Friday, December 18, 2009

Mouthing Off

Give Back the Prize

I have already said enough about the Nobel Prize for Literature (see Two Cheers for the Nobel Prize). I would only add that it has been awarded occasionally more for political reasons than for literary ones. Judging from the list of its laureates, the Nobel Peace Prize is a rather dubious honor. Gandhi, easily the greatest activist for peace in the 20th century, was nominated five times, including just a few days before his assassination, but he never won. Martin Luther King, whose non-violent philosophy was borrowed from Gandhi, won the prize in 1964, and paid tribute to Gandhi in his Nobel lecture. Others who never won the award include Corazon Aquino, Liu Xiaobo, Václav Havel, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Meanwhile, some of the people who actually won the award have extremely spotty records regarding the promotion of peace, like Charles G. Dawes, Henry Kissinger, Yassir Arafat, and Mother Teresa.

Since U.S. president Barack Obama was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, critics at home and abroad have questioned the award. The protests that Obama was undeserving of the prize, which Obama dignified by responding to, assume that it is a sacrosanct honor. There was even a sign telling Obama to "earn" the award that he did not deserve. Listening to Obama trying to justify himself to that grotesque audience in Oslo made my stomach turn. If Obama really wanted to take the moral high ground in this controversy, he should give back the award. Giving back the $1.4 million might be a bit harder to do.

Pershing Was a Prick

Some of my ex-military friends have spread stories, mostly apocryphal, about the American general John J. Pershing. While he was merely "a man of his time," which is one of the most commonly-used alibis of all time, Pershing participated in and carried out acts that should have forever besmirched his historical reputation. He took part in the massacre at Wounded Knee while a 1st Lieutenant. He is rumored to have committed acts during his service in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, including the execution of Muslim prisoners in Mindanao with bullets dipped in pig's blood. (This anecdote is often used in praise of Pershing nowadays.) When appointed commander of the U.S. expeditionary force in World War I, he banned the service of black soldiers alongside, or anywhere near, white soldiers, and sent them to bivouac with the French army, which had no such racist compunctions. On Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, he showed his contempt for the treaty by ordering his soldiers to keep fighting (and dying) all the way up to the eleventh hour, when the ceasefire went into effect. Pershing made no secret of his conviction that the Germans should have been fought all the way to Berlin.

In 1871, when Prussia defeated France and terms of peace were being argued, French General de Wympffen is reported to have said to the Prussian leaders, "It is to your interest, from a political standpoint, to grant us honorable conditions . . . A peace based on conditions which would flatter the amour-propre of the Army would be durable, whereas rigorous measures would awaken bad passions, and perhaps bring on an endless war between France and Prussia."

Whereat Otto von Bismarck disagreed: "I said to him," he recorded in his memoirs, "that we might build on the gratitude of a prince, but certainly not on the gratitude of a people - least of all on the gratitude of the French. That is France neither institutions nor circumstances were enduring; that governments and dynasties were constantly changing, and one need not carry out what the other had bound itself to do. . . . As things stood it would be folly if we did not make full use of our success." Thus, the peace terms were such that the French would remember them when they forced far bitterer terms on the Germans in 1918. And those terms in their turn would give Hitler sufficient grounds to justify the most savage war in history.

Roman Holiday

I am afraid that the Swiss authorities who have the Polish film director Roman Polanski under house arrest at his Gstaad chalet may agree to extradite him to the United States to face thirty-year-old charges of forcing sex on a thirteen-year-old girl. What makes me afraid is not that that I am an admirer of Polanski's work, but that his trial in the U.S. and his possible imprisonment may turn the 76-year-old into yet another martyr for his art, like Ezra Pound, and will lead many to overestimate the value of his work. Polanski has made, in his fifty year career, two fine films, three good ones, and a pile of quite bad ones. His personal history is filled with sadness - losing his mother in a Nazi concentration camp, his wife and unborn child to the Manson family, and his somewhat forced exile from a lucrative career in Hollywood. Of course, such a history is no excuse for pedophilia - something for which Polanski seems to have a penchant. If he is imprisoned, I can foresee his jail becoming a site of pilgrimage, as the rich and famous stop there to offer consolation and encouragement. But I wonder what Jack Nicholson thinks of all this, since it was in his hot tub that the underage seduction took place?

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