The New York Sun reports that bluesman B.B. King will be awarded the Medal of Freedom at the White House today. Wonderful. Among the fellow medalists to be recognized today along with the estimable Mr. King are David McCullough, Paul Johnson, William Safire and Natan Sharansky (complete list here). Even if Sharanky is in a class by himself, these awards are wonderful too. Also receiving the Medal of Freedom today is former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. Not wonderful. But Mineta’s inclusion isn’t the only error in this year’s awards. Two errors of omission exceed that error of commission.
I don’t think there’s an American whose service to freedom outside the armed forces makes him more deserving of a Medal of Freedom than Hoover Institution Fellow Thomas Sowell. Sowell is a remarkable man who has produced a distinguished body of work over a long career. I tumbled to Sowell through a hilariously derisive book review he had written for Commentary in 1975 on one of John Kenneth Galbraith’s books. Sowell’s December 1975 review of the Galbraith book — his first of several important pieces for Commentary — is accessible via Commentary’s digital archives here. (Thanks to Sam Munson at Commentary for making the review accessible to our readers today.)
Sowell’s books and columns have been a source of inspiration to many lovers of freedom. Recogniton of Sowell with a Medal of Freedom would be the proper accompaniment to the Medal awarded in 2004 to former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, who was responsible for bringing Sowell to the attention of many readers like me.
Last year Sowell turned 75. He celebrated the occasion with a characteristically thoughtful column. Here was his conclusion:
All the dark and ominous times that this country and the world have passed through and overcome in the past 75 years make it hard to despair, even in the face of growing signs of internal degeneracy today. Pessimism, yes. Despair, not yet.
In my personal life, I can remember a time when our family had no such frills as electricity, central heating, or hot running water.
Even after we left the poverty-stricken Jim Crow South and moved to a new life in Harlem, I can remember at the age of nine seeing a public library for the first time and having to have a young friend explain to me patiently what a public library was.
There is much to complain about today and to fear for the future of our children and our country. But despair? Not yet.
We have all come through too much for that.
Also deserving of a Medal of Freedom is the man who singlehandedly restored our understanding of the thought of Abraham Lincoln, Claremont Institute Senior Fellow Harry V. Jaffa. As Allen Guelzo observed in the bibliographic essay that concludes Redeemer President, Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates is “incontestably the greatest Lincoln book of the [twentieth] century.” In 2000 Professor Jaffa also published the long-awaited sequel to Crisis — A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War — that is also a great and perhaps even more important work. Lincoln is the martyr of America’s “ancient faith” and Professor Jaffa’s contribution to our understanding of what is most important about Lincoln is richly deserving of recognition with a Medal of Freedom.