64 Genius: On Rewards for Honor

For a very brief period in the 1990s, after Governor Wilder’s term ended in Virginia, I worked in Washington as a speechwriter for a man who had won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. I have no doubt that many winners of this distinction are perfectly level-headed men and women without an ounce of tyranny in their souls, but this particular “genius” was a most unpleasant man. His idea of reviewing a 20 minute speech was to write “too glib for me” across the top page without any further direction or elaboration.

Realizing within three assignments that this job wasn’t going to work out, I gave two weeks’ notice and went back to Richmond to work on Wilder’s wacky independent campaign for the U.S. Senate. That should have been the end of it — yet, I’ve heard back on two occasions in the past 17 years that the aforementioned “genius” has made an effort to volunteer poor assessments of my work, even though I have never included him or his “think tank” as references or even noted them on my resume.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to launch into a score-settling five part series like Errol Morris did recently in the New York Times with his former Princeton philosophy professor Thomas Kuhn. But it does make me wonder — shouldn’t a genius have more valuable uses of time than to hold a grudge against a speechwriter who, in his 20s, escaped his tyranny?

I blame the MacArthur Foundation, of course. It seems to me that there are two perfectly reasonable ways to hand out grants for individual achievement (and no-strings-attached reward.) You either give people $1 million $500,000 to do nothing or you call them geniuses. To do both is to mix honorific styles haphazardly.

Here’s what Montaigne has to say about the subject:

It is, in truth, a very good and beneficial custom to have found a way of recognizing the worth of rare outstanding men and to please and to satisfy them with rewards which are no charge on the people and which cost the monarch nothing. It was always recognized by the experience of the Ancients – and was formerly seen to be so among us French – that men of distinction were more zealous for such rewards than for those which brought gain and profit: that was not unreasonable nor without evident justification. If you introduce other advantages and riches into a prize which should be for honour alone, instead of increasing the prestige you prune it back and degrade it.

Granted, the Foundation’s $1 million doesn’t go as far today as it did 25 years ago, but it’s still a substantial personal stipend to pursue something great. The “genius” in my story, by the way, simply put the money in his pocket and went on doing exactly what he had been doing before. Which, I have to admit, is a pretty cagey thing to do … if not exactly a sign of culture-enriching genius.

Montaigne argues that honoring a man like this actually degrades the more deserving winners of these grants:

No matter how great it may be, no recompense is allotted to any virtue which has passed into custom: I doubt if we would ever call it great once it was usual. To make them worthless you simply have to be generous with them. Even if there were more men nowadays who merited our Order it still ought not to have its prestige debased.

I do not know if anyone has ever turned down a MacArthur “genius” grant, but Montaigne argues that if someone truly wanted the distinction that the award is supposed to bestow, he or she would do just that:

No great-minded man deigns to see any advantage in what he holds in common with many others; and today those who merit it least are the first to affect to despise it in order to range themselves with those who were wronged when a decoration which was peculiarly theirs was unworthily extended and debased.

I like Montaigne’s train of thought and so if the MacArthur Foundation ever wishes to acknowledge my “genius,” I request that they send the money quietly, without the requisite press release. Please do not publicize the award; otherwise you will only cheapen the honor for me and all others.

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