Monday, October 15, 2012

Prizes, Prizes For All

Our final Nobel laureates of 2012 have been revealed today. The press on each of them is always considerable, so let's just recap them so we can get to business:

Physics: Serge Haroche, France, and David Wineland, United States, for work in quantum optics
Chemistry: Brian Kobilka and Robert Lefkowitz, United States, for their discovery of G-protein-coupled receptors
Physiology/Medicine: John Gurdon, United Kingdom, and Shinya Yamanaka, Japan, for their discovery that normal cells can be turned into stem cells. We actually covered outcroppings of that discovery here back in June.
Literature: Mo Yan, China, whose works largely skew towards social commentary. Not the first Chinese Nobel winner to go down that route, but certainly one of the least aggressive against the Chinese government; when China wins a Nobel for political commentary, it inevitably goes to someone being actively oppressed for their commentary, and Mo Yan's MO is to rein himself in enough to stay clear of the censors, a tack that's drawn some criticism as to whether the prize maybe should have gone to someone more outspoken.
Peace: European Union, for connecting nations in a way that makes them unlikely to want to go to war with each other as they have in the past... not that this reasoning kept some of the more debt-ridden nations in the EU from bursting out into open laughter. It is not the Nobel's proudest year, that's for sure.
Economics: Alvin Roth and Lloyd Shapely, United States, for work on market design and matching theory

Some deserving winners to be sure, but again, not a year free of derisiveness from the critics, especially the Peace Prize. So like we did in 2010, what we'll do today is check out some reigning laureates of other Nobel-like peace awards. In each case, the link attached to the name of the prize goes to the Wikipedia page listing its previous winners.

INDIRA GANDHI PRIZE: Ela Bhatt, India. We met Bhatt in 2010 when she was the reigning laureate of the Niwano Peace Prize, and she won it for the same thing: being the founder of the Self-Employed Women's Association of India. Indian labor laws only protect workers with an employer; SEWA gives self-employed women something to work with.

NIWANO PEACE PRIZE: Rosalina Tuyuc, Guatemala. Tuyuc is the founder of the National Association of Guatemalan Widows (CONAVIGUA), which she founded in 1988 in the wake of her father being kidnapped and murdered by the Guatemalan army in 1982, and her husband suffering the same fate in 1985, part of a wider genocide by the army against the indigenous population. She banded together with other widows to form CONAVIGUA. (Another member of the indigenous population, Rigoberta Menchu, was the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner.)

SYDNEY PEACE PRIZE: Sekai Holland, Zimbabwe. Holland is co-Minister of State for National Healing, Reconciliation and Integration under Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai. Holland wasn't crazy about the setup, because she's one of Tsvangirai's people and Mugabe's administration harassed and beat her repeatedly over the years for speaking out in favor of women's rights in Zimbabwe. She gets the Sydney prize for her work on that as well as her anti-apartheid efforts in both South Africa and Australia.

RAMON MAGSAYSAY AWARD (for Peace and International Understanding): Chen Shu-Chu, Taiwan. She sells vegetables at market. No big organization, no movement, nothing political about her. She just sells vegetables at market and squeezes a modest income out of it. She's not even really a particularly major vegetable seller; she wouldn't be out of place at your local farmers' market. Then she donates the money to charity. How much money? Pretty much all of it, beyond what she absolutely needs. As of August, the 61-year-old Chen has handed out $322,000 for things like a children's fund, a local library and supporting an orphanage. And she's perfectly fine with people not knowing who she is... though she doesn't seem to mind the fact that being in the spotlight is making others think a little more about what they do with their own money.

THOROLF RAFTO MEMORIAL PRIZE: Nnimmo Bassey, Nigeria. Bassey is the elected chair of Friends of the Earth International and, previously, the 2010 winner of the Right Livelihood Award. Bassey's chief focus has been on his work in the Niger Delta, a region exploited by oil interests, mainly Shell, to the degree where oil litters the ground and poisons everything in sight. Deepwater Horizon is nothing compared to the delta, and much of the spillage is deliberate, the result of sabotage. Bassey's viewpoint is that the oil is simply more trouble than it's worth, and the Right Livelihood Award came largely out of his work on fighting to get all the spills cleaned up. He's also been active on the climate-change front, where he's been arguing on how the people most victimized by climate change are largely the people that are least to blame for it in the first place. The Rafto prize is awarded for that.

PEACE PRIZE OF THE GERMAN BOOK TRADE: Liao Yiwu, China. Yiwu has been one of the more outspoken critics against Mo Yan's Nobel win, calling the award "a slap in the face" and deriding Yan as "a state poet". Yiwu has reason to complain, because he was harassed by the Chinese government for dissent.  Yiwu had nearly died as a result of the Great Leap Forward, watched his parents divorce during the Cultural Revolution as a way to keep he and their other children safe, and was imprisoned and beaten for a poem speaking out against the Tiananmen Square massacre (which he made an audio recording of, knowing the poem would never get published), and only managed to get permission to leave China in 2010 via the personal intervention of Andrea Merkel (he now lives in Germany). So when he sees a guy that measures his words to avoid running afoul of that same government get a Nobel for it, he's naturally going to call out the guy, and the Nobel committee, for lack of balls.

And one might observe from the sidelines that a different Chinese writer might have been more deserving of the Nobel.

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