Staying on the Path to Peace

By Becky O’Malley
Thursday October 15, 2009 - 01:01:00 PM

On Saturday morning I wasn’t even out of bed before my family started demanding that I write to someone about the snarky way the newsies have been commenting on Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize. I’m the designated writer in a family of opinionated people, and it seems they’re all mad about this one. 

My mother had already started in on the topic the day before. She’ll be 95 next week, so she watches a lot of television these days, mainly C-Span, with occasional evening hits of Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow. She was originally a Hillary fan, but she’s warmed to Barack Obama, and she was outraged on Friday afternoon at what she thinks are inferior people (mostly middle-aged white men, she points out) who can’t grasp why the Nobel people recognized the president’s achievements so far. She knows what Obama’s up against in the Senate and the House because she keeps such a tight eye on Congress, and she thinks he’s doing a fine job, considering.  

My husband’s wrath was provoked by Scott Simon on NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” which our alarm radio turns on even though we don’t have to get up early on Saturdays. Simon read a sarcastic opinion piece, a smarmy catalogue of accomplishments of previous feel-good winners like Jane Addams, which was mislabeled as a “story” on the NPR website. His conclusion: “The president said yesterday, ‘I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who’ve been honored by this prize.’ He deserves to be taken at his word.” This made my husband so mad that he turned the radio off, causing me to miss “Car Talk” later in the morning. 

Then it was my daughter, lingering at breakfast over the Santa Cruz morning paper, which these days consists mostly of reprints from the AP and national papers. She called insisting that I get up right away and tell them all off, not so much for the content of their pieces but for the tone. In the background I could hear my son-in-law, once upon a time mayor of Santa Cruz, muttering about how these press do-nothings who’d never held public office thought that Obama hadn’t accomplished enough in less than a year. They both wanted to know what these guys had accomplished in the same time period. 

So I got up and checked on the web to see what nastiness I’d missed in the national press. On the Washington Post website Michael Kinsley, a self-identified liberal, contributed a labored satire in which Obama is awarded several literary prizes and an Oscar.  

Most of the articles I found faulted Obama for not having done much yet. On the right, uglies like GOP chair Michael Steele hoped he never would. On the far left, historian Howard Zinn, a lifelong professional outsider, revealed on the Truthout site that he’s “shocked” that the Nobel Prize could be given for promises alone.  

Why? Many of the winners cited by smug commentators like Simon did begin some great work, but few of them survived to see what they started completed. Despite Jane Addams’ 40 years at Hull House, poverty and ignorance are still alive in Chicago. Lech Walesa did get the Soviets out of Poland, but the current Polish government is nothing to brag about. Martin Luther King, like Moses, died before he reached the promised land. 

Most readers and listeners commenting online got the idea better than the pros. Timothy McIndoo, for example, wrote to NPR: “If the Committee’s choice of President Obama is flawed, perhaps the wrong measure is being used. Rather than honoring decades of unquestionably exemplary work in the past—a kind of static award—perhaps the Committee has chosen this time to confer a dynamic award, one that requires its humble but willing recipient to realize the exceptional potential of the work he has just begun.”  

E-mailers used terms like “jealousy” and “sour grapes” to characterize the press’s disparagement of Obama. Journalists with a caustic streak had a field day with George Bush, and many of them don’t seem to have gotten over the experience. They commonly claim, incorrectly, that Obama’s poll numbers are dropping, but regular people, my family included, still admire him, still like his politics of hope, and still expect that he has a few moves up his sleeve. 

What the naysayers miss is that world peace in our lifetime isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. No one reading this now can expect to be around when and if true peace is reached. A Chinese maxim attributed to Confucius is that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The Nobel committee honored Obama for stepping out on the path to peace. They honored all of us in America for choosing him to lead the way, and now it’s up to us to make sure that he doesn’t get lost. 

How to do that? There are the usual choices: write letters to the president, to the press and to Congress, march with signs, lobby your local Democratic party central committee, join Code Pink to act out your opinions in living color, pay big bucks to attend the Democratic dinner with Obama at the St. Francis in San Francisco tonight and express yourself there…the possibilities are endless. 

This Saturday, Oct. 17, the disparate branches of what we might loosely call the peace movement are planning to do stuff you might like to join. Details can be found on a website, october17.org, which carries this disclaimer: 

“Endorsing organizations and coalitions will advance their own demands for these protests based on their own platforms. Endorsement does not imply support for the demands agreed to at the July 10-12 national conference in Pittsburgh or by any coalition or network. The demands will be developed locally and regionally, and will be decided upon by the endorser organizations and individuals and by the coalitions themselves.” 

Two local choices: a “Mass Antiwar March and Rally” starts at 11 at UN Plaza in San Francisco, with a variety of endorsers including the Social Justice Committee of the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian-Universalists. Or for a quirkier choice that day, even closer to home, Bonnie Hughes, the indefatigable heart of the Berkeley Arts Festival, has organized “War is Just a Racket Day, a reading and sing-along” as a Berkeley action against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. From noon to 3 p.m. at the downtown Berkeley BART Plaza, participants will read from Smedley Butler’s “War is Just a Racket” and sing what Bonnie calls “Songs for Peace”. You could easily make this one.