Friday, November 25, 2016

Jottings : Slice of life - 64 ( Presidential medal of Freedom - honor and appeasement)

Jottings : Slice of life - 64 ( Presidential medal of Freedom - honor and appeasement)
Unlike most other countries, the USA’s highest civilian award - the Presidential medal of Freedom - is often a whim, a taste, a sign of an outgoing’s President’s larger legacy than his political one. Historically, if one looks at the number of awards given by each President, especially during last few months of their tenure ( jokingly referred to as the lame duck period), it is always the time when they open the white house halls to honor those they have loved, cherished and supported their cause in one way or the other. Not that recipients at any time were less deserving. No, not at all. All awardees, since the time John F Kennedy reconstituted this award in 1963, have been stalwarts, giants and path breakers in their fields of endeavor. Music, dance, writing, Governance, Military, business, social science, sports - all of them have found representation. But as I said, each President’s choice of whom the awards are given to reflects what they like, respect or enjoy the most.
By far, President barrack Obama has given away the maximum number of awards during his tenure. 124 awards till date, significantly higher than any President’s beneficence. This year alone (2016), in the just held ceremony, he handed out in his usual charismatic style and wit, the prestigious awards to more than 20 deserving causes and people. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to watch on TV many of Obama’s Presidential award ceremonies. I always get the feeling that Obama is at his best when he is in the company of people who are non-political. His innate wisdom, spontaneity, wit and effortless eloquence comes out when he talks about cultural transformations, individual achievements that go beyond the political spectrum. Well, one may argue, he is a democrat. And democrats are known to favor cultural ambassadors than political ones.
But what surprises me a little though in the last eight years, only three writers have received the honor. Maya Angelou in 2011, Toni Morrison in 2012, and Isabel Allende in 2014. Considering that Obama is a voracious reader and lover of literature, one would have hoped to find more writers in the list. Well, that brings me to my point. Like all national awards anywhere in the world, they are given primarily to keep its recipients in the good books of existing political party, and to expect their continued patronage in money, idealogical evangelism and fan following . It reflects the attitude “you are my man..”. In fields, where such loyalty isn't possible, for example, Philosophy, you wouldn't find many winners. In fact, As I look into the list right now, i see only three philosophers recognized in the history of this honor (Will Durant is one of them). It is difficult to woo philosophers to tow a line. Better to leave them alone. Well, Writers also dont contribute much in terms of money and time. They live in their own world. Even if Obama may have liked to honor few more writers, politically it may not have been a “correct” or wise decision.
However, to find Robert De Niro, Tom hanks and Robert Redford on the same podium was awkward and an overkill. All three are great artists, no doubt. But even to a layman, it is pretty obvious, the only reason all three were chosen hastily to be honored in the same function is demonstrably to return favors done during a grueling democratic campaign. And of course, Bill gates foundation found its long due honor. For a couple whose annual income equals or exceeds GDP of many nations, and whose unbelievable philanthropy and social awareness has raised them to a status well beyond merely business tycoons - the Presidential award is just one more walk in the park. Any political party would like to keep them in good books. Not that the couple needs it, but they wouldn't mind lending their little support every now and then.
To me, the most fitting award of the ceremony was given posthumously to Commodore Grace Hopper (aka amazing grace). She holds a very special place in my heart and mind. The first Programming language NIIT taught me in 1989 was COBOL, a language that transformed enterprise business processing and led the way to building more complex and sophisticated models of software. If I close my eyes, I can still code in COBOL. I can visualize the cascading flow of code beginning with Identification division, followed by Environment, then Data and its seamless consummation into procedural block of processing. The methodical certainty of each piece of code, its elegance, beauty and design , even today guides me in my approach to software. It was Grace M hopper, in 1959, who headed the technical committee that led to the development of COBOL. Not only was she one of the first American Computer scientists( notably woman), she also holds the honor for developing the first compiler for UNIVAC. A frail lady, with a doctorate in Mathematics from Yale, entered the US Navy technical operations because she was underweight to enlist for combat. The second world war gave her wings to experiment on her computational models and her sharp brain was able to transform the nascent computer from merely a computational/arithmetic machine to one that could logically process chunks of instructions. The first full fledged compiler was delivered through her able hands. The rest is history, as they say. Grace was called and recalled for special assignments by the Government well into her seventies, and later DEC (Digital equipment corporation) appointed her as special consultant for their operations till her death in 1992. When she died, She was 83, and still holding a technical position and contributing to the company. True American spirit, if there is one.
While Ellen DeGeneres stole the award ceremony with her emotional acceptance, I think, the overall list this year was an impressive one. Each one of the recipients are among the very best in what they do. It is my personal belief that awards can never completely objective and impartial. There will always be biases, dictated by personal and professional choices. The best one can hope for is people so honored will be beacons of light for others to look up to, and will inspire younger generations to a level of excellence that comes not merely from possessing talent, but the ability to transform that talent into hard-work, dedication and commitment. The bottom line is this : If , after an awards ceremony, one gets inspired - the job is done!
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala


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