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Everyone Gets a Trophy, and No Trophy Is Worth Anything

If they're already giving out a bunch of undeserved accolades, would it be too much for me to receive a Pulitzer?

Everyone Gets a Trophy, and No Trophy Is Worth Anything

If Bob Dylan deserves a Nobel Prize in Literature, the award doesn’t deserve the respect of anyone.

By Joseph Epstein, WSJ

May 17, 2024 5:04 pm ET

President Biden awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 19 Americans this month. I wish he had cut the list down to two or three. Perusing the list of winners I note, along with a preponderance of Democratic politicians, the heavy hand of diversity at work, making certain that among the winners are included a sufficient number of women, African-Americans, Hispanics and even a Republican (Elizabeth Dole).

The result of so many medal winners is to diminish, if not altogether destroy, the cachet the honor once held. Another once-vaunted prize bites the dust.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom joins the Nobel Prize for Literature, which long ago lost its luster. When it went to Bob Dylan in 2016, what prestige remained was all but blown away. His songs have nothing to do with literature, and most, in any case, are derived from Woody Guthrie. I await the day the Swedish Academy decides to recognize that notable speed typist Joyce Carol Oates, which ought to finish the prize off completely.

The Pulitzer Prizes in the arts haven’t done much better. Some years ago in the London Times Literary Supplement, I noted that these awards seem to go to two kinds of people: those who don’t need it and those who don’t deserve it. In 1998, when Katharine Graham won a Pulitzer for her autobiography, Hilton Kramer noted that she qualified on both grounds. The prize’s prestige has also all but evaporated.

Then there are honorary degrees, which long ago lost their honor. Universities often give them to the wealthy, hoping the recipients will make handsome financial contributions. My friend Sol Linowitz told me he collected 63 such degrees while chairman of Xerox. The thick-fingered hand of diversity is felt here, too. Good luck finding a list of honorary degrees these days that doesn’t include at least two African-American women.

The National Book Award, especially for novelists, once had great prestige. To win one meant that a novelist had truly arrived—or so Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, William Styron, Philip Roth and other novelists of that era must have felt. Today you’d be hard-pressed to name any novelist who has won a National Book Award in the past decade, which may have something to do with the loss of interest in the contemporary novel generally.

Other prizes are awarded on a strictly political basis. I have a National Medal for the Humanities, awarded during the George W. Bush administration. A liberal friend noted that it was a shame I had to be given the medal by Mr. Bush. I replied that I’d have preferred to have it awarded to me under Jefferson or Lincoln, but this wasn’t easily arranged. My own pleasure in the medal was reduced by my certain knowledge that I wouldn’t have been awarded it during the Clinton or Obama administration.

A similar political division resides among prizes awarded by private foundations. The recipients of MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants are rarely conservatives, much as the Bradley Foundation prizes are never given to people on the left. If you win a prize either from the government or a private foundation, it is likely you have won it for your politics as much as for your achievement in your field.

What, then, does it say about our country that, apart from those awarded in our various sports, our institutions essentially bestow no truly prestige-bearing prizes? Among other things, it suggests priorities well out of whack.

Among this year’s Freedom Medalists, Al Gore, Phil Donahue and several others have had nothing to do with freedom. Out of a sensible modesty, Mr. Dylan, who can’t have needed the money, should have turned down the Nobel Prize. Pulitzer Prizes in the arts ought to go quietly out of business. Universities should hand out honorary degrees only to scholars, scientists and artists. Large foundations ought to lose their preferred tax status if the greater part of their expenditures are political in nature. The government ought to consider returning to awarding medals only for military service.

If any of this should ever come about, I would be only too willing to return my rather clunky National Medal for the Humanities, though I would like to retain my small red-and-white good-conduct medal from my days as an enlisted man in the peacetime U.S. Army. At least I earned it.

Mr. Epstein is author, most recently, of “Never Say You’ve Had a Lucky Life.”

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