My reaction to Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize elicited some decidedly "un-peaceful" responses from my friends and followers on social networking and blog sites.
As readers here at The Notion can attest -whether with glee or disdain-I have been an ardent supporter of President Obama. Despite some disagreements, I have urged the left to view this administration as an opportunity for genuine change and to regard it as friendly to progressive aims. But my response to the Nobel Peace Prize announcement was not particularly celebratory.
Yesterday I indulged in some Nobel Prize humor on Twitter. "Maybe Obama was awarded the NPP because he didn’t smack Joe Wilson." I also made a joke on Politico.com "Maybe Kanye West will show up and grab the mic in protest."
I criticized the idea of awarding a Nobel Peace Prize to a president whose short presidency has included drone attacks with devastating civilian causalities, the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, and a painfully slow response to the basic human rights issues facing LGBT communities. I respect the President’s accomplishments in diplomacy but believed these issues were relevant to assessing his record on peace.
The criticisms were not meant as a sweeping indictment of President Obama’s administration, nor do they indicate my faltering support. I was using the occasion of the Nobel Peace Prize award to ask what the international community recognizes as indicative of a broad commitment to peace.
I was stunned by the swift and angry responses from dozens of readers, followers, and friends. Some suggested I was a "hater." Others felt my jovial tone was disrespectful of the President. Several fretted that conservatives would justify further attacks on President Obama using my words. I have disagreed with and criticized Obama as both a candidate and president before, but I have never elicited this kind of anxiety from readers.
In these responses, I detected a very particular American racial anxiety. Let’s call it the "Affirmative Action Dilemma." Beginning in the 1980s, conservatives, led by African American thinkers like Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell, began to argue that affirmative action has a deleterious psychological impact on African Americans. Affirmative action, they lamented, leads black people to always wonder if their success is real, deserved, and meritorious, or simply illusory, unearned, and political. Yesterday’s anxiety about my critique of the Nobel Peace Prize Award appeared to echo these worries. Some felt that by raising my disagreement I was implying President Obama did not deserve the prize, and that politics, not merit, was responsible for the committee’s decision.