Operation Nobel, part II

The prize committee issues Obama with a call to action

So, the weather didn't clear, but the mood in Oslo lifted distinctly yesterday evening: Barack Obama seems to have pulled off the remarkable trick of talking peace while standing firm to his commitments to war. And despite annoying the Norwegians at first by making his visit so peremptory -- "Everybody wants to visit the Peace Centre except Obama," snarked the newspaper Aftenposten -- he even seems to have warmed their hearts. He has done all this in less than a day. Living up to the prize will be nothing like as easy.

After his morning visit to the Nobel Peace Institute, Obama met with Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who hardly needed the popularity boost, having just been re-elected, but who was doubtless grateful for it all the same. He set out a to-do list for the US president, beginning with a strong political agreement in Copenhagen.

That established one theme for the day: telling Obama how to do his job. At the press conference afterwards, a Norwegian journalist set the other: the search for justifications for his prize. What were the president's own views on it? Obama was asked. He replied by defusing the question with a one-liner: "The goal is not to win a popularity contest." That was the easy base covered, but the one American journalist then also granted a question went straight for the jugular: "Will the July 2011 date be when US troops actually withdraw [from Afghanistan]?" It would, Obama acknowledged, be just the beginning. He was doubtless relieved that the day's tight schedule would leave no time for follow-up questions.

The proddings and calls for justifications followed Obama over in the early afternoon to City Hall, where he was to give his Nobel Lecture, the prizewinner's address. Introducing Obama, the chairman of the Nobel Committee, Thorbjørn Jagland, gave his own, highly self-conscious defence of the committee's decision to award the prize to the US president, as well as a running commentary on the sort of world they would like to see him help create.

When Albert Luthuli received his prize in 1961, Obama was told, the struggle against apartheid was in its infancy; when Martin Luther King received his in 1964, the struggle for civil rights in America was also far from over. And as the committee has constantly been pointing out since making the award, Obama's prize, much more so than theirs, is intended to be "a call to action".

Some might, of course, say that all this is merely wishful thinking, and that their hopes of handing Obama a set of golden handcuffs at the same time as the Nobel gold medal are misplaced, misguided even. But as the words of Obama's own speech echoed literally right around the city this afternoon -- broadcast as they were from a large screen outside the City Hall -- he seemed to win a good few people to their cause.

In any case, "A Call to Action" is a phrase the Norwegians will keep hearing over the next year, it also being the title of the Obama exhibition that will run until December at the Nobel Peace Centre. Whether it is a phrase that still rings in the man's own ears in six months, let alone a year's time, remains to be seen.

With luck, he might still remember it next week at least, when he flies back this way to Copenhagen. But my guess is that he will not. After an afternoon spent tying himself in knots over the mirage of "just wars", and paying lip service -- however eloquent that lip service may have been -- to the much harder task of rebuilding the livelihoods of those in whose country he currently commands an army, it seems that Obama will not himself be making the shift from the probable to the possible any time soon.

 

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era