Friday, October 9, 2009

By merit or by popularity?

One of the things that separates us Americans from specifically the European world, whence our cultural heritage mainly derives, is that we have held that advancement and recognition in society was to be determined by merits, by one's own efforts as opposed to the family that one was born into or whatever connections that family may have.

Today, Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. His win was considered quite stunning; you could hear the gasps from the audience when his name was read. Even the odds were against him. The chances that either he or Bill Clinton would win the award were 1/14 which is not insurmountable, but, still, almost very unlikely. Nonetheless, Barack Obama is the winner of the prize. But the question is whether he actually has done anything, whether as President or even as a U.S. Senator to merit such a distinction. Considering that the nominations for the 2009 prize were closed as of the last week of January, which was only the second week of his presidency and had not even begun work on the stimulus bill and that the duration of his time in the Senate amounted to only 110 days or so and the other time was spent running for president, what has President Obama actually achieved to be considered for such a distinctive honour? I believe he has done nothing. Now, that does not preclude him from any possible future success. But to honor him now is extremely premature. Even Lech Walesa, the leader of the Polish movement Soidarity even acknowledged that.

So, what has this to do with a meritocracy? It seems to me that the only reason Obama won the award was because of his good intentions and because of his standing as a celebrity among the world's leftist intellectuals. Even Obama himself mentioned in his speech that his award was more of a "call to action" than a recognition of anything actually done. But that is not why you receive a reward. A player on a soccer team doesn't get a trophy as a "call to action" to win the championship.

A little while ago, I wrote a piece about how far we have drifted from a society that values actual achievement and merit to a society that rewards those who have the connections or the name. To recap a little of what I wrote about in that blog, I offered the example of the Republic of Rome.

The Roman Republic had as its highest and most revered office, the consulship. Two men would serve for one year terms. Each had veto power, presumably to keep one from exerting too much power over the other or over the senate. The Romans created this system because, according to legend, the son of the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, raped the noble woman Lucretia who killed herself because of shame but not before she asked her husband, Collatinus and her brother-in-law Lucius Junius Brutus (the ancestor of the assassin of Caesar) to avenge her dishonour. The Romans rose up in rebellion against the tyrants and drove them out, abolishing the monarchy and setting up a Republican system of government where no one man would be able to exert supreme and abusive authority. Theoretically, two men each year would allow for a lot of different people to rise to the consulship. This was unfortunately not what happened. Over the course of the Republic's existence, the consular chairs were held continuously by 35 different families. On rare occasion, new men, novi homines as they were called in Latin, were able to climb up the rigorous steps to become consuls. Such men included some of Rome's finest generals, Gnaeus Pompey, Julius Caesar, Caius Marius as well as revered statesmen and orators such as Marcus Tullius Cicero. None of these men had ancestors who were consuls, though they often had ancestors who rose up highly enough. The term, novi homines, though has distinctive negative overtones. In Latin, the adjective novus not only means "new" but also "strange", even "revolutionary." The Romans were a conservative people: Better to go with the devil you know. Though the Romans theoretically had a society that valued merit, ultimately it came down to which family you belonged to.

Have we gone that way now? Is accomplishment, achievement, merit, whatever you want to call it no longer the mark of a man? Is it now just good intentions and vision? We all have visions and dreams but to confuse those for genuine work that creates change is quite another thing altogether. Most people, unfortunately, in this life do not accomplish their dreams and visions but go to their grave unfulfilled.

Now good people can disagree whether Barack Obama has actually accomplished anything. But in reality, he hasn't. Both on the foreign stage and on the domestic front, Obama has given plenty of great, eloquent speeches and seems to be perpetually locked into campaign mode where he comes off as a rock star. We can also disagree as to whether his winning a U.S. Senate seat, meritorious in itself, should be counted as experience to be commander-in-chief and President of the U.S. I would say it does not. But for even the most ardent admirers of President Obama to say that he deserves a Nobel Peace Prize is nothing more than checking reason at the door and being blinded by cult of personality.

To win an award should require work and some degree of success. At the same time, considering some of the other recent winners of this award, perhaps I should not be incensed at all. The terrorist, Yasser Arafat, the incompetent and blundering fool, Jimmy Carter, the hypocritical and scientifically uneducated Al Gore have all won Nobel Peace Prizes. Perhaps the committe simply doesn't understand its own criteria, hence its choosing of other less than deserving winners.

Merit has gone out the door and has been replaced by good intentions and cult of personality.

Personally, though, I think that the choice was done for no more reason than to shout a final "Fuck you" to George W. Bush. How's that for enlightened thinking?

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