Press "Enter" to skip to content

Daily Planet: Obama beats Superman

The Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo is a sort of religious site. Sitting adjacent to the harbour in central Oslo, a spot that could easily pass for Cape Town’s waterfront, the Peace Centre is a temple for serious diplomats, earnest hippies and wide-eyed, encyclopaedia-stuffed kids. I suppose the plush building is to idealistic peace-mongers what the Neverland ranch was to Michael Jackson fans; a theatre of make-believe crock designed to keep you warm and fuzzy inside while you try to exorcise those monsters in your head (or bed).

Walking through the centre is like ambling through an expensive leather-bound history book. The most influential leaders, thinkers and doers of the past century showcased; the mafia of all do-gooders showcasing deeds and the triumph of the human spirit under one roof.

And in this world of interactive post-micro chip museum exhibits, the Peace Centre pulls out all the stops: magic history books tell Alfred Nobel’s story, a maize of electronic stems hosting mini interactive screens summarise each laureate’s distinction, looping documentaries advance the legend, and trees bearing international messages of peace as all-season fruits of hope; all of which make the experience as gratifyingly ethereal as possible.


I’d rather believe in Peter Pan, eat an oompa loompa and be fingered by Michael Jackson.

Though I felt right at home with the four South African laureates looking at me through the interactive screens, I couldn’t help but think it all felt amiss.

The Peace Centre seemed to be trying too hard to find an authentic spot in modern human history.

Was this the great humanitarian award philosophers Aristotle and Plato envisioned for mankind, as they munched on olives and goat cheese in the Mediterranean, till the wee hours of the morning?

It was instead a Swedish arms dealer, Alfred Nobel, whose death wish in 1895 was to syndicate a series of prizes that soon became the Nobel prizes. These prizes ranged from literature to physics and medicine to the most famous of the lot, the Nobel Peace Prize.

In fact, the first Nobel Peace Prize was only awarded in 1901.

But here we are, behaving as if Moses came running down Mount Sinai with a nifty Nobel Peace Prize attached to the Ten Commandments.

This award has no elaborate history, no apparent mythology involving a Greek god or exotic dervish from some outlandish post in the East. This is an award decided by a bunch of Norwegians sitting somewhere near the North Pole.

Even Coca-Cola is older than the Nobel Peace Prize.

Yes, in many ways, Norway is amazing; Glacier cut salt-water fjords, Vikings for great-grandfathers, paternal leave and women blessed with the shapeliest legs since Russell Crowe in Gladiator, but surely this is not enough to regard the Nobel Peace Prize as the modern Holy Grail?

Yes, there is a place for such gimmicks like the Nobel Peace Prize, especially when the award brings to the fore causes that need international attention, and/or resilient humanitarian work raged on by organizations or certain individuals who try to make significant improvements in their part of the world.

In essence, the award honours brilliant work, or interventions that highlight a cause, or a precarious circumstance needing urgent consideration.

That Desmond Tutu got the Nobel Peace Prize is mostly arbitrary compared to the work he has and continues to be involved in. Likewise Nelson Mandela’s attitude, and 27 years of sacrifice in prison comes to mind long before we talk about a CV lined with awards including the Nobel Peace Prize.

People don’t revere great individuals because of the prizes they receive. The Nobel Peace Prize might increase their stocks, polish that grey into a silver strand of hair, but awards pale in comparison to the tangible products of their life’s work.

What does Barack Obama have to showcase to the world just why he is deserving of this award?

The fact that one laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi can be languishing in a jail while another laureate, Obama, is engaged in two wars and lacks the political will to emphatically challenge Burma to release her, makes the Nobel Peace Prize seem quite, erm, juvenile.

Don’t get me wrong.

I don’t dislike Barack Obama. I like how he delivers speeches. I like his chiselled face. I even agree he is the sexiest politician since Clint Eastwood became mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Barack Obama makes me want to watch Superman the way my German Shepherd used to make me watch Lassie reruns.

But by rewarding Obama for “capturing the world’s attention and giving its people hope for a better future” this Nobel gimmick has only shrunk further into a feverishly farcical limerick.

They might as well have given the Nobel Peace Prize to Superman.

Now if Obama had responded like this:

“I am shocked, surprised and moved by the committee’s belief and choice for an award that holds a long list of dedicated workers of human rights, equality and justice. With it, I have been invited to join the ranks of all those men and women before me who have sacrificed their lives in fighting for a better world. I believe I would want to honour the Luthulis, the Mandelas, the Aung San Suu Kyis; individuals who have inspired through personal sacrifice. Our time is now, and while I understand the honour of this being bestowed upon me, I request humbly that I be judged by what I accomplish and not by the promises I make. Therefore, I cannot accept this award. God bless America.”

It is difficult to turn down such an award. It could be easily construed as an arrogant and unnecessary slap in the face; it could even be regarded as anti-peace.

But in doing so, Obama would have exchanged a farcical award for immortality; the Nobel Peace Centre might have just stopped looking like a famous never-never-land.


  • Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also the author of a book called "Zuma's Bastard" (Two Dogs Books, October 2010) Yes, it is the name of a book. A real book. With a kickass cover. Click on the cover to find out more. You know you want to. or join the revolution: Accidental Academic won best political blog at the South African Blog awards 2009 and is a finalist for 2010.