Last month, rapper Kanye West interrupted an MTV Video Awards ceremony to protest the selection of Taylor Swift for “Best Female Video.” So widely did the fallout from this episode spread that President Obama soon weighed in against West (“He’s a jackass”). Obama himself would soon become the subject of a similar award-related imbroglio, when he was bizarrely chosen as the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. No doubt one of the conservative pundits waxing indignant about Obama’s Nobel will one day nab one of those lucrative prizes conservative pundits are always awarding to each other while some more deserving reactionary mutters angrily to his friends.
Such is the nature of awards. Nearly every field of human endeavor has a regular prize. And nearly every prize seems to regularly go to a clearly undeserving winner. Woody Allen’s character complained in Annie Hall, “They’re always giving out awards. Best Fascist Dictator: Adolf Hitler.” If an award like that really did exist, though, they’d probably end up giving it to Mussolini.
I started having my doubts about awards at the tender age of 13. NASA had announced it would select one teacher for a trip on a space shuttle. The dopiest, flakiest teacher in my school decided to apply. Naturally, she was one of two teachers in the state of Michigan selected as a finalist, out of more than 10,000 applicants.
This recollection was so surreal that I recently decided to look it up. Perhaps my memory had failed—surely, either she was smarter than I remembered, or she could not actually have been selected by a federal agency as an elite representative of the teaching profession.
The truth was actually worse than I remembered. A 1985 Associated Press article on her selection described her as a “puppeteer, ventriloquist, hot air balloonist, and former airline stewardess.” (My brother, whom she taught in seventh grade, recalls that the puppets figured prominently in her teaching method.) The article describes the proposal she pitched to NASA. “Her proposed special project on the shuttle,” the AP reported, “calls for running up ‘the biggest telephone bill in history’ by contacting children at their homes and having her puppet talk with them, maybe even help them with their homework.” Clearly, she was no rocket scientist. But the people at NASA were rocket scientists. And they apparently found her plan impressive.
Some years later, Gino Toretta of the University of Miami won the 1992 Heisman Trophy, which goes to the best college football player. Toretta was approximately the third-best player—at his position, within his state. He was probably one of the worst starters on his own team. Toretta went on to be selected in the next-to-last round of the NFL draft, where —without suffering any major injuries—he completed a total of five passes in his career.
In my field, we have something called the National Magazine Awards. Magazine writers tend to be both obsessed with who wins and convinced the process is a pathetic joke. This isn’t just sour grapes, either. The last time The New Republic won a National Magazine Award, it was for publishing Betsy McCaughey’s infamous anti-Clintoncare screed “No Exit,” which is probably the worst article in the history of TNR. It’s as if the last American to win the Nobel Peace Prize was Timothy McVeigh.
Are these cases unusually egregious? Perhaps. But they are not wildly out of character with how awards generally work. A recent statistical analysis by Robert T. Hodgson, published in the Journal of Wine Economics (I kid you not), found that a wine that wins one competition is no more likely to win another competition than any other wine. Which is to say, wine awards are handed out completely at random. If you listen to movie buffs, they will tell you that the Academy Awards regularly commit unforgiveable sins of commission or omission. Look closely at any field that gives out awards, and you will probably find that injustice is more the rule than the exception.
Our mania for awards stems from a desire to sift through a chaotic world and impose linearity and a singular winner. Nearly everybody can agree that The Godfather is a better film than Earnest Goes to Camp. But if you’re deciding between Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz,you’re merely trying to quantify a simple matter of taste. Declaring one great work of art superior to others is like having an official ranking for best ice cream flavor.
Yet awards provide emotional responses—gratification, victimization, schadenfreude—that makes the ritual perversely compelling. Understanding that the process is fatally flawed, or even corrupt, seems to do nothing to diminish its appeal. Those most convinced that, say, the Oscars do a horrible job of rating films are the very people who cling to their emotional investment in the outcome.
The reductio ad absurdum of subjectivity has to be the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The official criterion for winning is having made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” In other words, it has no criteria at all. It can go to virtually any famous person, though under George W. Bush it evolved into a Republican patronage operation, with awards going to like-minded ideologues (Irving Kristol, Robert Bartley, Norman Podhoretz, among many others) or the goats of the Iraq war (Tommy Franks, George Tenet).
A former speechwriter for George W. Bush recently revealed that the administration nixed J.K. Rowling’s candidacy on the grounds that her books “encouraged witchcraft.” With such arbitrary standards to begin with, who could possibly complain? If you’re considering grounds to deny somebody an honor given out to Robert Bartley and Tommy Franks, suspicion of abetting witchcraft is as good a reason as any.
The Nobel Peace Prize, of course, represents the gold standard of all awards. (“I’d kill for a Nobel Peace Prize,” as Steven Wright once put it.) Yet it’s widely understood that the committee frequently chooses recipients in order to encourage or empower them, rather than to reward actual achievement. This year, the committee decided to give it to Obama because, well, he seems like such a nice young man.
The choice, judged on meritocratic terms, is completely silly, but no less so than the shock and outrage it produced. What do people expect? It’s not like they gave the award to Hitler.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic.