I have long had some doubts about the "Presidential Medal of Freedom" which the White House hands out to a variety of people who have made "especially meritorious contribution to (1) the security or national interests of the United States, (2) world peace, or to (3) cultural or other significant public or private endeavors." I guess it's our equivalent of the British "Queen's Birthday Honors." As with our "American Idol," I find this a dubious franchise to have brought to these shores. The President is not a monarch, or even a deity despite what you hear from some Obamistas. The President is our head state, akin to a monarch, but is also an elected official, i.e., a politician. That means, to the extent the President influences the selection of recipients, and he does a great deal, there are politics involved especially in an electoral year as well as just bad taste. The list of recipients of the PMF is an odd one, in which there are clearly no well-established standards for granting this honor, and it has become, in some cases, a way to award people who have done cool or neat things, next to people who have put, to paraphrase the Declaration of Independence, their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor at risk in the cause of freedom. The medal, in other words, runs the risk of becoming a debased currency. You can go to Wikipedia and other sources to see the winners, and, I think, you will agree.
This year's award is a typical mishmash of different people, some rather mediocre and some genuinely outstanding and worthy of the honor. I am not sure that Bob Dylan, Toni Morrison, Madeleine Albright, and basketball coach Pat Summit belong on the same list with John Glenn and Jan Karski. But that might just be me.
The late Jan Karski certainly deserves recognition as a defender of freedom, and as a man who put his life on the line for freedom. As a young man in Poland he fought both Soviet and Nazi aggression. While working for the London-based Polish government-in-exile, Karski even infiltrated a Nazi death camp in Poland wearing the uniform of an Estonian guard (see Walter Laqueur's disturbing 1998 book The Terrible Secret) to bring back an eyewitness account of what the Nazis were doing to European Jewry and others in their "labor camps." He risked his life and, in return, got a polite brushoff from FDR, the State Department, and others who just "felt" his story was, literally, incredible. Karski went on to become an American citizen and launch a distinguished university career, back when that meant something.
I have argued repeatedly on this humble blog that Obama is not very well-read or knowledgable about anything in particular. He is a typical product of the "elite" universities and, despite all the media hype about his brilliance, is quite successful at hiding any glimmer of knowledge. His ignorance was on display yet again at the PMF award ceremony on May 29. By now, you all know that in presenting the posthumous award to Karski, accepted by former Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld (Note: Why? Karski was a proud American), The Great One referred to "Polish death camps." Does anybody check these speeches with anybody knowledgable about anything? Nobody read the speech and noted how inaccurate as well as offensive that remark is to Poland? Guess not. Despite the predictable and strong reaction from our Polish friends to this slur, the White House has refused to apologize (Note: Imagine if he had offended the Muslims.)
The current Polish Foreign minister issued one of the strongest statements I have ever read coming from senior official of country friendly to the US and, in fact, an important ally, "We always react in the same way when ignorance, lack of knowledge, bad intentions lead to such a distortion of history, so painful for us here in Poland, in a country which suffered like no other in Europe during World War II. The words uttered yesterday by the president of the United States Barack Obama concerning ‘Polish death camps’ touched all Poles."
It seems the Poles understand our President better than many of our voters.