Microsoft and the Nobel Committee: Selling Aspiration

As•pir•a•tion: a hope or ambition of achieving something: he had nothing tangible to back up his literary aspirations | the yawning gulf between aspiration and reality.

Congratulations are due today to President Barack Obama for receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. He now joins three other US presidents (Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Jimmy Carter) to as a Nobel Laureate.

In hearing of the news, President Obama's reaction was appropriately humble:

I am both deeply humbled by the decision of the Nobel Committee. I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations to confront the challenges of the 21st century.

His reaction was fitting for a couple of reasons.

First, anyone who wins such a prestigious prize should recognize that they are in many ways unworthy of such an honor. The Norwegian Nobel Committee has received 205 nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009, of which 33 are organizations. So out of the entire world, only 172 individuals were considered. The Independent lists just six that were also considered. This is pretty rarified air. This isn't a slap at President Obama, but merely a recognition that as fallen people we all fail in many ways. Others are often more worthy of recognition than we are.  So a proper understanding of our own unworthiness is just proper thinking.

Second, President Obama actually represented our whole nation as he accepted the award today. Of course, that could be said of every activity he performs while in office. But today in particular the eyes of the world were upon him. Being called to be the spokesman for the United States should bring with it a genuine humility.

Third, it is by now no secret that this award was given to him for serving just two weeks as President. He was inaugurated Jan 20, 2009 and the deadline for nominations was Feb 1, 2009. Clearly this award wasn't given for any genuine accomplishments of the President, since two weeks isn't enough time to find all the bathrooms in the White House, let alone change the world in some meaningful fashion. In fact, the Nobel Committee explained their unusual choice this way:

Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations. Thanks to Obama's initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.
For 108 years, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has sought to stimulate precisely that international policy and those attitudes for which Obama is now the world's leading spokesman. The Committee endorses Obama's appeal that "Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges."

So the committee didn't feel the necessity to cite any accomplishments, but rather "endorsed an appeal." This explanation, however, was met by widespread ridicule from around the world. For example, the Times of London sniffed:

Rarely has an award had such an obvious political and partisan intent. It was clearly seen by the Norwegian Nobel committee as a way of expressing European gratitude for an end to the Bush Administration, approval for the election of America’s first black president and hope that Washington will honour its promise to re-engage with the world.
Instead, the prize risks looking preposterous in its claims, patronising in its intentions and demeaning in its attempt to build up a man who has barely begun his period in office, let alone achieved any tangible outcome for peace.

Indeed, it was a bit awkward today as the President accepted a peace prize for preferring dialog and negotiations over unilateral armed conflict, after ordering an additional 30,000 to Afghanistan and defending just war theory in his acceptance speech. Here are a couple of excerpts:

A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaida's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism, it is a recognition of history.

The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it.

Of course, the President is absolutely correct in these statements and followed, from what I can tell, the just war theory of Augustine which has been (nearly) universally accepted by the church. Nevertheless, it stands on it's head the rationale for receiving the award as outlined by the committee. Still, I echo the sentiments of Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (Republican), as reported by Minnesota Public Radio:

I would say regardless of the circumstances, congratulations to President Obama for winning the Nobel Prize. I know there will be some people who are saying 'Was it based on good intentions and thoughts or is it going to be based on good results?' But I think the appropriate response is when anybody wins a Nobel Prize that is a very noteworthy development and designation and I think the appropriate response is to say 'Congratulations.

That being said, it is clear that the Nobel committee valued image over substance in their selection. This attitude is so common in the modern world that I wonder that the Nobel committee's selection caused such a stir. Consider, for instance, the marketing attempts of Microsoft over the years for their Windows operating system.

"Selling aspiration but not a whole lot else." This is the way of the world. For the world views all events through the lens of the five senses and humanity's limited reason. Since we cannot move beyond these limitations, how things look is more important that what actually is.

Unfortunately, this attitude has spilled over into the church. The first question is often, "How will it look?" instead of "Is it true?". For so many entertaining the congregation has replaced worshipping God, "being relevant" has trumped being biblical, and marketing techniques have preempted "Thus saith the LORD."

But God views things differently. "For The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Sam 16:7) He isn't fooled by our public persona. Image means nothing to the one that "searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts." (1 Chron 28:9) PR doesn't sway his opinion. In other words, he isn't like us. 

And if we are to be more like him, we must look beyond what the world sees. We must learn to look beyond the shadow to the reality, to look past the image for the substance, to look into time but see eternity.

And when we have done that, we must place our aspiration there. "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matt 6:21)