Sure, We All Like to Be Honored

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SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAYWhen Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk turned down the coveted title of state artist recently (if he accepted it, he said, he could not look in the face of people he cared about), I was reminded of a veteran leftist editor in New Delhi, Nikhil Chakravarty, who similarly declined an official decoration some years ago. To accept it and still claim independence, he said, would be like wearing a chastity belt in a brothel.Writers and journalists being essentially in the same boat, the question of whether our work should be rewarded--and, if so, how and by whom--provokes contrary views. Did Pamuk's claim that the state does not have clean hands mean all states, or are some cleaner than others? If you accepted a prize from the White House during the Vietnam War, he went on, that would of course have political implications. What about a White House that is not embroiled in foreign military adventure, hard though it is to imagine? The implication seems to be that some states are permanently taboo and others only sometimes. Not everyone is as squeamish. Mahatma Gandhi and India's Nobel laureate for literature Rabindranath Tagore, sturdy patriots both, received honors not just from the government but from a colonial government, returning them in fury only when the British indulged in a brutal display of force.Media dynamics make for an additional anomaly. Press magnates seldom conceal their political loyalty; they openly campaign for their preferred party and no one thinks the less of them for being rewarded with titles or ambassadorships. Some British newspaper proprietors have even been offered Balkan crowns. But the editors and reporters who work for these committed moguls are generally seen--and see themselves--as incorruptible paragons of impartiality. Hence the frisson of disapproval that rippled the British media's favorite watering holes in 1981 when, as the wits said, Queen Elizabeth turned day into knight with a tap of her sword. The victim (or beneficiary) was television anchor Robin Day, distinctive as always in polka-dot bow tie and matching handkerchief, whose integrity had never previously been questioned. His knighthood may have paved the way for Margaret Thatcher later to shower honors on a host of supportive editors whose Asian equivalent is to be found in the Malaysian media's Tuns and Datuks.PAGE 1  |  
 
Chakravarty was lucky in being both proprietor and editor of his small highbrow magazine. Nevertheless, his gesture did not escape criticism. Conservatives accused him of insulting India as well as its fount of honor: the President, who is supposed to be above politics. Radicals said that if Chakravarty disliked the system so much, why did his wife participate in it as a member of parliament? But only a hermit can afford really to spurn the state. Anyone who applies for a car license or pays income-tax acknowledges governmental authority. Would it smack of hypocrisy, I wonder, to acquiesce in certain aspects of the state's jurisdiction and not others, to obey tax demands but not presidential invitations? People have always been coy about honors. Some canvass a title diligently, then profess surprise and embarrassment when their prayers are answered. Others mock the whole thing until it touches them. British Prime Minister Clement Attlee ridiculed the peerage by saying that if ever he went to the Lords it would be as Lord Lubbock of Limehouse, but derision did not stop him from becoming a belted earl. American writer Paul Theroux accuses V.S. Naipaul, the Trinidad-born British writer, of readily accepting a knighthood when it was offered in spite of sneering earlier that titles should be bought from a post office, like credit stamps.There are more insidious ways of influencing the media. If Henry Kissinger reportedly seduced correspondents in the Nixon era by calling them by their first names, Indonesia's wartawan amplop, or envelope journalism, does not need explaining. Squeaky-clean societies co-opt chosen scribes by appointing them to semi-official committees or nominating them for parliament. Asked if he had any misgivings about the handle to his name, Sir Robin retorted, Why should I? I don't think journalists are superior mortals, above accepting what other people are perfectly honored and happy to accept. True, scribblers, whether of books or columns, are no better and no worse than the people we write about. But there is a vital difference. A scientist or a soccer player does not expect ever to question or confront the government. For journalists, that is an occupational hazard. A blanket ban on all favors would be fatuous; but Pamuk and Chakravarty were right. No journalist who allows himself to be singled out for official commendation should be surprised if his impartiality is questioned.  |  2