Behind the Obama Nobel Prize “Outrage”

I think the reasons suggested for the uproar over President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize miss a deeper issue.  First, no one would dispute that Mr. Obama has not yet achieved the level of contribution to world peace that other honorees have.  He, himself, acknowledged that.  Critics of both right and left argue that the reward reflects an unhealthy cult of personality, and that his rock star status has overwhelmed better judgment.  Some point to the Europeans’ apparent delight at sticking it to Dubya.  And, needless to say, racism is part of the angry outbursts as well.

But there’s a missing source of the outcry.  It’s probably less conscious; certainly less articulated.  It’s that the award gave a new focal point for mounting fears generated by a profound shift the world is undergoing on many fronts: The economic meltdown; global dangers and threats; the impact of climate change.  It’s an interlocking world, in which everyone has to figure out how to compete and collaborate with everybody else.  And it’s a diverse world – not “out there,” somewhere, but right here in people’s community and workplace.  Moreover, shifts in how people conduct their social, sexual and individual lives are visible all around.

In today’s new era of tumultuous change, we’re shifting from an environment of  old-style “command and control,” in private relationships, careers, and organizations, to “collaborate and cooperate.”

This wave-change, this new reality that the future has arrived, is very hard to digest for some. I’m not referring, here, to the Fox crowd — the right-wing commentators and pundits.  Most probably know better; and know what’s going on throughout our society and the world.  They may not like the changes taking place – perhaps symbolized for them by a black man in the White House.  But they’ve chosen to exploit fears among segments of the public hardest hit by these massive changes.  They’re exploiting them for their own avarice and self-promotion.

Of greater concern are those struggling to regain a foothold onto a decent life.  They are terrified about life in the present world – and what’s to come.  They see social changes and governmental forces doing things that counter what they’ve always believed, and that they fear will make their lives even worse. That can turn into anger.  Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne has honed in on the genuine economic fears and resulting anger of many people caught up in “Obama hatred.” He points out the need to understand and empathize with those who feel left by the wayside, with little hope of ever getting back on track – middle class people, with genuine rage.

When those people hear voices that intensify their indignation fear and anger of this new world environment – without positive help to understand or adapt to it – they become further alienated from society.  They remain angry and scared, but without knowing how to make sense of what’s going on; and without learning how they might embrace the new realities with practical actions and renewed hope. That’s dangerous for them and for our society.

This shift can be hard to understand and deal with. Those who have difficulty doing so need empathy, help, and practical actions; not contempt or derision.  Save the latter for those who use President Obama’s Nobel Prize – or anything else they can find – as fuel for increasing fear, hatred and division.