The Norwegian Nobel Committee has suddenly seen the light. After a near-death experience last year, when it awarded its coveted Peace Prize to President Obama, the committee has redeemed itself, and the future of the prize, by honoring Liu Xiaobo. The Peace Prize has always tilted leftward: remember that recent winners have included not just Obama but Al Gore and Jimmy Carter. Selecting Liu Xiaobo, by contrast, is a real game-changer. Instead of bowing to the powers that be, the Nobel Committee is challenging the most oppressive power of all: the Communist Party of China.
Liu Xiaobo is only one among many so-called Chinese dissidents, but he happens to be the most articulate and the most unbending. He has been offered many opportunities to leave China and live comfortably on some American campus. Liu, however, knows that the good fight must go on, and he has no desire to lose contact with his fellow Chinese citizens or squander his legitimacy by going into exile. Moreover, Liu has articulated most explicitly what many Chinese want: a normal life in a normal country. What Liu calls “normal” is genuine democracy and free markets, not the corrupt Chinese version of those concepts.
Many times in the past, the Nobel Committee has bestowed its Peace Prize on obscure characters in a commendable effort to represent the world’s diversity. In recognizing Liu, however, the committee has rejected any temptation for cultural and moral relativism and elevated a transcendent figure. Liu is a global citizen who fights for universal values: he happens to be Chinese, incarcerated in a Chinese jail. If he were from Zimbabwe or Venezuela, he would voice the same passion for liberty.
The Swedish Academy’s awarding of Mario Vargas Llosa with the Nobel Prize for Literature follows this same surprisingly enlightened pattern. Unlike the difficult, distant poets recognized in recent years, Vargas Llosa is an accessible novelist whose books are translated in most significant languages, often under his own supervision. Vargas Llosa is thus, like Liu, a global citizen. Like Liu, he rejects any notion of exoticism or cultural relativism. An indomitable freedom fighter in Latin America, he has always opposed the notion that authoritarianism—whether Cuban or Venezuelan—is essentially rooted in local culture. He has stood firmly against the political exploitation of ethnicity and skin color in Peru, Bolivia, and Venezuela. He shares with Liu Xiaobo a conviction that we are all human beings first, individuals belonging to a global civilization. The liberty that both men defend rightfully belongs to everyone and is not dependent on culture, ethnicity, or history.
Whether it’s a coincidence, an effort to preserve the Nobel’s legitimacy, or simply a sign of the times, the Nobel Foundation’s decision to honor these two remarkable men in the same year is cause for celebration.