Monday, October 19, 2009

On the President, the Peace Prize and precarious positions

For the most part I’ve tried to keep this blog nice and diplomatic. I tend to turn to humour instead of cannonballs (a technique I believe a number of world leaders, past and present, ought to adopt). However, there are times when I can’t help but ram the cannon, even if I know it’s a risky business. I have expressed my opinions on the Middle East conflict, for instance, although I limited this to show my concern for the fact that there is an ongoing conflict rather than expressing my sympathies (or lack thereof). I’ve also written a couple of pieces on the Nobel Peace Prize – one generic and one specifically concerning the most recent laureate.

When I do write something like this I don’t do it lightly. I have a bachelor’s degree in international studies. I am in the process of getting a master’s degree in history. I have specifically studied war and peace for years, and even if I hardly can claim to be an authority on the subject, I do believe that by now I have the right to say that at least I know when I know what I am talking about. Therefore it bothers me when people tell me I don’t.

Normally, I don’t like to target specific people or specific replies, because inside me somewhere there lives a little girl who simply wants everyone to like her and to get along with everybody. However, sometimes I am forced to tell this little girl that this is not how the real world works. Sometimes one needs to confront things to have a fruitful discussion, and there will always be someone disagreeing with you. This is okay – I don’t mind that others don’t share my opinions. What matters is the way it is done. Some of the replies to my previous post on President Obama’s peace prize I was fine with – the opinion that Obama did not (yet?) deserve the Nobel Peace Prize is a valid one, it’s even one I partly agree with. The opinion that the Nobel Prize has lost some of its credibility because of the committee’s recent decision might also be valid – at least as an opinion. Whether it is a historical fact remains to be seen. I am not inclined to think this is so, actually, since the history of the prize shows several equally (and more) controversial laureates. The case against this year’s decision is that it is political, and that Obama has not yet done anything to deserve it. Well, the prize has frequently been accused of being political, and its laureates have on several occasions been accused of deserving war prizes rather than peace ones. At least no one can say that about Obama (yet?). Accusations that he is an “evil communist” do not count in this respect, by the way, since a) he is not a communist (and I very much doubt he is evil); and b) even if he had been a communist, or even evil, that alone does not equate him being in favour of war rather than peace.

But back to the replies I received. My post spurred something of a debate on my Facebook-page of all things. Since I was away, I was not able to participate in the debate (that in true digressionary spirit derailed into a debate on U.S. healthcare reform and its funding). I don’t like jumping into a debate this late, but I do feel that some of the premises raised more than deserve my attention. Therefore I will step away from two of my principles – this post will be (already is, I believe) political, and in order to get my point across I will target specific replies (even though the little girl inside me is silently aching).

It is sad that people around the world think they know what is best for the U.S.
I don’t think I know what is best for the U.S. But I do think that when a country has rapidly increasing unemployment rates, when its economy is in deep crisis, and when there are growing numbers of people living in poverty, it is high time to try to solve the problems. So far, it appears that Obama is at least willing to try. I am not saying he will succeed, and I am not saying he won’t. But I do think it is a good thing that he is trying.

I say this leaning on my background from international relations and history (and international economy, I might add). If my own political convictions also come to play, this just means I am human. It does not mean I think I have the right to enforce my beliefs on the people of the United States. I respect the fact that there are people here who have different opinions than me. I also notice, however, that there are people who share my opinions – people who are tired of the fact that they have to work their backsides off and still only barely afford healthcare. This is actually more evident to me now, living in the U.S., than what it was before I came here. So to say that I, as a foreigner, has no idea what I am talking about is a grave underestimate of my education, my intelligence and my ability to observe my surroundings.

You and others around the world who think Obama is so great, didn't grow up in the kind of freedom we are used to
I’m not entirely sure whether this is supposed to offend me, or whether this too is an underestimate. I chose to believe the latter. See, I can’t quite understand what kind of freedom U.S. citizens supposedly have that Norwegians haven’t.

Let me clarify. Norway has been an independent country since 1905. Even while we were in union with Sweden, however, we had our own constitution (since 1814), which at the time was the most progressive one ever written (including the U.S. one). In the following century, Norwegians gradually gained more civil rights. By 1913, we had universal suffrage (Norway was the second country in the world to allow women the right to vote). Excluding the five years of Nazi occupation during World War Two, Norwegians has thus enjoyed incredible freedom for a long time. In fact, since our collective memory so vividly remembers what lack of freedom implies, many Norwegians are very aware of what kind of freedom we are fortunate enough to have today.

Further, citizens in Norway enjoy the freedom of speech, the right to assembly and other fundamental human rights now integrated in our constitution. I have never experienced that I could not express my own opinions (which is probably why it shocks me when I in this instance basically am told that I should not). I have always enjoyed great freedom – in fact, I am willing to claim greater freedom than what many Americans do, because unlike many of them, I have for instance been fortunate enough to be able to travel a lot. Seeing different parts of the world allows me to appreciate my own country, because I do see that there are disparity in terms of freedom and prosperity around the world. The United States is a great country, but let there be no doubt – it is not the only great country.

In terms of civil rights, as shown above we are right up there with the United States. When it comes to other types of freedom, I don’t see that we fall short there either. Norway has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, and also one of the largest PPP (purchase power parity) per capita, both considerably higher than that of the U.S. – Norwegians enjoy far larger financial freedom than most people in the world. Norway this year ranks top at the United Nations’ Human Development Index, which measures level of education, life expectancy and GDP per capita. We have been number two for a couple of years now, but before that, we ranked top six years in a row. What this translates to is that the UN considers Norway “the best country to live in”. I’m not saying the UN list is exclusive – clearly there are other factors that determine how happy or free the citizens are, but it does appear that a high score on these three points constitute a good starting point.

Finally, I believe there is a common misunderstanding coming to play here – the assumed battle between “individual freedom” versus a “strong government”. In theory I have less individual freedom because I pay more taxes than an American, and because I cannot choose which health insurance I want, since I am automatically insuranced through the government rather than with a private company. I am willing to argue till my face turns blue the Norwegian welfare system actually gives me MORE individual freedom, because I still have the option of choosing a private clinic in Norway or abroad if I want to, an option that I actually might be able to afford because there are no insurance companies stealing my money (since I don’t have to pay for health insurance), and because I, despite the taxes I pay, am still left with more money at the end of the month due to all the other services my government also provides that I thus don’t have to pay for. I can, if I want to. But I don’t see the point – after all, the system is working. If anything, I pity those who didn’t grow up in the kind of freedom I am used to – a freedom that also allows you to trust your government.

American Freedom will never die and Socialism will not last.
Here it is again. The struggle between “American Freedom” (individual freedom) and “Socialism” (strong government). I believe that I under the previous point clarified why I don’t think this is a particularly fruitful debate. One further reason, however, is a matter of definition. You can find a number of definitions of socialism in various dictionaries, but let me provide one:

Socialism: Any of various theories or systems of social organization in which the means of producing and distributing goods is owned collectively or by a centralized government that often plans and controls the economy.
Under this definition, or most others, Obama’s policies don’t warrant the label socialism. Neither does, actually, the Norwegian system. Norway is currently governed by a social-democratic government. I emphasize democratic, because even though it is evident to me that there is a difference between socialism in its purest form and the variety of ideologies or systems that include socialist elements, I realize it might not be as clear to everyone else.

Transferring power to the government from the individual isn’t taking power from the people in a social-democratic system. This is where the democratic part comes to play. The government is elected by the people.

Social-democracy has been part of Norway’s backbone, alongside capitalism, since the end of World War Two. Yes, capitalism. Because we do have open markets (in some cases even more so than the U.S., because we are subject to EU rules even if we’re not a member). But this does not change the fact that we also have a strong government, deeply vested in the welfare state. Even when we have conservative or liberal governments, no one is trying to put an end to the welfare state, since this is the foundation for how our entire society is wired.

Likewise, Obama is not trying to change everything about the existing system in the United States. I don’t foresee a similar construction as the Norwegian welfare state forming in the U.S. I’m not even sure it is desirable, and it is probably not possible considering the mere size of the Unites States. What Obama is saying is that today there are a number of Americans that cannot afford proper healthcare, and this is not something a civilized society ought to tolerate. His proposal to get there is to have a government based alternative to ensure at least a minimum of security for everyone (and how do I know this? Because I have listened to what he says about the reform, I have read the reports and I pay attention to what is being said in the media. That is media in plural, yes).

Despite my welfare state upbringing, I happen to believe that the important part of Obama’s promise is “minimum for everyone”, not “government based”. If there can be other solutions more compatible with the current U.S. system – fine. Go for that. But rather than trying to find such solutions, the opposition largely seems to be doing their best to trash Obama’s proposal by labelling it “socialist” or “communist”, or even “evil”. Why they want to revoke fears that should have been buried with the Cold War axe instead of constructively cooperate, is beyond me, and this, more than political convictions, is why I am inclined to believe that Obama has a better case than the rest of them.

The healthcare plan will not make you poor. It will not make businesses go bankrupt. It will not turn the USA into a socialist as opposed to a capitalist country. If anything, Norway is an example that a middle way is indeed possible. I am not saying the Norwegian system is flawless, because it isn’t. Let me once again emphasize that I am also not saying that the U.S. should adopt Norway’s system. But I do think it is worth considering the proposed changes rather than dismissing them as “socialism”.

It [the fact that Obama won the Nobel Prize] just proves that the rest of the world wants us to be just like them.
Well, no. It doesn’t prove anything. First of all, the Nobel Peace Prize is not a “be like us or else” kind of prize. Secondly, it hardly reflects the opinion of the world. I think the six members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee would be rather flattered to hear such an accusation. Their decisions reflect their opinion, and nothing else. In this case the committee’s reasons for awarding Obama was “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”, his “vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons” and for his initiatives in cooperation in such themes as human rights, democracy and climate challenges. Not once during the announcement was domestic, U.S. issues mentioned. If the members of the Nobel Committee also have an opinion on these matters, they do not mention it as a basis for their decisions. Since both the nominees and the records of the committee’s meetings are confidential and not to be released for at least 50 years, we will not know for a while yet whether the committee members had ulterior motifs. Therefore it is pointless to discuss it.

In the end, it does not matter whether we like or dislike the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama. The decision has been made, and the Nobel committee never has, in its 108 year long history, changed its mind. The decision will stand. There has been disagreement within the committee (in 1973, when the prize was awarded to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, the North Vietnamese who is one of the few that has declined the prize, two of the committee’s dissenting members actually resigned), though this year’s decisions appears to have been unanimous. I’d like to quote Obama’s big sister, Auma Obama, who this weekend visited Norway in her capacity as working for CARE in Kenya. When asked what she thought about her brother’s reaction to the prize – that he felt he didn’t deserve it – she said that she did not think it was important whether he felt he deserved it. “It’s not up to you to decide whether you deserve something or not. When you get a prize you are given that prize. You are nominated. (…) We can’t define how those people feel about us.”

To conclude. If you think Obama didn’t deserve the prize, fine. It won’t change anything, but you’re entitled to that opinion. If you think Obama is an idiot who will ruin everything the United States was built upon, you’re entitled to that opinion. If you think Norway is a socialist state where the poor people have no idea how un-free they are, I suppose you are entitled to that opinion as well, although I do feel I have done an effort to enlighten you so that your opinion may be based on facts rather than assumptions. What I demand, though, is my right to express my opinions (especially considering this is MY blog). I don’t appreciate insinuations that I shouldn’t use this right, and I don’t appreciate insinuations that I don’t know what I talk about (for the record – no, I don’t believe everything I hear in the media. That includes Fox News, by the way).

I know I am putting my head on the chopping block with this post, but I feel it’s the right thing to do. And I apologize in advance if anyone feels offended by my doing so. Most of all I apologize that this got so long. If you managed to stay with me through the end – kudos to you for that!


Watery Tart said...

Very well said, Mari. I think you did a fine job of giving the facts without getting too heated, which I know was a fear. And this American happens to agree with you on all points.

Watery Tart said...

Say... I notice controversial is the way to pump the stats... that and putting Stacy and Lance on your marketing team... teehee

Abram said...

very well put, well "spoken", and whats really probably the funniest thing about reading this, (not that it was comical) was the simple fact you know your country's history!75% - 85% (and im being generously low) of Americans do not know their own history as well as to site important dates. this alone you would think could shut some people up. but unfortunately most(if not all)people abuse their freedom of speech and lack a filter from their brain to their mouth (or in this case their keyboard) and will just let and ignorant thought spring forth, or should i say spew forth, and make claims and accusations based not on fact but on their own probably uneducated mind. thanks for speaking your, and don't let anyone make you think or feel you shouldn't!!

Paul "FooDaddy" Brand said...

I have to wonder if those folks who (and here's a blatant stereotype I will employ to save time!) fly the Confederate flag on their Silverados and hoot and holler about our Freedoms and our Founding Fathers and other things they have no real knowledge of...I wonder if folks like that actually read pieces like this.

I would have to sigh and say that they most likely do not, as it would probably cut down on a little bit of the hooting I hear.

Great stuff.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Mari. I know how hard it can be to delve into such a fiery debate; half of my family are extreme conservatives. I think you are very much on point as well. When all is said and done, you-and every human being in this world- has the right to an opinion on whatever you wish to have an opinion about (some people have more freedom to voice it, but everyone has the right to at least have an opinion). The fact that you are so thoughtful in the statement of your opinions SHOULD make others reflect and be thoughtful about their responses to them. If for no other reason than being respectful and curtious (things that are easily overlooked in the cyber world)

I love reading a really great debate on a controversial issue;intelligent conversation helps us know and understand the fair points of others. It is sad when people dilute issues and retaliate with remarks that do not further the conversation in a thoughtful manner. While people with other differing opinions may have valid points, they will never be heard through the blaring ignorance that exists in some of those comments.

Marjorie said...

How about you don't insult people you don't know.

Mari, I sincerely apologize if you felt offended by my mother's post. She is very passionate about her beliefs as are most people in the US be they liberal or conservative. I value you and all of my liberal minded friends as much as I value my conservative ones. I know my mom would never insinuate that you didn't have a right to your opinions. She just has very strong ones of her own.

As I have been saying A LOT lately lets not assume people are idiots because they have a different opinion. Or assume people are "rednecks". Some of you know that I and my Mother are originally from the same place Obama has hailed from for much of HIS life. That's right, ILLINOIS!

Cruella Collett said...

Tami - yes... I expected reactions, I did not expect so many of them, though. But glad you (and many others) agree with, or at least respect what I said.

Abram - I will most certainly not let anyone tell me not to speak my mind. (It should be pointed out, though, that as a historian it would be extra embarassing not to know my history...)

Paul - I do think that a lot of people only read what they already agree with. I can even see the temptation of doing so...

Anonymous (actually Rissa, right?) - I agree with you that it is worthwhile trying to keep debates civil. And I am glad you think I succeeded :)

Marjorie - I hope you don't feel too caught in the middle, which frankly was one of my main concerns when considering posting this in the first place. I really do think that it is great that people have opinions, and as I mentioned, that they are able to express those opinions (especially if they do so in an appropriate manner).

Thanks, everyone, for your support and/or comments! (Now I dread looking at my Facebook page. I think I've created a monster...)

(And just to be absolutely sure I'm not stepping into any traps here... By "monster" I mean rapidly expanding comments thread, NOT anything else...)

Rayna M. Iyer said...

And here I was thinking that my comment on your blog after you wrote about Obama winning the Nobel would offend you!!!

Nice post, Mari, and I am glad you did not shy away from tackling something head on. I am definitely of the camp that believes that it was premature giving the Prize to Obama, I am also of the camp that believes that the Nobel Committee has gone back a couple of steps in selecting him, but to read as much more into it as has been read is really beyond my comprehension.

Kudos, again!

Cruella Collett said...

Natasha - not at all! As long as people allow me mine, I don't mind them having their own opinions! And I'm really glad that you (and others) see that - I would hate to sound like I disregard other people's opinions when that is exactly what I tried to avoid. Thanks :)

Anonymous said...

I don't worry about offending people if I'm stating the facts or my opinion. Its passion that brings out responses from other people and the last time I checked it's a free country. You have to weave passion into your writings to solicit a passionate response. Nicely done.

Stephen Tremp

Not Hannah said...

You rock.

That is all.

Anonymous said...

'Socialist' is a term most often used by the Brezhnevs of Capitalism.


Cruella Collett said...

Stephen - thanks for the support :) It is a free country (and I happen to believe it will remain so, since I happen to believe I also come from a free country, even though I have free health care. Oops, I almost crossed the line there...) Passionate responses were not lacking the least!

Not Hannah - so do you! :) (I mean it - your blog is awesome and I need to get over there more and read it)

STG - I think you have a point there, and I also think the term has been used too generously in this particular debate.

Alix said...

Great post, Mari. This American agrees with you too. I may sound like a snooty liberal, but lately I come across very few arguments against Obama's health care reforms that aren't semi-literate squakings about evil communists etc. I have seen a few that are thoughtful and have some research to back them up, and so while I still don't agree and think they're mistaken, I can at least respect them for giving a real intellectual argument to support their views. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I have a hard time respecting the opinions of people who result to mudslinging and a free use of works like "communist, socialist, and terrorist" to express them.
I think too many Americans don't know their history and it's tragic. The reason a lot of Americans think that we're a wonderful perfect country and the most free country in the world, and no one is nearly as free as us, is that such notions, and an emphasis on patriotism are taught to us in elementary school.
I was lucky enough to have a very good education from elementary school all the way up. The teachers I had in high school encouraged us to think and form opinions and arguments, they also taught us some not so savory facts in U.S. history as well as the good ones (you can imagine the reaction some people had at anyone daring to say that the U.S. invasion of Vietnam, for example, was unjust). Not everyone receives an education like mine though. My boyfriend is a public high school teacher, and so many of our schools are grossly underfunded and overcrowded.
There's also and issue of culture and upbringing. I grew up in the northest, and have parents that are very educated and intellectual. I inherited a love of reading from them in particular. Teaching and scholarship have a high respect in my family. My dad, incidentally, grew up in Tito's Yuegoslavia, left it as soon as he could, it very against communist, and yet, is not afraid of a communist revolution here. He loves the U.S. and supports Obama's public option. He'd really like universal health care. Not everyone comes from by background and not everyone has to. Not everyone has to be be a liberal intellectual like me, but I think anti-intellectualism is still a bit too strong in America. Some people are more passionate about their hunting rifles than books, and that's fine, but I think it's problematic when a love of learning and scholarship are viewed as stupid, stodgy, or pansy-ass.

Cruella Collett said...

Thanks for that insightful comment, Alix! I agree with you that it is a shame when being intellectual is suddenly seen as bad - since when is intelligent reflection not good?

Also, I agree that it is important to be open-eyed about the world around us, no matter if you live in the U.S. or Norway or anywhere else. Being able to see just a little further than your own navel can be very rewarding, and it does help in allowing different perspectives into a debate.
Thanks for sharing, and glad you liked my post :)

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