Another Perspective

One Nobel, But Plenty of Prizes

The modern mania of "sending a message" severs worth from deeds and makes group feeling itself into an achievement.

By 10.14.05

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FOR THE UMPTEENTH TIME since Bill Clinton created a cabinet designed to "look like America," something that might not otherwise have been done was done expressly in order to "send a message." The Norweigan Nobel Committee has awarded, in fatuous and Oprahesque style, its rarified Peace Prize to the International Atomic Energy Agency in general and to Mohamed ElBaradei in particular. For the person working to devise what behavior or accomplishment of the IAEA or of its ennobled director-general has produced peace, the road of inquiry is as barren as it is circular. No matter that ElBaradei "refused to endorse Washington's contention that Iran was working to make nuclear weapons" (and of course "disputed U.S. assertions that Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq had an active atomic weapons program"). Back in 2002, the director-general took a courageous step in accusing North Korea of "nuclear blackmail." And he remains to this day, as the Committee boasted, "an unafraid advocate" of nonproliferation and international oversight.

For Hans Blix the event is "very encouraging and fortunate," because he knows as well as Committee Chairman Ole Danbolt Mjoes (who said the following) the Prize was awarded to send "a message to all the people of the world: Do what you can to get rid of nuclear weapons." Ironically it is the IAEA's job to help do this preemptively, and compounding the self-satire is ElBaradei's beaming declaration that "the award basically sends a very strong message" -- "Keep doing what you are doing."

Thus awarding the achievements of the IAEA, though they be little, is not the point of the Peace Prize -- but rather the rewarding of the intent; since its job is to "prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes," the IAEA must be superlegitimized, not in order to applaud its accomplishments but to praise its purpose. This is feel-goodism of the most blatant and artificial kind, impervious to actual merit and consequence and cheeringly, knowingly defiant of the quaint convention that people ought to be honored not for how they feel about something but what they do about it.

AND THOUGH THE CRITICISM of this sop to the IAEA has been well-put, what's been missed is its embodiment of an entire culture of "sending a message" -- a catchphrase now used to describe the purpose of stunts, speeches, and activisms ranging from voting to hairstyling to golf-playing to, completing the circle, calling out Iran on its nuclear program. "Sending a message" is now shorthand for imbuing one's otherwise trivial action with the unimpeachable moral authority of some grand cause celebre. The moral authority is unimpeachable both in causes too big to disagree with (world peace) and too niche to deserve anything less than PC-based respect (homeless junkies, migrant illiterates, the lonely, and the transgendered). But "sending a message" also, paradoxically, diminishes the worth of impressive achievements, by putting them to a use that privileges being a tiny part of something "bigger than yourself" over demonstrating the largeness of your purpose by the largeness of your individual accomplishment.

This gross phenomenon is a master of that other buzzword, "inclusiveness," as much as it is its product (we begin to glimpse the interlinked lexicon of a parallel language). "Diversity" itself -- manufacturing pride among a membership whose only common trait is being unlike one another -- is a prime example of the unnatural logic that runs through the "sending" of "messages." But, lest any feelings be hurt, no cultural persuasion is left out. Send a message about drug use. Send a message about teenage pregnancy. Send a message to Washington. Send a message about oil companies, about breast cancer, about hyperactivity or autism or living with Crohn's disease or genital warts. "It's about suppression," a woman's voice says, while a fit, attractive girl skips down a Malibu beach, in love with herself. There are billboards in Los Angeles where a cartoon blob smoking a cigar makes a mean face at you, labeled, in Spanish, "Sifilis."

In the realm of disease "sending a message" dominates, because self-identity today is ensnared in the new sexual obligations of medicine and the medical obligations of sexuality -- get tested, get the pill, get erect, get an abortion. Sex is the ultimate nexus of the three most important modern social values -- caring, experiencing, surviving -- and human technology is not only increasingly necessary to fully inhabit those values but is also extraordinarily, exponentially profitable.

MESSAGE-SENDING IS ALSO KNOWN as "raising awareness" -- the technique by which people talk about things everyone already knows, but are listened to and fawned over because they "care more," because they are a "survivor," because they "know what it's like." It is Casey Sheehan syndrome: my pain entitles me to you. The death of a chain-smoking grandfather comes to hold meaning only in the context of the Fight Against Big Tobacco. The baby born with HIV is a tiny martyr in the Battle Against AIDS. The street protest, the publicity tour, the documentary-style commercial that looks like guerrilla filmmaking but is the end result of a million-dollar promotional campaign? What matters is media, what matters is meaning, what matters is message. Feeling, immersed in the moment, is what counts; substance only gets us there.

Pin a giant ribbon on for the big awards show, to show that you care more. Wriggle your wrist through an ever-expanding number of rubber bracelets, to show that you, personally, know a survivor. Add a lapel pin. Add a t-shirt that shows you walked this summer's such-and-such-a-thon. Encase yourself in a papier-mache of meaning. Replace yourself with a polaroid of cred. You are not to be judged by your actions or by the value of your deeds but by your flair. The index of your worth is your willingness to abandon your privacy. Give yourself to us. Make the masses your intimacy.

MEANWHILE THE PROCESS reaches eliteward even as it enforces a culture of required sharing. The Nobel Peace Prize has been reduced, this year, to the level of a bumper sticker on an Acura SUV reading "My Child Is a Person of Meaning at Broad Brook Middle School."

And politics has become so choked with catchphrases of the new social lexicon that you can make whole 30-second spots out of them: our candidate will "fight to protect your rights" this year, because "now, more than ever" it's time to "send a message to Washington," or to the terrorists, or to baby daddies, or whomever.

But let's not forget, coming up for air, that we don't want to capture or kill Osama bin Laden to send a message. We want to do so to punish him, personally, for his crimes. We don't want to enforce a prescription-drug bill we can't afford in order to send a message that "seniors matter," and we don't want to institute universal preschool for the state-sponsored offspring of millionaires and migrants alike because "it's all about the children." These are not reasons, they are emotions, as sophisticated and compelling of arguments to do or not to do something as "grumpiness" or "cheerfulness."

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About the Author

James Poulos is a doctoral student at Georgetown and the former Political Editor of Culture11. His writing has been published by The American Conservative, The National Interest, The New Atlantis, Partnership for a Secure America, and The Weekly Standard. In addition to AmSpecBlog, he has blogged at The American Scene, Doublethink, and Postmodern Conservative, which he founded. With degrees in political science and law from Duke and USC, he is currently at work on a dissertation about life after Napoleon.