On November 20, 2013, President Barack Obama bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on one of our country’s most renowned and respected national heroes. The woman who inspired millions of Americans with expressions such as “you can have it all” and “think like a queen” stood up from her chair and the president himself put a gold medal around her neck. Yes, that’s right: the much-deserving Oprah Winfrey had finally been given our nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Our forbears in republican government, the Romans, had a similar practice. About once every two years, a successful general would earn a triumph: a magnificent procession running through the streets of Rome that was followed by several days of festivals and games, all in honor of the victorious general. In 199 B.C., Scipio Africanus was the recipient of a triumph. After he saved the republic from Hannibal and ended the Second Punic War, the senate found him worthy of such a honorable award.
The practices are to a great extent the same. Someone much loved and hopefully deserving is given an award by the state. But differences abound as well. Scipio and Oprah are not deserving in the same way. One is a military commander, the other a celebrity. Why do we honor one when the Romans honored the other?1
Our version of the practice was started by President John F. Kennedy. The executive order which established the award states: “The Medal may be awarded by the President as provided in this order to any person who has made an especially meritorious contribution to (1) the security or national interests of the United States, or (2) world peace, or (3) cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” In other words, this award is also available to artists, not just soldiers.
So far, our presidents have taken advantage of this provision. In addition to its military recipients, the Presidential Medal of Freedom has been awarded twenty-nine times for film, forty times for music, and fourteen times for television. Literature, dance, and architecture have received their share of awards as well.
The ceremony itself has all the trappings of a late night award show. A well-furnished room complete with chandelier and golden curtains hosts a crowd of immaculately clad socialites. Following a half-hour speech from the president, the recipients walk to the podium one by one, where they receive their medals. The whole ceremony takes about an hour, and the president is entirely engaged with it at all phases, cracking jokes, paying compliments, and of course handing over the awards. All that is missing is the sealed envelope and overlong thank you speeches. Just a reminder—the leader of the free world spends an entire hour of his time on this event. But perhaps this time is not misplaced. The Romans certainly thought awards were of the utmost importance. Polybius, a historian in the time of Scipio, wrote,
“Considering all this attention given to the matter of punishments and rewards in the army and the importance attached to both, no wonder that the wars in which the Romans engage end so successfully and brilliantly.”
Polybius thought that awards were so important that their correct and just distribution helped the Romans win wars. This view, that civic awards such as the triumph and the Presidential Medal of Freedom act as incentives, is certainly applicable to our time as well. Many of our winners are genuinely deserving of praise, and it is certainly a worthwhile practice to honor deserving artists. Their work is what we will pass down to history long after military deeds are forgotten. But watching the ceremony, and looking at who stands on that stage, I have to wonder if we are rewarding the right people, and incentivizing the right goals.
In the first place, many of the recipients have already seen their share of the limelight. Publicly awarding someone like Meryl Streep, who, when she received her presidential Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014, had already won three Oscars and stood nominated for another, is redundant. It should be someone else’s turn.
Additionally, it seems that there are more deserving heroes. Tom Hanks received a Presidential Medal of Freedom for his excellent portrayals of wholesome American heroes such as Sully, Captain Phillips, and that guy in Bridge of Spies. Meanwhile, the real Sully, who did really land a plane on the Hudson, has received no such honor. (Though he did throw the first pitch of the MLB season in 2009!) And the real Bridge of Spies guy, James Donovan—the fact that we do not know his name tells us enough already—has received nothing, not even a first pitch. It looks like the imaginary is honored more than the real.
This is bad on its face. The benefit we receive from these performances is less substantial than what we get from the real deeds of the people portrayed. The actors are less heroic than the people they portray. Yet who is more famous? Who receives the medal? It seems we favor fantasy in our awards.
And how could we resist it? The beautiful lie does command our attention, and the success of the television and film industry is a testament to the fact that a well-woven and -produced narrative is more compelling than plain reality. What should concern us is that granting these fictions our highest awards makes them seem real. We reward a captivating fantasy with our highest honors, despite its lack of substance. Sound familiar? What is the rise of fake news, and to some extent the rise of Trump himself, if not that same act of rewarding fantasy with real power?
We are not alone in this regard. The Romans were also captivated by fame and sensationalism. But in our highest awards, we should overcome this inclination, and honor the truly deserving.