Readings and Recommendations

By Scott London — December 20, 2010

Scott London on TwitterThe world is getting freer, quantum physics is getting weirder, multitasking is a myth, Americans are full of doubt, and the Norwegians have it best. Here’s a sampling of interesting articles and other stuff on the web.

These links were culled from my Twitter feed. If you don’t already, feel free to follow me on Twitter.

  • The long-term trend is clear — the world is becoming increasingly free and democratic. But there have been setbacks in recent years. Growing human rights abuses in places like Russia and China are perhaps especially worrisome. See Freedom House’s 2010 Freedom in the World Survey
  • American Grace, a new book by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, documents a new and remarkable trend in America: the mass defection of young people away from organized religion. See American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us
  • Quality work and multitasking are incompatible. People simply can’t do two or more thinking tasks simultaneously. See E-Mail is Making You Stupid
  • In a provocative article in Fast Company magazine, Richard Watson cites two interesting studies. The first claims that we last, on average, three minutes at work before something interrupts us. The other suggests that constant disruption has a greater effect on IQ than smoking marijuana. See The Rise of Connectivity Addition
  • According to an interesting piece in the New York Times, unhappiness often comes as a result of letting our minds wander. While there’s no doubt that distraction can lead to discontent, it can also lead people to creative solutions, which might make them happier in the long term. See When the Mind Wanders, Happiness Also Strays by John Tierny
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger represents yesterdays California Dream, Richard Rodriguez observes in a terrific video interview with Sandip Roy. But tomorrow’s California Dream belongs to men like Steve Jobs and Sergey Brin. See Richard Rodriguez talks about California
  • Spiegel Online reports that some 47 percent of Americans no longer believe in the American Dream. See Is the American Dream Over?
  • For the eighth straight year, reports Time, Norway has topped the United Nations’ quality-of-life list in its annual Human Development Index. Oh, come on, Norway. The competition isn’t even fun anymore. See Norwegians Have It Better Than You
  • Quantum mechanics is getting weirder and weirder. Experiments show that “reality is truly in the eye of the beholder.” See After a Short Delay, Quantum Mechanics Becomes Even Weirder in ScienceNOW

Ice Lantern

By Scott London — December 9, 2010

As Oslo readies for the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony tomorrow, the city is full of luminaries. Most of them fall in the category of international celebrities, politicians and dignitaries of various kinds. But tonight I was taken in by a different kind of luminary, the sort that illuminates your path on a cold night.

My Norwegian friend had invited me over for dinner. He lives in a quiet hamlet on a peninsula a half-hour’s boat ride from downtown Oslo. As we came up to his house, his wife had put out candles to light our way. They were protected from the freezing winds by lanterns made entirely of ice.

Who Will Win the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize?

By Scott London — October 3, 2010

The winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday and, as always, there is a lot of speculation about who will get it. After the Norwegian Nobel Committee surprised everyone last year by giving the prize to President Obama, many are wondering whether the five-member board will choose a more traditional peace laureate this year — a champion of human rights, perhaps, or a statesman with a well-established record of international peacemaking. But I’m not so sure.

Last year, I placed my bet on several Chinese dissidents I felt deserved the prize, most notably the jailed pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo. Hu Jia, Sun Wenguang, Chen Guangcheng, and Gao Zhisheng also struck me as worthy candidates. 2009 was a fitting year for such a prize, I felt, since it was the 50th anniversary of the completion of China’s occupation of Tibet and the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Besides, the peace prize had never yet been given to someone from China.

This year, I again feel that those risking their life for the cause of greater human rights in China are eminently deserving of the award. And in fact, several high-profile individuals, including former Czech president Vaclav Havel, have stepped forward in support of Liu Xiaobo recently.

It would make for a risky choice on the part of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, as China has made it clear that such a move on the Nobel Committee’s part would seriously damage relations between Beijing and Oslo. But, as we know, the committee has not shied away from that kind of controversy in the past.

But such a prize would seem, at least to me, less timely this year. There are also other worthy candidates. The committee will pick from a record 237 nominees (199 individuals and 38 organizations). The names on the list are a well-kept secret, but nominators sometimes make a point of going public with their recommendations.

We know that this year’s nominees include Svetlana Gannushkina and Memorial, a prominent rights group she works with in Russia. The list also includes former Illinois Governor George Ryan, Brazilian human rights champion Abdias Nascimento, Guyana’s president Bharrat Jagdeo, Father Roy Bourgeois and School of the Americas Watch (SOA Watch), and Canada’s David Matas and David Kilgour, a lawyer and former MP who have campaigned for the Falun Gong and called attention to human rights abuses in China.

In addition, the Internet and Esperanto have both been nominated this year. Needless to say, it would be a long-shot if either of them were to win the award, even if it were possible — and I’m not sure it is — to make a reasonable case for why they deserve it.

Thorbjørn Jagland, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, went on record last month saying that the 2010 prize promises to be an “exciting” one, and another “surprise choice.” He also said that the committee tends to think a little differently than many Nobel experts and journalists.

It’s partly for this reason that I believe the winner of this year’s award will be someone few people will have heard of. It may be a person working for peace in some unconventional way — a peace researcher such as Gene Sharp or Paul Collier, for example, or an investigative journalist like Malahat Nasibova.

Geir Lundestad, the secretary of the committee and director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, has said for years that peacemaking takes many forms and that the traditional categories need to be expanded, and I agree with that. In the early days, the peace prize went primarily to statesmen, mediators, international lawyers, and leaders of the organized peace movement. The Nobel Committee’s selection criteria have broadened over the years to include great humanitarians and human rights activitists.

But there are other types of efforts that also bear directly on the question of international peace and freedom — as we saw in 2004 and 2007 when the prize went to champions of environmental sustainability, and in 2006 when it was given to a “banker to the poor.”

I think — and I hope — that we’ll see the definition for what constitutes important peace work expanded still further in 2010.

Our Visionary Moment

By Scott London — August 17, 2010

Here’s a tough question: What does it mean to be a visionary? Here’s an even tougher challenge: Give your answer in 100 words or less.

A few years ago, British author and philanthropist William Murtha invited me (and about 200 others) to do just that for a book he was writing. He also asked us to name five books that have profoundly influenced our thinking.

100 Words - A Book by William MurthaI reflected on it for several days. It seemed to me that our world is sorely in need of visionaries, yet most of us don’t know how to be one. We’re confused by appearances. We traffic in intellectual constructs and abstract formulations, but we forget to look within, to our own source of truth. We neglect the authority of our deepest knowing.

To be a visionary meant nothing, I felt, unless it involved looking beyond appearances to the essence of things. To be a visionary means perceiving with the heart — taking our cues from within and holding fast to that truth even, and perhaps especially, when the culture seems to contradict it at every turn.

This certainly seemed to be one of the common characteristics of the visionaries I have known and worked with as a journalist.

I remembered a line from the great British scientist Jacob Bronowski: “In every age there is a turning-point, a new way of seeing and asserting the coherence of the world,” he wrote. “Each culture tries to fix its visionary moment, when it is transformed by a new conception either of nature or of man.” It was my sense, then as now, that for those of us living in the West, this is our unique and visionary moment as a culture.

In the end, I sent Murtha 100 words on the subject of discovering our unique genius.

Now his book is out. It’s called 100 Words: Two Hundred Visionaries Share Their Hope For the Future and includes contributions from a host of remarkable people. They include Jane Goodall, Alice Walker, Angeles Arrien, Bill Drayton, Lynne Twist, Frances Moore Lappe, Julia Butterfly Hill, Ben Okri, Barbara Marx Hubbard, and many others.

Murtha calls them creative souls, passionate activists, way-showers, and doers who are paving the way for all of us.

He says the book represents “a testament to the hopes, resilience, courage, and life-message of the visionaries. This is their story. And best of all, their uplifting and courageous stories clearly demonstrate much of what is going right in the world.”

If you happen to be in Santa Barbara on August 15, 2010, please consider coming to a special book signing at Chaucer’s Bookstore from 3:00-5:00 p.m. I’ll be joined by fellow contributors Noah benShea, Barbara Fields, Barbara Marx Hubbard, and C. Jean Wiedemann. Chaucer’s is generously donating 10 percent of the proceeds to the nonprofits of the contributors.

Five Contributors to William Murtha's 100 Words

Five of the people featured in William Murtha's "100 Words: Two Hundred Visionaries Share Their Hope for the Future" appeared at a book signing at Chaucer's Bookstore in Santa Barbara, California, on August 15, 2010. From left to right: Scott London, Barbara Fields, Noah benShea, Barbara Marx Hubbard, and Jean Wiedemann. (Photo by Alka Arora.)

Links and further information

  • Sharing Their Hope” by Karna Hughes, Santa Barbara News-Press, August 15, 2010
  • Additional photos from the book signing at Chaucer’s Books in Santa Barbara
  • Five Books I Love — A blog entry about the 5 titles I selected for 100 Words
  • Order 100 Words from

The Catchphrasing of Ideas

By Scott London — June 15, 2010

It’s remarkable how quickly organizations seize on words like “innovative” and “entrepreneurial” to describe efforts that are anything but.

Five Things I Love About Twitter

By Scott London — April 23, 2010

Huston SmithThe traditional media have not always been kind to Twitter. Last year, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd confessed, with her customary grandiloquence, that she would rather be tied up to stakes in the Kalahari Desert, have honey poured over her and red ants eat out her eyes than open a Twitter account.

In a commentary in the Washington Post titled “The Tedium is the Message,” Jeanne McManus asked: “Is it just me or isn’t it a bit presumptuous to think that if I’m scrambling an egg, you’ll want to know about it?” Sorry, she said, “I don’t want to hear about how you got a bad case of athlete’s foot or learn the details of your knee being drained.”

Fair enough. As a blogging platform, one limited to posts of just 140 characters, it’s true that Twitter is sometimes shallow, often self-referential, and occasionally outright narcissistic. It’s obsessed with celebrities, rife with rumors and half-truths, and prone to hype and hysteria. So the critics have a point.

But what the old-world commentators and traditional news media have generally missed about the Twitter phenomenon is that it represents something rather remarkable — a real-time, truly interactive global source of bite-sized information. As a medium, Twitter has given us an altogether new way to disseminate, share, and interact with information.

I joined Twitter exactly two years ago. I was hardly an early adopter, and I’ve never been a heavy user. Yet I’ve come to love the platform.

I’m as guilty as the next person of tweeting about the banalities of daily life. Just a few days I go, I posted this:

Sooner or later we all break down and tweet about what we ate for breakfast. Here goes. Today I had an amazing omelette with ratatouille.

Okay, I’m not proud of that one. I’ve also been given to reposting misattributed quotes, like this one:

“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain … and most fools do.”
— Dale Carnegie

That line was actually penned by Benjamin Franklin, not Dale Carnegie. I should have checked the source before posting.

And on more than a few occasions I’ve posted broken links, left out essential quotation marks, and changed people’s words around to make them fit.

Despite these faux pas, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of Twitter and have often marveled at how powerful it can be. Here are five things I love about it.

1. Tracking news in real time

First, it’s an unparalleled medium for keeping your ear to the ground on just about any subject. As a journalist, Twitter has become my secret weapon for quickly learning about the latest developments on a wide range of fronts. Saving searches as RSS feeds, for example, is a way to easily track changes in fields you care about.

For example, I use Twitter to keep tabs of who might be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize each year. The Twitter search Nobel Peace” http often generates better results than a Google web or news search by giving me actual links to webpages that contain the words “Nobel Peace.” And it does so in real-time.

2. Bypassing the gatekeepers

Second, it’s a powerful way to quickly share important news and information. We know from the countless news stories that have broken thanks to Twitter — from protests in Tehran to irregularities in the Ukrainian presidential election to the famous photo of US Airways flight #1549 floating in the Hudson River — that it can be a lifeline for people, especially those who may be silenced or oppressed, or who find themselves in some type of emergency.

3. Giving and getting instant feedback

Third, it’s an extraordinary way of sending and receiving instant feedback. One of the most powerful uses of Twitter, I’ve found, is as a means of monitoring reactions to ongoing events. Take the presidential debates during the 2008 elections, for example. There was no place better than Twitter to turn for instant analysis of what was being said. The same was true for the Academy Awards. Even the recent TED conference in Long Beach was made that much more interesting by scanning people’s immediate reactions on Twitter.

But public events are not the only way to post and read feedback. Even in smaller settings — academic conferences, say, or film festivals — Twitter can be a great way for groups to communicate with one another. It’s the go-to source for, say, posting follow-up questions, correcting factual errors, or reporting on last-minute schedule changes.

4. Keeping people posted

Fourth, it’s an efficient way of keeping friends and contacts up-to-date. When a wildfire broke out in the hills above Santa Barbara, where I live, I was inundated with calls and e-mails from people concerned about our safety. I found that Twitter was the most efficient way of keeping everybody informed and up-to-date.

I know others who have done the same when they are about to undergo surgical procedures, travel to remote or dangerous places, or take part in some special event where it’s simply not practical to send out individual e-mails or text messages. Many people prefer tweets to Facebook status updates, myself included, though more and more people now link the two so that both accounts are updated simultaneously.

5. Edifying, provoking and inspiring

Finally — and here I have to confess to a personal bias for information that edifes and inspires — I find Twitter a great source for sharing thought-provoking quotes, valuable observations, and little gems of wisdom. Of the 700-plus people that I follow, about two dozen or so constantly impress me with their brilliance, insight, wit, and amusing way with words. I consider some of them to be bona fide poets, others masters of the quotidian aperçu or the wise aphorism. I never like to miss a single tweet of theirs, even though I sometimes go for a whole day or more without logging in to Twitter. And just as I like to read a beautifully-crafted tweet, I love the challenge of parsing my own — especially if it means crystallizing some insight or rendering an observation into a succinct line of prose. In that sense, the satisfactions of Twitter are not unlike those of a crossword puzzle or a good game of Scrabble.

I recently read that Twitter is continuing to add 300,000 new accounts per day. The number is misleading. While there are no doubt a few late arrivals, many of the newcomers are marketers trying to use Twitter to turn a profit. But as the platform continues to grow and evolve, I believe more and more people will come to recognize that the real value of Twitter lies not in its commercial applications, but rather as a means of sharing information, engaging in dialogue, and creating new knowledge together.

Over the past two years, I’ve posted over 1,200 tweets. Here’s a baker’s dozen:

Google the word “change” and the first result is a link to the White House. How dreary, “change” has become a euphemism for the status quo.

I don’t believe in paying your dues, but sometimes it’s the only way to overcome self-doubt or a lingering belief that you’re a charlatan.

Someone once called me a social critic. I hate that term. I want to be known by what I praise and celebrate, not what I review and critique.

Truth is kind, but rarely gentle.

We cling to our point of view as if everything depended on it. Yet our opinions have no permanence. Like fall and winter, they come and go.

If I were given the chance to live my life over, I’d repeat the same mistakes, only sooner.

It’s not enough to be merely intelligent. Many intelligent people are aimless and discontent. We’ve got to be intelligent and inspired.

I’ve always been a bit suspicious of spiritual people who lack a sense of humor.

Creativity is not about inventing new ideas so much as violating the boundaries between those ideas and concepts we already take for granted.

People often talk about “overcoming” or “conquering” their problems. But I think it’s truer to say we outgrow them.

A book worth writing: “How To Be a Friend and Stop Trying to Influence People”

I used to think I could get by on smarts alone. It was a blow to discover how wrong I was…. And to find I wasn’t that smart to begin with.

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the specters you read on Twitter.

You can follow me me on Twitter at

The Joy of Service

By Scott London — March 24, 2010

A decade ago, I had the good fortune to spend time with Laura Huxley, widow of the great British novelist and philosopher Aldous Huxley. I spent several afternoons at her house in the Hollywood Hills.

We discussed her life with Aldous, her charity work on behalf of children, her frustrations with traditional psychotherapy, and, not least, her thoughts on death — a subject she said was impossible to avoid at her age (she was in her late 80s at the time). The conversations were eventually edited and broadcast on the radio.

As I was about to leave on the final day of our talks, she read me a short verse from Rabindranath Tagore. I was touched by it and scribbled it down on a small piece of paper. I tucked the note into my pocket and promptly forgot about it.

That was ten years ago. Today I rediscovered the scrap of paper in an old box. It was like finding a forgotten jewel.

Tagore’s lines are elegant in their simplicity, yet profound in their meaning. For Laura, they were words to live by.

I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I awoke and saw that life was service.
I acted, and behold, service was joy.

Rethinking the Term “Nonprofit”

By Scott London — January 21, 2010

“Nonprofit.” It’s a curious word. It doesn’t tell us what it is, but it tells us what it’s not.

Given that the term has come to define a vast sector of American society — one that encompasses more than 1.5 million organizations and accounts for some 10 percent of the nation’s GDP — it would seem we could come up with a better phrase, or at least one that’s more descriptive.

The trouble is that many of the ideas put forward as an alternative simply miss the mark. Take, for example, the “voluntary sector.” The word accurately describes the activities of many charities, yes, but these organizations represent just a fraction of the total number of nonprofits in the U.S. And besides, the word implies that all those who work in the for-profit sector somehow do so involuntarily.

Other examples include the “third sector” and the “independent sector.” Hildy Gottlieb, director of the Community-Driven Institute, has made a compelling case for the term “community-benefit sector.” In a recent Harvard Business Review blog post, Dan Pallotta pitched the term “humanity sector.” And in an article some months ago in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Suzanne Perry suggested the “delta” sector.

Part of the reason we’re stuck with the term “nonprofit,” I believe, is because the field is so conceptually ambiguous. Much of what falls under the rubric of the nonprofit sector does not actually involve social service, community benefit, or even doing good. There are many nonprofits that are advocacy-driven, faith-based, or politically motivated, even though their tax-exempt status would suggest they are serving the public interest in some way.

In the academic literature, the field is often described as “civil society” or “the public sphere,” suggesting a kind of middle ground between public and private, between government and the free market. I realize that these terms encompass more than just nonprofit organizations (including, as they do, churches, neighborhood associations, book clubs, and the like). But they get closer, I think, to the real sphere of activity we’re talking about here.

These terms also avoid the unhelpful do-gooder connotations of terms like “the community benefit sector” and “the humanity sector.”

I prefer the term “civic sector,” or what the organization Ashoka: Innovators for the Public refers to as “the citizen sector.” Both of these terms put ordinary people — citizens — at the center of the equation (as distinct from business and government). And as I see it, that’s really what this burgeoning sector is all about: the role of ordinary individuals, people like you and me, in inspiring new solutions, creating change, and making a real impact.

See also:

Community: The Structure of Belonging

By Scott London — January 17, 2010

In his much-discussed new book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block makes a point of not trying to define a healthy and well-functioning community. The idea isn’t to create a visionary ideal for people to try to live up to, he says. Rather, it’s to encourage a shift in our way of thinking about community so we can bring about the qualities of an authentic sense of belonging. That, after all, is what community is really about.

Block’s approach sets this book apart from so many other works in the genre which try to map “best practices” or enumerate the essential features of a robust community. He understands that creating and sustaining a sense of belonging is fundamentally about the experience of community, not about it’s formal structures and mechanisms.

According to Block, the first and most pressing challenge is to transform people’s sense of isolation and self-interest into an experience of connectedness and caring for the whole. Creating that transformation requires a shift from seeing problems that need to be solved in the community to seeing possibilities that can be lived into. He writes at some length about “our love of problems,” saying that they run deeper than simply the joy of being right or escaping responsibility.

The problem is that we harbor a deeply ingrained belief that defining, analyzing, and studying problems is the way to make a better world. But what few of us realize, Block says, is that this notion — that life is a set of problems to be solved — “may actually limit any chance of the future being different from the past. The interest we have in problems is so intense that at some point we take our identity from those problems. Without them, it seems like we would not know who we are as a community. Many of the strongest advocates for change would lose their sense of identity if the change they desired ever occurred.”

Block says that the key task for leaders in bringing about this shift is to create structures for authentic engagement. This means 1) creating a context that nurtures an alternative future, one based on gifts, generosity, accountability, and commitment; 2) initiating and convening conversations that shift people’s experience, which occurs through the way people are brought together and the nature of the questions used to engage them; and 3) listening and paying attention.

Block is especially adamant about convening conversations in small-group settings. The small group is “the unit of transformation,” he says, because it creates a sense of intimacy. “The intimacy makes the process personal. It provides the structure where people overcome isolation and where the experience of belonging is created.”

Once the groups are brought together in a space that is conducive to genuine dialogue, it’s important to ask the right questions. Some examples include: What’s the commitment you hold that brought you into this room? What’s the crossroads you face at this stage of the game? And, what’s your contribution to the very thing you complain about? These questions, Block says, have the capacity to move something forward. By exploring them we become more accountable, more committed, more vulnerable; and when we voice our answers to one another, we grow more intimate and connected.

While this is an eminently practical book, one full of hands-on strategies for transforming groups, organizations, and communities at large, it’s not a handbook. It’s really about how those of us who care about building and strengthening communities think about that challenge — the basic assumptions and conceptual models we bring to it. Community: The Structure of Belonging says, in effect, don’t worry too much about formal structures and mechanisms of community and consider instead what it would mean to create change from the inside out — the sort rooted in an authentic sense of connectedness and belonging.

See also:

Transformative Leadership

By Scott London — January 4, 2010

Some thirty years ago, historian and presidential biographer James MacGregor Burns introduced the concept of “transformative leadership.” It was a powerful idea, one that continues to shape how I think about great leaders — in politics, certainly, but also in organizations, in communities, and even in small and informal groups. Burns observed that most leaders approach followers with an eye toward exchanging one thing for another — a swap of goods for money, for example, or a trading of votes between candidate and citizen. He called these leaders “transactional.” But there was a more complex and at the same time more powerful kind of leader that was “transformative,” he said. These individuals engage the full person of the follower and strive to satisfy some higher need on his or her part. The result of transformative leadership is a relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation, one that converts followers into leaders and often convert leaders into moral agents. At its best, Burns observed, transformative leadership advances the common good while at the same time appealing to the highest good of both leaders and followers.

Here is an excerpt from Burns’s 1978 book, Leadership:

Transforming leadership … occurs when one or more persons engage with each other in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality…. Their purposes, which might have started out as separate but related, as in the case of transactional leadership, become fused. Power bases are linked not as counterweights but as mutual support for common purpose.

Various names are used for such leadership, some of them derisory: elevating, mobilizing, inspiring, exalting, uplifting, preaching, exhorting, evangelizing. The relationship can be moralistic, of course. But transforming leadership ultimately becomes moral in that it raises the level of human conduct and ethical aspiration of both leader and led, and thus it has a transforming effect on both.

Perhaps the best modern example is Gandhi, who aroused and elevated the hopes and demands of millions of Indians and whose life and personality were enhanced in the process. Transcending leadership is dynamic leadership in the sense that the leaders throw themselves into a relationship with followers who will feel “elevated” by it and often become more active themselves, thereby creating new cadres of leaders. Transcending leadership is leadership engagé. Naked power-wielding can be neither transactional nor transforming; only leadership can be. […]

Woodrow Wilson called for leaders who, by boldly interpreting the nation’s conscience, could lift a people out of their everyday selves. That people can be lifted into their better selves is the secret of transforming leadership.

For more, please see my book review of James MacGregor Burns’s Leadership.

Obama’s Nobel Lecture

By Scott London — December 10, 2009

I’m here in Oslo covering President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. His acceptance speech earlier today at Oslo City Hall was forceful, eloquent, and beautifully crafted. But, as I noted in an interview with NRK (Norwegian Radio and Television) after the lecture, I was dismayed by the address. Here’s a translation of the story:


The American journalist Scott London was disappointed with Obama’s acceptance speech

By Amund Aune Nilsen

American commentators described President Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech earlier today as contemplative and philosophical, Norwegian political leaders said it lacked vision but was grounded and pragmatic, while other opinion leaders here in Norway reacted favorably to the address.

But not everyone responded with the same enthusiasm.

“I’m disappointed,” American journalist Scott London told NRK. London is best known for his work on American public radio and has attended numerous Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies since 2001, as both journalist and invited guest.

“Obama is a great orator,” London said, “and he tends to use his speeches to raise difficult questions, to muster courage, to suggest possibilities. At their best, they challenge our assumptions while at the same time moving and inspiring us.”

London cited Obama’s speeches in Cairo and Prague as examples.

“But that’s not what we got today. Much of today’s speech was given to explaining, perhaps even justifying, why war is sometimes necessary.”

“Why would he do that on the occasion of winning the Nobel Peace Prize? Why would he offer such a sober defense of war? What would bring him to say ‘make no mistake: evil does exist in the world’ — a statement that sounds like something George Bush might have said?”

According to London, the answer is that the lecture was calculated to address Obama’s critics, to lower the public’s expectations, and to assure people that’s he’s a realist — not, like many laureates before him, a mere idealist.

The speech “will help to dispel some of the criticism he’s been getting at home in recent months,” London said. “But it will also disppoint some of his supporters.”

He went on to say that Obama has managed to make the most of his visit to Oslo, in part by avoiding the usual news conferences and public appearances. Obama did not meet the press prior to the award ceremony and has only fielded a couple of questions from journalists while in Oslo, following his meeting with prime minister Jens Stoltenberg.

“Briefings with the media are time-consuming and potentially risky,” London said, “since they allow the questions being asked, rather than the answers given in response, to frame the story.”

“By not giving any interviews, he’s using his Nobel lecture, not comments made to the press, to create the headlines,” he added. “With little else to report on, most news organizations will focus on the content of the speech instead.”

London referred to a news story by the Associated Press’s Ben Feller. Obama decided to stay in Oslo for only about 24 hours and skip the traditional second day of festivities, the article said. “This miffed some in Norway but reflects a White House that sees little value in extra pictures of the president, his poll numbers dropping at home, taking an overseas victory lap while thousands of U.S. troops prepare to go off to war and millions of Americans remain jobless.”

When asked about Norwegians’ handling of the event and whether they have been too uncritical and naive in connection with the award ceremony, London said he had not found that to be true.

His only comment was that the award ceremony was still unnecessarily formal, in spite of the committee’s efforts to bring a little showbiz to the proceedings in recent years. “It’s still embarrassingly stiff and formal,” said the journalist, “and having President Obama here makes that especially obvious.”

Read the article in the original Norwegian: Høres ut som noe Bush kunne ha sagt

I was also interviewed for some other recent stories:

Art in an Ephemeral Age

By Scott London — November 13, 2009

“Art in an Ephemeral Age” is the theme of the Institute of Art and Ideas’ annual Art Festival at Hay in England, and among the many highlights this year is a look at Burning Man, perhaps the world’s preeminent gathering of ephemeral artists. Several discussion forums will tackle the subject of temporal art and performance artist Sarah Appleby will offer her own inimitable take on Burning Man.

Although I’m not able to attend the event, I was invited to exhibit some of my Burning Man photographs at the Globe, a converted church in Hay on Wye, which serves as the festival’s primary venue. The exhibit features over two dozen of my photos covering the last five years of the Burning Man festival. The show runs from November 13-28. More details here.