Is the Nobel Peace Prize Overtly Political?

By Scott London — October 7, 2011

Is the Nobel Peace Prize Overtly Political?

The question is often asked: how political is the Nobel Peace Prize?

I view it as an inherently political award, and I think Alfred Nobel intended it that way. That’s why he left it to the Norwegian parliament to elect the committee that picks the winners each year.

Given that the laureates are chosen by current and former politicians, it stands to reason that it would be a political prize. But if your politics are motivated by a yearning for peace, freedom, democracy, human rights, and the empowerment of women, is that a bad thing?

Here I discuss that question with Larisa Epatko of the PBS Newshour: Is the Nobel Peace Prize Overtly Political?

Who Will Win the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize?

By Scott London — October 6, 2011

The winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced tomorrow. Some leaders of the Arab Spring uprisings are favored to win it this year. But based on the way the Norwegian Nobel Committee has been selecting its winners in recent years, I don’t think that will happen. I’m pulling for long-shot Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia and still the only woman elected head of state in Africa. Her many remarkable achievements include helping to bring an end to the nation’s long and bloody civil war.

Steve Jobs Has Died

By Scott London — October 5, 2011

Steve Jobs in a suit and tieThe news just broke that Steve Jobs has died. It comes as a bit of a shock. I never met him, but like millions of people the world over I was the beneficiary of his brilliant mind and unique vision.

I’ve been using Apple computers for most of my professional life and rarely has a day gone by that I haven’t felt a sense of gratitude for the technologies he brought into being. I’ve produced radio programs, written books, edited films, retouched photos, and created graphic designs on the Mac. And that’s just the beginning. My story is hardly unique. Countless people will tell you the same thing.

Though I never met Jobs, I photographed him some years ago in Oslo. He was there to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for his friend Al Gore. My photo made the rounds. Apparently people were shocked to see Jobs in a suit and tie. They imagined that his closets were full of nothing but black turtlenecks and blue jeans, and I had proved them wrong.

People will be discussing his legacy for years to come. But right now, all I can say is that feels like the sudden end of an era.

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you’re going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You’re already naked. There’s no reason not to follow your heart…. Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” — Steve Jobs, Stanford University commencement address, June 2005.

Wangari Maathai, 1940-2011

By Scott London — September 30, 2011

Wangari Maathai, the environmental and political activist from Kenya, passed away on Sunday. She was one of the most memorable figures I’ve covered as a journalist, a woman of extraordinary courage and dignity. She was also possessed of a disarming humility, a wonderful sense of humor, and a rare luminosity of spirit.

Wangari won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 chiefly for her environmental work in Kenya. In 1977, she started the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots tree-planting campaign aimed at combating soil erosion and deforestation while also providing fuel for cooking in rural villages where women were often forced to walk miles in search of firewood. To date, the Green Belt Movement has planted over thirty million trees, provided work for tens of thousands of women, and seen its efforts replicated in countries across Africa.

For Wangari, planting trees wasn’t only about protecting the environment. It was a way to promote democracy, empower women, and safeguard human rights in Africa. As she saw it, there was a direct connection between the depletion of natural resources and the failures of Kenya’s authoritarian government. In fact, she had taken on Kenya’s ruling party and its autocratic president, Daniel arap Moi, on numerous occasions during the 1980s and 90s. Though she was vilified by the government, arrested more than a dozen times, and even beaten by police, her methods were surprisingly effective.

The Nobel Peace Prize for Wangari Maathai was the first ever to an environmental activist and still the only award to an African woman in the prize’s 111-year history. She accepted it at an unusually festive award ceremony that included African drumming and performances by a Kenyan dance troupe. Over 1,000 guests filled the auditorium of Oslo City Hall, including a large delegation of Africans, many of them cheering, whistling and waving small hand flags — a welcome departure from what tends to be an overly solemn and formal award ceremony.

Dressed in a bright orange gown with a matching headband, Wangari was radiant that December afternoon. She said she was humbled and uplifted by the award and accepted it “on behalf of the people of Kenya and Africa.” In her acceptance speech, she looked back on her work over the course of three decades. The Green Belt Movement, together with other civil society organizations and the Kenyan people as a whole, had much to be proud of, she said — most notably, the peaceful transition to democratic government in 2002. Yet there were still a host of critical challenges.

She concluded her speech with words that are still vivid in my memory. “In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fears and give hope to each other.” That time, she said, is now.

Wangari Maathai Inscription

Wangari's inscription in my copy of her memoir 'Unbowed'

Tweets and Retweets

By Scott London — July 23, 2011

Scott London on Twitter

Here’s a handful of recent Twitter entries on random subjects like kindness, grievances, consensus, and the limits of humility. If you don’t already, feel free to follow me on Twitter here.

  • The trouble with opinions is that they drive wedges between people. Stories unite, opinions divide.
  • I look forward to the day when journalists, producers and filmmakers describe themselves not as independent but as interdependent.
  • Technological advances have to proceed in step with social advances or they lead to recklessness and misery.
  • I shudder every time I hear someone say that the iPad, and other devices like it, allow us “to consume content.”
  • Sooner or later we come to recognize that most of our problems in life are tied to grievances we simply refuse to let go.
  • The only change that matters in the end is the kind that starts with me.
  • Sometimes a loving act may be perceived as unloving — refusing to commiserate, for example.
  • I think consensus is better to strive for than to attain.
  • I used to say “I don’t know” a lot. Humility is good, right? Then a wise friend told me: “Stop pretending you don’t know and live your truth.”
  • Why do we know more at 25 than we do at 50? Because it takes half a lifetime to fully confront our own ignorance.
  • We don’t need our kindnesses returned, we need them passed on.
  • Gratitude is the highest form of devotion.

Becoming an Adult in Relationships

By Scott London — June 15, 2011

David Richo and Scott London

“New lovers are nervous and tender, but smash everything,” wrote Michael Ondaatje in The English Patient.

It’s a bittersweet fact of life — and a recurring theme in literature, film and the arts — that we start out reckless and clumsy in matters of the heart. Learning how to love and be loved takes time and the process is often a painstaking one.

For psychotherapist and author David Richo, the process can hold the key to inner healing and transformation. He makes this point in his bestselling book, How to Be an Adult in Relationships

Relationships are a journey, he says. They test us, they prod us, they give us a chance for self-reflection and growth. Approaching them with maturity, patience, and a sense of selflessness creates a new paradigm for embracing the inevitability of their ups and downs.

In the fall of 2010, I sat down with him to explore this idea and what it takes — in the most practical terms — to develop mature and lasting relationships. Filmmaker Russ Spencer has crafted our conversation into a standalone interview now available on DVD through Depth Video.

The interview is described as “a thoughtful and nuanced two-hour discussion rich with clarity and inspiration,” one that “offers couples, or anyone experiencing the difficulties that relationships inevitably bring, a trusted advisor through the turbulence.”

You can order a copy directly from the Depth Video website, or through Amazon.com. Here’s the trailer:

Living Cities

By Scott London — May 16, 2011

I grew up in Stockholm, Sweden, a city that is often ranked as one of the most pleasant and liveable places in the world. When I moved to the U.S. in my mid-20s, I was surprised to discover that the American city was a place of distress and decay. People seemed desperate to get out of their cities and into suburbs.

One survey I read showed that, given a choice, 9 out of 10 Americans would prefer to live outside the city.

It struck me as odd that in the world’s most powerful nation — a marvel of technological progress, industrial ingenuity, and economic strength — cities had become infested with crime, homelessness, and pollution.

So I began to look at urban areas elsewhere in the world to understand what makes a great living city. I talked with visionary architects and urban planners. And I studied some of the key features of thriving cities and towns.

I share some of what I learned in a recent six-part documentary series that aired earlier this year on the Discovery Channel. I’m one of a number of talking heads on the program discussing the essential characteristics of a “living city.” Here are some highlights from the series: Living Cities.

Stay tuned for more on the subject in the weeks and months ahead.

Educating For Democracy

By Scott London — April 11, 2011

Does it make sense for higher education to be talking about questions of citizenship and democracy at a time when many colleges and universities are grappling with more pressing issues, such as soaring tuition rates, underpaid faculty, and steep budget cuts?

Some months ago, I put this question to a handful of academic leaders. In light of all the talk about community outreach, service learning, and civic engagement on our campuses, it seemed to me like a worthwhile line of inquiry.

I spoke with Thomas Ehrlich (a senior scholar the the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching at Stanford University), George Mehaffy (vice president at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and director of their American Democracy Project), Beverly Hogan (president of Tougaloo College), Martín Carcasson (professor of communications and director of the Colorado State University Center for Public Deliberation), and David Mathews (president of the Kettering Foundation, as well as former president of the University of Alabama).

What I learned surprised me. At a time when many colleges and universities are cutting back and shifting their priorities to presumably more pressing demands, a growing number of institutions are working to build and strengthen democracy from the ground up. As they explained to me, these schools are going beyond conventional definitions of civic engagement — civics courses, leadership development, service-learning programs, community-based research, etc. — by actually working directly with communities on hands-on, collaborative problem-solving. Students themselves are usually a key part of the equation.

As part of my research for a study on innovative academic centers, I also interviewed several educators who are doing this kind of community-building work, including Alberto Olivas (director of the Center for Civic Participation at Maricopa Community Colleges in Phoenix, Arizona), Larkin Dudley (assistant professor at Virginia Tech and director of its Center for Public Administration and Policy), and Joni Doherty (director of the New England Center for Civic Life at Franklin Pierce University).

With production help from Amy Lee, Derek Barker and others at the Kettering Foundation, my roundtable discussion and excerpts from the interviews have now been edited into a 30-minute program. You can listen to it here (link below). The show will be made available to public radio stations around the country in coming weeks. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

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The Power of Informal Networks

By Scott London — March 26, 2011

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

These words by anthropologist Margaret Mead are famous for good reason. They capture an essential truth about social change: it begins in the most unassuming contexts — in small groups of people who share a common passion, who come together after work, on weekends, or over lunch, and who devote their talents and energies to bringing about change.

I recently wrapped up a year-long research project for the Harwood Institute where I studied these informal networks at some depth. I looked at citizen groups in four communities across the country to learn how they come into being, the nature of their conversations, how they change and evolve over time, and the outcomes, both tangible and intangible, of their activities.

What I learned was both heartening and humbling — heartening because I found that informal circles can be powerful agents of change, just as Margaret Mead observed, and humbling because the dynamics of small groups challenge our conventional way of thinking about change.

I found that the purposes of informal groups were usually quite modest — to compare notes, share information, and explore ideas. But when they came together with passion and a sense of common purpose, they were able to do magnificent things.

A crucial finding of the study was that unlike formal organizations, informal networks are not instruments of action, at least not in the traditional sense. They serve a more basic function. They provide spaces for learning, sources of affirmation and support, and contexts for the emergence of new ideas and possibilities for action.

When groups that have been meeting informally are ready to mobilize and take action, they either adopt a formal structure or they take their ideas and plans back into existing organizations to make something happen.

In their efforts to create change, many groups rush too quickly to formalize their activities. While launching a new program or organization can give them an air of legitimacy, access to resources, and other tangible benefits, it can also choke off the innovation and creativity needed to really make a difference.

What people need in order to be effective are informal settings where they can find each other, share ideas, and discover common ground. They need spaces where they can receive support and be acknowledged as public actors. And they need contexts for imagining and acting from an awakened sense of possibility.

The trouble, of course, is there aren’t a lot of venues in public life where people can do that in an open and authentic way. All too often, community processes are organized around issues to be confronted and problems to be solved, not possibilities that can be lived into.

The research suggests that it’s time to engage in a different conversation, one about what we aspire to, what we imagine, and what we can create together. Strategizing about how to make change happen is important, but the conversations have to be rooted in something more basic — the animating purpose of the work.

Informal groups provide settings where people can openly explore that and connect with others who are treading the same path and working toward similar ends.

“Truthfulness, honor, is not something that springs ablaze of itself,” the poet Adrienne Rich once observed. “It has to be created between people.” The same might be said about work carried out on behalf of the common good. The impulse to innovate, to build, and to renew our communities does not exist in a vacuum. It has to be kindled through meaningful interactions and mutual discovery.

Please contact me for more information about the informal networks study or a copy of the report.

A Peace Prize for Julian Assange?

By Scott London — March 22, 2011

In late January, a few days before the nomination deadline for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, I was contacted by an AFP reporter asking if I had any idea who might be nominated this year. I told him I’d heard a few rumors and seen some buzz online about a few potential nominees. But none of them seemed especially noteworthy, I said. By way of speculation, I added that a nomination for Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, seemed likely.

When the story appeared a few days later I was quoted in it, saying that if Assange were to get the prize, it wouldn’t be the first time a whistleblower had been honored. Even so, I said, “the notion that his actions have in some way promoted ‘fraternity among nations’ (to invoke the famous line in Alfred Nobel’s will) would be far-fetched, if not altogether inaccurate. It might be truer to say that he has undermined that fraternity by creating a culture of anxiety and suspicion in international affairs, especially between countries in volatile regions like the Middle East.”

The story appeared in a few places here and there. (See “Nobel Peace Prize nomination for WikiLeaks founder?”) Then, some days later, news broke that Snorre Valen, a young member of the Norwegian parliament, had officially nominated Assange for the 2011 award. Suddenly news outlets the world over jumped on the story, saying that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks were now officially in the running for the world’s most prestigious prize.

My line in the AFP story about WikiLeaks “undermining” fraternity among nations by stirring up anxiety and suspicion suddenly generated lots of attention. I must confess that it was more than a little strange to see my name cited in newspapers like the Financial Times and journals like Foreign Policy appearing to come out against Julian Assange, someone I happen to respect and admire.

What was perhaps most unsettling was how quickly WikiLeaks supporters tracked me down and unleashed verbal assaults via e-mail. I was taken to task for being in favor of censorship and state secrets, for failing to support freedom of information, and for being on the side of those who wish to attack and silence Julian Assange. Of course, none of those things are true, but never mind. It seems you can’t be too careful about what you say in the press or online, because not only is it on the record for the rest of time, but people may quote it whenever they wish, in or out of context.

Turning Outward

By Scott London — February 11, 2011

A few years ago, Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant conducted an interesting survey of nonprofit organizations to understand what makes them successful. Unlike for-profit organizations, which measure their success according to the bottom line, nonprofits judge their effectiveness based largely on social impact. What can we learn from high-impact nonprofits?

Over the course of four years, Crutchfield and McLeod Grant looked at 12 organizations: Second Harvest, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, City Year, Environmental Defense, The Exploratorium, Habitat for Humanity, the Heritage Foundation, National Council of La Raza, Self-Help, Share Our Strength, Teach for America, and YouthBuild USA. Collectively, these nonprofits have influenced corporations to adopt sustainable business practices and mobilized citizens to act on a wide range of issues, including hunger, education reform, and the environment.

The authors found that becoming a high-impact nonprofit wasn’t simply a matter of building a successful organization and then scaling it up site by site. Rather, it was by working with and through organizations and individuals outside themselves that they were able to achieve real impact. Creating change and lasting impact could not be done just by focusing within, in other words. To have real impact, organizations had to turn outward.

In practical terms, this suggests that the best nonprofits are able to mobilize various sectors of society — government, business, nonprofits, and the public — to become a “force for good.” Greatness, by this standard, is measured by how well an organization is able to work outside its own boundaries and focus its energies on catalyzing large-scale change.

The book is well-written and makes for fascinating reading. I have a fuller review of it here:

Remembering Irwin Abrams

By Scott London — December 31, 2010

Irwin Abrams

Irwin Abrams passed away a few days before Christmas. He was a longtime professor of history at Antioch College, a pioneer in the field of peace research, and a global authority on the Nobel Peace Prize. He was also my grandfather.

We worked together on many projects over the years, including a couple of books, and I learned much of what I know about scholarly research and historical analysis from him. But his influence goes far deeper.

When I was a kid, he instilled in me a great love of knowledge — first through stories, and later through ideas. He was always presenting me with books and newspaper clippings, introducing me to his favorite students (and there were many), and sending me off on unexpected research assignments.

Growing up as I did in Sweden, he used to enlist my help translating articles from Swedish and Norwegian. I eventually became his far-flung research assistant. Before I was out of my teens, he had me running off to do interviews for his various projects.

Irwin AbramsI remember one occasion when he had me travel to meet the late daughter of Carl Von Ossietzky, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for 1935. She spoke Swedish but little or no English, so I was perfect for the job, he said. The interview carried on late into the day. She made me soup, served me cookies and tea, and later, as I was readying to leave, took out an old shoebox and showed me an item wrapped in terry cloth. I opened it to find her father’s gleaming Nobel Peace Prize medal. It was an impressive 23-carat gold piece weighing almost half a pound, with Gustav Vigeland’s beautiful engraving of three men locked in an embrace. It was assignments like these that nurtured my passion for journalism.

My grandfather loved to travel, to eat, to sing, and to tell jokes. He used to dance with his arms raised above his head, like Zorba the Greek. He spoke several languages, most of them quite badly, but always with a carefree exuberance. He was never a showman, but he loved a celebration and was happiest when in the midst of family and friends.

There was nothing in the world he cherished more than my grandmother, Freda. They were married 60 years. I used to love watching them beam at each other across a room, or across a big dinner table. He often told the story of how they met at a new year’s party on a train from Chicago to San Francisco in the months leading up to World War II. By the time they heard the stationmaster’s “bells and whistles” in Cheyenne, Wyoming, heralding the arrival of the new year, they were hearing bells and whistles of their own.

After she died in 1999, it was like a light in him had been extinguished. He spoke of her everyday, kept her artwork on his walls and her photos on the bedside table. Almost every time her name would come up, his voice would break.

He was always a special presence in my life, but perhaps especially after my grandmother died. During the last ten years, we were in touch almost every day, took on joint projects, and made trips together. Our conversations grew deeper, more rich and nuanced.

He came into his final years as I entered mid-life. There was a curious symmetry there, and I had much to learn from him about the transitions of life. His role shifted from grandfather to mentor, and finally to confidant.

When I saw him for the last time in mid-November, he still displayed his sparkling sense of humor. As usual, he seemed more interested in hearing about me than in talking about himself. Several times he would reach over and take my hand while we were talking, always very sweet and attentive.

Although he worked with a physical therapist several times a week, he was mostly confined to a wheelchair toward the end. He was quite frail and hunched over and though he wasn’t ill I sensed that time was running out. He died peacefully on December 16, a couple of months shy of his 97th birthday.

In the course of drafting an obituary, and also planning for the upcoming memorial service, I’ve been going back to his writings and correspondence. To my amazement, I discovered a letter addressed to me, written just days after I was born. “May I be the first to send you a letter welcoming you to this planet,” it begins. “There may be moments when you will regret your decision to dwell among us, but may I wish you a long residence here with few occasions for such regrets.”

My grandfather not only welcomed me into this world, he was always there to guide me along, especially during times of sorrow and regret (there have been more than a few). He had a long residence here on the planet, and he enriched many people’s lives. But few as deeply as mine.

Irwin Abrams

Irwin Abrams With Irwin in Ohio, 1966

Irwin Abrams With Freda and Irwin in Maine, 1976

Irwin AbramsWith Irwin in Oslo, 2002

Irwin Abrams With Irwin in Ohio, 2010