Monday, December 13, 2010

The Norwegian peace prize

Hal Pepinsky,,
December 13, 2010
Montreal aside, my wife Jill’s and my deepest friendships outside the US are with Norwegians. Collectively and individually, I owe a great debt to Norwegians for inspiring my faith that imperial cultures can transform into relatively peaceful societies. The children of Vikings stopped sending combat troops abroad in 1821 (although I wonder about their role in NATO in Afghanistan), and a generation later, dropped their incarceration rate from that of the US in 1960 by two-thirds at a level it pretty much sustains. The 17th of May is independence day (from Denmark—into the union with Sweden) featuring children’s parades from local schools to the King’s Palace…no guns.
My mother taught me that Alfred Nobel was the Swedish inventor of dynamite who dedicated his personal fortune to promoting peace. Ironically, as Norway became independent of Sweden’s sovereign foreign policy at the turn of the last century, the only Nobel Prize to be awarded outside Sweden was garnered—as a matter of national policy—to Oslo. The hall in which THE peace prize is given is in the centuries old original University of Oslo building, a block or two down the hill from the King Harald’s palace, on a promenade that ends at the Norwegian parliament building. The Norwegian peace research institute is (or at least was) just a couple of blocks and a few toward the parliament close to the end of the Oslofjord.
When I first lived in Norway in 1961-62, its population was about 4 million. When I returned in 1986 the population was nearing 4.5 million. Today its population is 4.8 million. Its reputation for peacekeeping (beginning in Cyprus) and peacemaking (as in giving the peace prize, or in being the home of the founding UN secretary general) is legend. Norway has gained amazing attention and respect as a peacemaker. The peace prize gains more worldwide media and political notice worldwide by far than any of the prizes awarded in Nobel’s native Sweden.
Being idolized as a purely peaceful society carries its risks, especially at global levels of political expression. I cringed as I listened to former Norwegian prime minister, present chair of the committee that selects the peace prize laureate, demanding (to standing applause) that the Chinese government release Liu Xiaobo, a year after awarding the prize to President Obama, who continues to cave to generals wanting to escalate bloodshed on two war fronts.
My political hero on this as on many occasions is Bolivian president Evo Morales. spent the week in Cancun at the UN climate change conference that NPR only reported last Saturday after the conference was over. played a segment of a press conference at which Morales explained why his was one country that declined an invitation to the Oslo peace prize ceremonies. How can his country, among peoples including those in China that have been imperialistically, culturally denigrated, honor an award that last year was given to the leading political figure in colonization of the Americas?
I had an overblown romance with Maoist Chinese law that lasted through the awful upheaval in lives of many Chinese during the Cultural Revolution. And so for instance I am familiar with the premise in Chinese law that police are duty bound to make arrests only when suspects are already proven guilty, and that courts are duty bound to rspect that premise. When in law school I specialized in studying Chinese law, the dominant theme of my education was that we Western bearers of the rule of law had to teach the Communist barbarians how to respect human rights and due process.
What Evo knows, and I know, and the Chinese know, is that Western legalism and international relations and colonization are built on hypocrisy. As the US wikileaks are showing, US diplomacy rests on duplicity. So is domestic politics. How on earth can my nation, with a quarter of the world’s prisoners who overwhelmingly have gone through humiliating guilty plea rituals just to get out of jail regardless of evidence, whose prison budgets are bankrupting states and local governments, whose prisoners are there because they are too young, brown and black to resist, condemn a country that was essentially colonized in the opium wars of the mid-nineteenth century?
Nobody deserves prison for speech. But it happens all the time, as for some in Guantanamo Bay even for things that were said about them, never mind whether they themselves said or did anything. Heck, there are people on national networks and in politics today saying that Julian Assange ought to be killed for telling true stories about US politics because the truth threatens national security. So when the Chinese legal system pronounces Liu Xiaobo a hazard because with US backing he wants Western legal knowledge/wisdom to prevail in China, I see it as just one national failure to deal with its own issues compounded by pointing fingers at someone else. I see in the Nobel peace committee’s awards in recent years as implicit sanctimony that we white folks in the global north know what the law literally means. I found Jagland’s interpretation of the Chinese constitution as literally true embarrassing, all the more so by the ahistorical, acomparative, airtime he was given.
Norwegian friends have commented to me that if I believe that Norway itself is less violent than for instance the US, I just don’t know Norwegians well enough. In my friend Per Ole Johansen’s book Oss Selv Naermest (roughly means “closest to home”), he documents that in the midst of Norway’s heroic resistance to German occupation in WWII, it was the Norwegian police who rounded up Jews for the Germans to send to extermination. I find this honesty refreshing, in contrast to the way this year’s Nobel peace prize was awarded. Love and peace--hal

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