The Magazine

Prize Duds

Apr 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 31 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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The Scrapbook did not win a Pulitzer Prize this year, and the way things are going, we’re not likely to win one next year, either—or any year, for that matter. But we’re not complaining. We knew that when the Pulitzer people started rewarding “new media” and other unconventional outlets that the prizes would fall into the laps of politically congenial publications such as the Huffington Post and Politico, and that is exactly what has happened.

Photo of Vaclav Havel

Nor can we feel as insulted as America’s novelists, since the Pulitzer board also decided that no novel published during 2011 was worthy of this year’s award for fiction. Coming from the people who gave the prize just once to Ernest Hemingway, and for his worst novel (The Old Man and the Sea, 1953), that’s got to hurt. But to our novelist friends, The Scrapbook suggests a more comforting perspective: The Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1925—the year of The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald), An American Tragedy (Theodore Dreiser), Manhattan Transfer (John Dos Passos), and Barren Ground (Ellen Glasgow)—went to Sinclair Lewis for Arrowsmith.

So go figure.

In the meantime, The Scrapbook is prompted to observe that the -Pulitzers, like the MacArthur “genius” grants and the Academy Awards and the Nobel Peace Prize, have long since descended into the realm of self-parody. Since the prizes are administered by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the New York Times, it can come as little surprise to learn that, over the years, a disproportionate number of Pulitzers have gone to—yes, you guessed correctly, the New York Times (two this year). The other journalism prizes are usually divided among a fraternal handful of big guns in the business (the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, etc.—but not the Wall Street Journal these days, for obvious reasons) and for appearance’s sake a provincial newspaper or two will be blessed as well. This year the Tusca-loosa News and the Harrisburg, Pa., -Patriot-News had their forelocks tugged.

Of course, the fact that the process of awarding a prestigious prize has been corrupted by self-interest is no great shock. The Scrapbook would probably be just as shameless as the New York Times when it comes to logrolling! What pushes the Pulitzers into satirical territory, however, is their utterly predictable politics. As our editorial (page 8) explains in more detail, the Associated Press won an unseemly investigative reporting prize this year for revealing the awful truth that the New York Police Department seems to have kept New Yorkers safe from terrorist attacks. The feature photography prize went to a perennial favorite (post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans), while national reporting was represented by a related obsession: the problems of wounded veterans. The explanatory reporting prize went to the Times for stories on corporate misbehavior. And the board was apparently so determined to recognize the late Manning Marable’s fawning biography of Malcolm X that it moved him from the biography category to history—where his Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention surely doesn’t belong.

All of which suggests, in The Scrapbook’s estimation, that as daily newspapers grow increasingly marginal in the national conversation, the Pulitzer spectacle—the corporate back-scratching, left-wing bias, unbearable sanctimony, and horses beaten to death—is likely to evolve, over time, into the greatest, and most instructive, story never to win a Pulitzer Prize. ♦

Remembering Cerny

Many are still mourning the death of Vaclav Havel, so it’s especially sad that Oldrich Cerny, another hero of the Prague Spring, has died too soon at age 65. On August 21, 1968, then a 22-year-old university student, he penned a letter addressed “To All Students of the World.” The missive briefly captured international attention and remains an inspiration for oppressed political dissidents everywhere:

As I write this, Soviet tanks are stationed in a large park under my windows. The barrels of their guns are trained on a government building adorned with a huge sign: “For Socialism and Peace.” .  .  . For seven months, my country has been led by men who wanted to prove, probably for the first time in the history of mankind, that socialism and democracy can exist side by side. Nobody knows where these men are now. I don’t know whether I shall ever see or hear them again. There is much that I don’t know. I don’t know, either, whether I shall be able to finish my studies or ever again meet my friends from abroad. I could carry on and on like this, but somehow everything seems to be losing its original value. .  .  . You will think, perhaps, that the Czech people have behaved like cowards because they didn’t fight. But you cannot stand up to tanks with empty hands. .  .  . We may be broken physically, but not morally. This is why I write. The only way you can help is: Don’t forget Czechoslovakia. Please help our passive resistance by increasing the pressure of public opinion around the world. Think of Czechoslovakia even when this country ceases to be sensational news.

After completing his studies, Cerny went on to become a children’s book editor and to translate foreign films into Czech. He also spent much of his life being harassed by the secret police for his sub rosa activities, including providing vital help to the CIA and MI6 during the Cold War. Henry Porter of the Observer wrote that he once asked Cerny how he survived his years fighting authoritarianism. “He said something on the lines of: ‘Well, there was love and sex and friendship and books and drink and cooking.’ ”

When the Velvet Revolution finally came, Cerny was one of the first people that Havel called and asked to join him in Prague Castle running their newly free country. It took quite a bit of arm twisting before Cerny relented and became Havel’s national security adviser. After Czechoslovakia split in 1993, he became director general of the Czech Office for International Relations and Information. A man who had spent his life being harassed by the KGB now found himself in charge of the Czech intelligence service.

Porter further notes that Cerny quickly formed a tight bond with British intelligence, and ironically spent much of his time combating former KGB agents who, post-communism, were now playing a leading role in Eastern Europe’s criminal activities. By all accounts, Cerny did a laudable job protecting the Czech Republic and its allies from outside threats. At Havel’s request, Cerny later worked with Elie -Wiesel and Japanese philanthropist Yohei Sasakawa as the head of Forum 2000, an organization dedicated to finding ways to keep conflicts around the world from escalating. In 2002, Cerny cofounded the Prague Security Studies Institute, which is now a leading European think tank dealing with national security issues and international relations.

Cerny never gave up fighting, even when it appeared that the rest of the world did forget about Czechoslovakia. It would further compound the tragedy of communism if we failed to remember Oldrich Cerny.

Recommended Reading

The Scrapbook has been reading, with great interest and profit, not one but two stellar recent publications of that stellar journal, -National Affairs.

The first is the Spring 2012 issue. It features excellent pieces by frequent Weekly Standard contributors like James Capretta (with Robert Moffit) on “How to Replace Obamacare,” Adam White on independent federal agencies, and Peter Wehner (with Robert Beschel) on “How to Think about Inequality.” We were particularly struck by our staff writer Jay Cost’s essay on “The Politics of Loss,” emphasizing and explaining, in a big historical frame, the particular need for the GOP in 2012 to have a serious and comprehensive economic growth message. And then there’s George Weigel on “The Handwriting on the Wall,” using Pope Leo XIII’s “acute analysis of political modernity” as a guide to the crisis of our time—an unusually thought-provoking essay.

And next to that issue on our desk is a new compendium of essays from National Affairs, edited by Yuval Levin and Meghan Clyne. A Time for Governing is a sort of “best of” collection from the journal’s first three years, reprinting 18 essays focused on guiding us towards solutions to key policy problems. We enjoyed especially rereading Yuval Levin on the welfare state and Jim Manzi on “Keeping America’s Edge.” If Mitt Romney has room for only one book and one journal in his carry-on, this is the book, and this is the quarterly, for him to have at hand. (Along with the latest Weekly Standard, of course!) With these, he’ll have what he needs to read—and to win.

Edifice Complex

On April 20, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan returned to her old stomping grounds in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to rename a building at Harvard Law School after Finn Caspersen. A graduate of the class of ’66, Caspersen inherited a billion-dollar fortune and had been the school’s biggest donor during Kagan’s stint as dean of Harvard Law.

We refer to Mr. Caspersen in the past tense because he committed suicide in 2009, a fact The Scrapbook was vaguely aware of thanks to one of Vanity Fair’s patented articles about the lurid secrets of the rich and famous, e.g., “Oddly, Caspersen had not the slightest interest in golf and never played. His passions ran instead to the more esoteric sports of Olympic-level horse jumping, four-in-hand horse-drawn-carriage driving, and competitive rowing.” Unfortunately, Caspersen’s other great hobby was tax evasion—he may have owed the IRS as much as $100 million, having squirreled away much of his fortune in offshore accounts—and this likely played a role in his decision to end his own life. 

Anyway, Caspersen’s shady activities do not appear to have dampened Kagan’s enthusiasm for the man. The “Caspersen Student Center” was formerly named after Edward S. Harkness who, like Caspersen, was the inheritor of a considerable fortune. Beyond that similarity, Harkness was a more generous and modest philanthropist. 

A Yale alumnus, Harkness helped fund much of the student housing system in New Haven and paid to establish the now-legendary Yale School of Drama. (Harkness is said to have been the inspiration for a minor character in Long Day’s Journey into Night.) 

But in 1929 he also gave a $13 million donation to Harvard, or about $174 million in today’s dollars. Moreover, Harkness insisted that nothing at Harvard be named after him despite his massive gift. Only after his death in 1940 did Harvard administrators convince his widow to allow a building to be named after him as a show of gratitude. 

So you can imagine not all Harvard students are thrilled about the decision to dishonor Harkness by renaming his building after a tax cheat who gave a comparatively modest gift. Last week, flyers started to go up on billboards around the law school from a group calling themselves Harvard Unbound. They read, in part: 

On April 20 you’ll see Justice Kagan dedicate a monument to Finn Caspersen, a schmuck who cheated the IRS out of $100 million, gave $30 million of it to Harvard Law, then blew his brains out as IRS agents closed in. 

The corrupt donor is in the ground. 

The corrupt fundraiser is on the Supreme Court. 

Money talks. Kagan walks. 

While perhaps this message could have been expressed in a more tactful manner, we sympathize with Harvard Unbound’s indignation. But more than that, color us shocked that Kagan would honor a tax cheat, and thereby make such a mockery of the current campaign to ensure tax fairness for the 1 percent spearheaded by her former White House boss and fellow Harvard Law alumnus. 

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