moment is not without its share of controversy and criticism. In particular, the Nobel Prizes for Literature and Peace have raised a few eyebrows. While the controversy surrounding the former is more local and political in its effects, the irony behind the latter is on a much wider scale in terms of both time and space.

The Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to the Hungarian writer, Imre Kertesz, predominantly for his work and reflections regarding the Holocaust. Hungary is not a country short on Nobel laureates; however, this was the first time a Hungarian ever won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Naturally, the government and the mainstream media made much ado about this honour, and Imre Kertesz has been touted on all the radio stations and television networks, and even ceremoniously given the key to the city of Budapest by the mayor, Gabor Demszky.

The fanfare over the Nobel Prize to Imre Kertesz was highly deceptive, however. Reaction to the award was quite different among the people in the street, ranging from total indifference to even outrage. In many ways, the indifference to the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature has a lot to do with the advent of the information society, in where our multimedia world has consistently chipped away at the world of textual content. Put in another way, thanks to the amalgamation of technology and pop-culture, there has been a severe and steady decline of book culture; people don't read and think as much as they used to. Some may point to Harry Potter as an exception, but such "literature" is more of a passing fad than anything else and will no doubt be subsumed by the ensuing corporate hype.

At best, those indifferent to the new Nobel Laureate were so for a very simple reason: Kertesz is not well-known in Hungary. In fact, the work for which he received the award was initially published in German, and only now because of the fanfare behind the Nobel Award are his books being translated into Hungarian. Many don't even consider Kertesz a true Hungarian writer; his time is split between Hungary and Germany, and the subject of his work doesn't deal with anything unique to the country.

To this extent, many were dismayed by the award ceremony. Some have duly noted that Hungary has other more profound and prolific writers, and they can't see why Kertesz is being touted as a great Hungarian writer when prior to receiving the Nobel Prize he was, in effect, relatively unknown.

Yet some go even further, convinced that the whole affair is being manipulated for political purposes. Coming on the heels of a UN report which chastised Hungary for its high level of anti-foreigner sentiment, some feel that the award was a slap in the face, a way to further rub the sensitivities of the country's insular and tragic past.

Still, despite the government's best attempts to bolster the pop-star image of Hungary's new Nobel Laureate, it's clear that indifference to the award is prevalent. Only 200,000 copies of Kertesz's award-winning book has been sold in the country, and during the actual award ceremony, in which a large screen relayed a live broadcast from Stockholm in a main square of downtown Budapest, only a handful of people gathered to view the momentous occasion. Apparently even the free mulled wine didn't help much.

Jimmy Carter has blood on his hands

The Nobel Prize for Peace, on the other hand, didn't suffer so much from controversy as it did from irony. The winner of the Peace Prize, former US president Jimmy Carter, has been long acknowledged as a peace moderator and an outspoken proponent of human rights. Even during his term as president, his efforts at forging together a peace deal between Egypt and Israel is widely regarded as a major step toward establishing peace in the Middle East.

The irony, however, is that some of Carter's actions as president also contributed to war and suffering, and can even be said to be indirectly responsible for the terrorist attacks in Washington and New York of 2001, not to mention the subsequent tensions brought about by an ill-conceived notion of a "war on terrorism".

In an Interview with a French newspaper in 1998, Zbginiew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor, admitted that the Carter administration started funding the mujahadeen a full six months before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, this contrary to the official version of events in where the justification for funding the mujahadeen was that it was to stop the Soviets after they had invaded Afghanistan. The explicit purpose of funding the mujahadeen was to draw the Soviets into Afghanistan so that they would get bogged down in a long, untenable war -- in other words, it would be "their Vietnam".

According to Brzezinski, funding the mujahadeen -- even at the price of unleashing Islamic fundamentalism as a force throughout the Middle East and Central Asia -- was well worth the price of defeating the Soviet Union. Of course, this was all said a full three years before the 2001 attacks in the US. Still, this doesn't change the fact that this year's recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize had knowingly and actively supported the covert funding of the mujahadeen, the Taliban's predecessor, and also, to a lesser degree, Osama bin Laden.

Yet Jimmy Carter has blood on his hands not only because of his support for Afghan terrorists. In East Timor he is also indirectly responsible for genocide and human rights violations, thanks to his administration's support for the Indonesian government at that time. Indeed, the arms provided by the Carter administration were used during the massacres in East Timor, which peaked in 1978 (Carter was US president from 1976 to 1980) with the death toll estimated at about 200,000 and, in one observers words, "the worst slaughter relative to population since the Holocaust."

Like other political figures with blood on their hands, such as Israel's prime minister Ariel Sharon or Henry Kissinger, Carter has escaped scrutiny, not to mention justice. Others, namely those on the losing side, are not always so lucky. After all, Slobodan Milosevic is undergoing court proceedings in The Hague for charges of crimes against humanity and genocide based on the concept of "command responsibility".

All this makes a mockery of the Nobel Prize awards, and merely adds to the growing pessimism of life in the Third Millennium. Yet the real tragedy is not that such controversies and ironies exist; after all, controversy and irony are an essential part of human history. Rather, the real tragedy is in the level of amnesia and indifference among ourselves, the general public, this despite the enormous wealth of information presently at our disposal. (John Horvath)