At last night's gala ceremony, President Obama handed out the Presidential Medal of Freedom to what is inevitably described as a diverse group, though most of the winners run to a predictable type: Toni Morrison, an incompetent and dirty writer of anti-American fictions, Madeline Albright an incompetent and brutally savage statesgirl, John Glenn the showboating flyboy who held a press conference every time he shot down an enemy plane and spent his political career moving as far to the left as he could, John Paul Stevens the weak-minded justice who betrayed the people who put him on the Supreme Court, Pat Summit the queen of girls' basketball, Gordon Hirabayashi--the poster child for the sufferings of those poor interned Japanese who would not give up dual citizenship or renounce the Emperor, a co-founder of the United Farmworkers, and, best of all, Bob Dylan.
The President, in a comic vein, praised Dylan's singing voice. On NPR they played Dylan's funniest song, "Blowin' in the Wind," which contains this line that borders on parody: "How many deaths will it take till they know that too many people have died?" Gosh, I don't know. By now it must add up to trillions, and they're still dying even as I write. I guess if Americans had rolled over and played dead for the Soviets, the USSR would have outlawed death they way it outlawed capital punishment.
Well, who cares? The Presidential Medal of Freedom--always described as the "nation's highest civilian honor"--has nothing to do with the nation and often too little to do with honor. Jack Kennedy established it by a presidential order in 1963 as part of his project to convert the real United States into a Potemkin village Camelot.
The Medal represents nothing more serious than the whims of whatever incumbent is currently disgracing the White House. I have more respect for any soldier, sailor, or marine, who did his duty competently and faithfully, for any hardworking teacher of Latin or math or chemistry, for any mother who has done her best to raise her brood of unruly children. In the unlikely event of an honorable man ever being elected President, I wouldn't take such a medal from his hands in the still less likely event of an offer.
Sometimes there is a good apple in a barrel of rotten apples, and last night a medal was given posthumously to Jan Karski, a Polish officer and resistance agent who gathered information on the Nazi occupation and later testified. Inevitably, Barack Obama blew the moment by insulting the entire Polish nation with a reference to the "Polish death camp." Polish defense minister Radek Sikorski tweeted his friends, "The White House will apologize for this outrageous error.
In the film version of The Wizard of Oz, the bogus wizard presents the Cowardly Lion with a medal which cures him of his cowardice. (In the book, he is given a green liquid to drink, which I take to be 110 proof Green Chartreuse, a far more valuable and authentic stimulus to courage than a meaningless award!) In a country whose subjects long ago surrendered their freedoms, it is then altogether fitting that such a President honors such people such a medal.
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.