What is in an Award?

There are many reasons to give an award – validation, recognition, peer approval – and some reasons not to – achievement is an abstract concept, curiously resistant to human rankings and scales.

No one can be defined by any rewards they receive, but if awards don’t furnish a career, they certainly stand in testament to it. Human endeavors, of course, cannot be measured. We live in the kind of world where a computer can predict the future but cannot give us a proper BCS order.

Then again, perhaps objectivity is beside the point. Maybe it is the inherent conflict and debate, fraught with and fractured by harrowing remonstrations, that make it interesting. There is often the struggle just to define an award in order to lend it obvious cohesion and credibility: no one really knows what valuable means in “Most Valuable Player”, and the Academy Awards equivocates between “auteur elitism” and “accessible populism” with an almost pathological fury.

During a time when awards are handed out gleefully every minute, all angles and measures of possible achievement existing as a pre-condition for a ceremony, nobody seems to know what it all means.

The debate once again flared up with ideological provocation when it was announced that Barack Obama had been awarded the Nobel peace prize. What exactly had he won it for? Christopher Hitchens, writing in Newsweek, had five possible reasons with which to award a Nobel peace prize: service to diplomacy, opportunism/cynicism (such as the way in which Yasir Arafat infringed upon the Middle East peace process in his own way), human rights, vague feelings of good will, and fealty to supranational institutions. All apt descriptions, which Obama tends to straddle as a kind of orphan: he can fall into a few different categories.

He most certainly won as a kind of political statement. Like Jimmy Carter in 2002, who stood in antithesis to the then practicing administration, Obama is the committee’s quintessential model, an ascent to peace as constructed in Norway. Perhaps there is merit to that angle. Is he that much different from, say, Bill Clinton in policy? Not necessarily, but perhaps he symbolizes something that no other man could ever be: the advocate of a multi-cultural world that is inherently fractured and yet is in desperate need of someone to connect all of our disparate experiences together.

That is, of course, somewhat of a contradiction: Obama has been elected to lead America, and what may be in America’s interests may not be the world’s best interests. But that on its face is a tacit capitulation. Perhaps we may not always be inherently right when it comes to international affairs. There is introspection and solidarity about our place in the world. Obama has plenty of American idealism, to be sure – maybe too much for some and not enough for others – or at least idealism about what America represents, but that might also mean less of a shoot from the hip attitude.

Hitchens likens Obama’s award to pre-crime, evoking the elements from Minority Report in which crime can be forecasted and stopped before it ever happens. Certainly Obama could have been given the award years from now, when his achievements are actually born out.

Obama is essentially being honored as the smart leader in class who shows bold initiative within a group before the assignment has even been graded. But in a world where bold new 21st century initiative is much needed, whole new reasons may be invented to honor Obama with an award. Time will tell whether it was impetuous or prescient, but what is even worse than a political selection process, I think, is the political reaction and punditry afterward.