• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author
Article

And the Nobel Fear Prize goes to…

When I heard commentators praising Al Gore as a ‘charismatic figure’, I waited around for the punchline. But they weren’t joking.

Somehow, this dull provincial politician suffering from a charisma-bypass has been transformed into a hi-tech twenty-first century prophet – and now he has won the Nobel Peace Prize to boot.

It is hard to tell if the reinvention of Gore is a testimony to the persuasive powers of PowerPoint, or to the collapse of the cultural and political imagination in the West. Probably, Gore’s emergence as a modern-day icon is a result of his ability to personify our culture of fear. He is the ideal spokesman for an era in which virtually every human experience comes with a health warning attached. Now, with his Nobel award, he joins a pantheon of cultural saints, including fellow Nobel recipient Mother Teresa.

In a world where moral reasoning has been hijacked by apocalyptic thinking, there’s a desperate demand for individuals who can put forward powerful cautionary tales. And global warming has become the mother of all cautionary tales. It integrates every aspect of modern human life into an omnipotent story of greed and destructiveness.

Politicians and educators have worked out that even schoolchildren who feel estranged from traditional fairytales become animated when told stories about melting ice-caps and dying polar bears. At a time of widespread moral illiteracy, when many find it difficult to make a clear distinction between right and wrong, there is a strong demand for vivid symbols of evil. To date, Al Gore has been the principal beneficiary of this demand. With his film An Inconvenient Truth, and his jetsetting around the world to promote his message that we are doomed if we don’t change our ways, Gore has more than satisfied the demand for a new evil bogeyman that we can all pit ourselves against.

It was inevitable that the Nobel Peace Prize would go to Gore. Historically, the prize has had very little to do with rewarding genuine peacemakers. In 1939, nominees for the prize included such distinguished fighters for peace as Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler. The prize has always been influenced by the exigencies of realpolitik. So, over the years individuals like Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter and Willy Brandt received the Nobel.

On occasions, the realpolitik of the Nobel Peace Prize has taken a grotesque form. For example, rather than just give the award to Nelson Mandela in the early 1990s, the Prize Committee insisted that Mandela share it with his nemesis: the pro-apartheid politician Frederik de Klerk. A similar package of rewards was put together in 1994, when Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin were all rewarded for ‘their efforts to create peace in the Middle East’.

In recent times, the dictates of realpolitik have competed with the dictates of sentimentalism. The Prize Committee has turned towards honouring individuals who personify its key virtues. So it gave the prize to Mother Teresa, for her piety and celebration of meekness, in 1979. But as contemporary morality has become disassociated from traditional religious values, today a secular saint is more likely to be awarded the prize. Human rights advocates, promoters of sustainable development, fashionable NGOs like Médecins Sans Frontières: these are the kind of people who are now likely to win the attention of the Prize Committee. This year, there was even a rumour that Bono might win.

Looking at the criteria of the Nobel Peace Prize, Al Gore fully deserved to win it. The Norwegian Nobel Committee has always had an uneasy relationship with peace. Its decision to award the prize to Gore is not the first time it has mistaken a fear-maker for a peacemaker. The tragedy is that, today, many influential thinkers and commentators also find it difficult to distinguish between these two things.

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