Yes yes yes, I know. The Nobel Peace Prize is now impossible to take seriously. But hasn't this been true for a long time? After all, it's been awarded to not only Al Gore but to Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat, Jimmy Carter - and other people whose contributions to peace were negligible or on balance negative. And then there was Rigoberta Menchu, who got the prize for a book that was later shown to contain a significant quantity of deliberate lies. And for her "work" as a Marxist revolutionary.
There's a phenomenon here that is much larger than this one prize.
Consider the Nobel Prize for Literature. Here is a list of some of the people who did not get that one, but could have, because they were very much alive when the award was being given: Leo Tolstoy, George Meredith, Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, August Strindberg, Henry James, William Dean Howells, Georg Trakl, Guillaume Apollinaire, Sigmund Freud, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, Rainer Maria Rilke, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Miguel de Unamuno, Constantine P. Cavafy, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Stefan Zweig, Luigi Pirandello, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Robert Musil, W. H. Auden, George Orwell, Hermann Broch, André Gide, Ludwig Wittgenstein, E. M. Forster, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov... Well, it goes on and on. [These names are from a highly entertaining article in which Ted Gioia imagines a parallel universe in which the prize goes to people who actually deserve it.]
Then, perhaps most disgracefully inept of them all, there are the Academy Awards. Here are some directors who never won an award for best director, and who could have, because each one made several (at least!) pictures in this country: Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Charles Chaplin, Fritz Lang, Josef von Sternberg, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Nicholas Ray, Stanley Kubrick, Max Ophuls, Jean Renoir.
Why are these prizes so absurd, so easy to ridicule and laugh at?
Here is one partial explanation. Judging who is "the best" in one of these fields involves weighing and deciding between incommensurable factors, in the sense that we cannot find one candidate better than another simply on the grounds that they possess more of some specific quality than another. It is not like judging which horse crossed the finish line first. "Competitions are for horses, not artists," said Bela Bartok (who as far as I know never won a prize for anything). He was right.
We do make judgments like these, but we do so by sorting imponderable factors on the basis of moral, philosophical, or ideological principles. Why do you suppose that the pro-Communist Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel, while the libertarian Mario Vargas Llosa (who once punched Marquez in the face) did not? Isn't it pretty obvious?
All such judgments are necessarily ideological or, in this sense, biased.
The trouble with the above awards is that they are ideological and pretend not to be: they are just prizes for "the best" in a whole vast field of endeavor. As a result, they are dishonestly and inconsistently biased. The prizes that are not ridiculous, that make perfect sense, are the ones that are openly ideological, like the Prometheus Awards.
I am not saying that the other sort of list have no value. They are, more than anything else, entertaining. They are also fun ways to raise issues and start discussions, like the tempting project of drawing up one's own "top ten" lists. But they are only fun if not taken too seriously.
What I personally do take seriously, I have to admit, is five Norwegian politicians trying to use the Peace Prize to influence who the outcome of the next American Presidential election. If that is what they were trying to do. But I won't get started on that here.