Degrees of vanity honour the ludicrous and grotesque

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THIS columnist has never been one to blow his own trumpet; indeed, it would be fair to say he is proud of his modesty. There comes a point, however, when so many honours have been lavished upon one, creating such a slag-heap of achievement, that it would almost be duplicitous not to share this success. So it is in a spirit of self- deprecatory candour that the following chronicle of personal attainment is set out.

The first intimation that this column's outstanding merit had secured international recognition came in April 2006, in the form of an imposing letter announcing the award of the International Peace Prize to yours truly, by an organisation called the United Cultural Convention, based in Raleigh, North Carolina. The nomination was dispatched from the office of the General-in-Residence, which seemed an incongruously militaristic title for a body conferring a peace prize. A further incongruity was the consideration that, despite having opposed the invasion of Iraq - an aggression too far, even for this commentator - the ideological tenor of this column might be expressed as 'Make war, not love'.

"Persons nominated for the honor," the letter declared, "are concerned with conditions of positive peace, whether in interpersonal relationships, community relations, professions, families, within organizations and countries, or with reference to international relations." This amounted to an admission that the writer either had never read this column or had an imperfect understanding of English. The substantive objection to receiving the prize, however, was to be found in the accompanying acceptance form, which requested a remittance of $295 to cover the cost of a laminated plaque.

Two months later, an even more impressive missive arrived announcing the conferral of the American Medal of Honor. The awarding body was the American Biographical Institute (ABI), which, by a striking coincidence, was also based in Raleigh, North Carolina and shared the same address and PO Box number as the United Cultural Convention. Unfortunately, it also entailed a contribution of $295. "Obviously, an award such as this carries with it the respect of the United States as a whole..." the citation promised.

Scottish frugality again dictated rejection. As if divining that cultural block, the ABI's next award, in August, was the Gold Medal for Scotland, which "will solidify your achievements into tangible form..." Again, there was a small matter of $295 involved - an excessive price to pay for solidifying one's achievements. The title of Man of the Year 2006 was next bestowed - clearly a higher honour, since the medal and neck ribbon cost $395. In March of this year, your scribe was further awarded the World Medal of Freedom. Again, the higher tariff of $395 applied.

To crown all these achievements, as recently as last month, the title Man of the Year 2007 was again proffered, at the original fee of $295. To have accepted all of these tributes and the accompanying insignia would have entailed a total cost of $1,970, unless one had done the cheap-skate thing and chosen an unlaminated Man of the Year diploma at a knockdown price of $195. In fairness, the present exchange rate is extremely favourable and these prices are very competitive when compared with a Blair peerage, where you are almost certainly talking seven figures.

If all this seems rather pathetic, consider the ludicrous conferment by universities of honorary degrees, a similar indulgence of vanity, even though money does not change hands. Oprah Winfrey has several honorary degrees, including one from Princeton; the Bee Gees have been honoured by Manchester University; the intuitively lawless Bob Geldof is a Doctor of Civil Law at the University of Newcastle; George Best had a doctorate from Queen's University, Belfast; Lennox Lewis, the boxer, from the University of North London; Johnny Ball, the children's television presenter, was similarly honoured by Salford.

Bill Clinton was awarded the title Doctor of Laws by the University of Michigan, presumably for his memorable existentialist thesis: "It all depends what the meaning of 'is' is." The University of St Andrews made a fool of itself by conferring an honorary degree on Bob Dylan. More controversially, last October, apparently at the instigation of Jack Straw, St Andrews bestowed an honorary doctorate on former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, under whose 'reformist' rule several thousand people were detained and tortured, without trial, and 200 executed.

St Andrews had clearly learned nothing from the experience of Edinburgh University, which notoriously gave an honorary doctorate to Robert Mugabe, now belatedly to be rescinded. Against the backdrop of such a rogues' gallery, Margaret Thatcher is to be congratulated on being excluded from honorary recognition by her former university, Oxford.

The most morally grotesque academic elevation was perpetrated in Spain, in 2005, when the Universidad Autnoma de Madrid conferred a doctorate honoris causa on Santiago Carrillo, former leader of the Spanish Communist Party. As chief of police in Madrid in 1936, he had presided over Cheka death squads that murdered huge numbers of people (2,800 in one weekend) for the crime of being 'bourgeois'. Throughout the squalid degree ceremony, people concerned with the honour of Spanish academe punctuated the proceedings with shouts of "Murderer!"

The most effective denunciation of this naked emperor, however, had been made during his journey back from exile. As the aircraft approached Madrid, with the arrogance of a reinstated member of the nomenklatura, he told the stewardess to ask the captain if he could enter the cockpit to get a better view of the capital. Moments later the public address system came to life: "This is your captain speaking. In 15 minutes we shall be landing at Madrid Barajas airport. Before that, I would like you to see the historic site of Paracuellos de Jarama to the right of us. That was where thousands of innocent people were executed during our civil war. The man responsible for those executions is one of your fellow passengers, Don Santiago Carrillo Solares. He is sitting in seat 27-B."

That pilot deserved an honorary degree.

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