Isn’t it kind of divine that in the same week that Tim Thomas, the goalie of the Boston Bruins, refused to attend a White House reception in honor of the team’s championship last spring, Buckingham Palace released the names of 277 people who between the years 1951 and 1999 declined to accept one of the Queen’s Honors, including, in some cases, knighthood, and with it the right to be be called Sir or Lady. Among the refusniks were Roald Dahl, Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley, JB Priestley, Lucian Freud, Robert Graves, FR Leavis, LS Lowry, Henry Moore, Philip Larkin and CS Lewis.
In a statement he posted on Facebook, Thomas was plain about his decision. “I believe the Federal government has grown out of control, threatening the Rights, Liberties, and Property of the People.This is being done at the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial level. This is in direct opposition to the Constitution and the Founding Fathers vision for the Federal government. Because I believe this, today I exercised my right as a Free Citizen, and did not visit the White House. This was not about politics or party, as in my opinion both parties are responsible for the situation we are in as a country. This was about a choice I had to make as an INDIVIDUAL.” Thomas has been tut-tutted by such political philosophers like Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser, who on ESPN played establishmentarian court jesters, saying that when one has been invited by the President, one ought to go, out of respect for the office.
Nonsense. First, this has nothing to do with the country. President Obama is merely copying a move pioneered by John Lindsay, who in the midst of tight mayoral race in New York City in 1969, barged into the locker room of the World Series-winning Mets and inserted his head under waterfalls of champagne. (The ploy worked; he won a narrow plurality in a three-way race.) President Nixon soon began rewarding winning coaches with congratulatory phone calls. Now it’s receptions. Clearly these are held as publicity opportunities for the incumbent, and I have no problem with Tim Thomas or any of these other jocks exercising his right to absent himself. The White House is such a bubble, it’s good when this or any president hears some disagreement.
Indeed, I wish it was plainer why the 277 would-be honorees in Britain declined their invitations; no reasons were cited, and the Palace took care in its response to a BBC request to release only the names of people who are dead. Over the years, explanations have been provided by some people who are not on the list. According to the New York Times, the writer J. G. Ballard said he did not want to be named a Commander of the British Empire because the whole thing was a “preposterous charade.” The poet Benjamin Zephaniah (left) refused membership in the Order of the British Empire, saying “Stick it, Mr. Blair and Mrs. Queen.” David Bowie declined a C.B.E. in 2000, saying “I seriously don’t know what it’s for.” (Selling records, duh!) In 1992, Doris Lessing declined a knighthood, saying “Surely there is something unlikable about a person, when old, accepting honors from a institution she attacked when young?” But eight years later, she accepted another title, the Companion of Honor, saying she liked that “you’re not called anything” special.
And that’s the point–we don’t know if these folks were trying to raise an objection, or to avoid being used as a monarchical prop, or simply because they were holding out for a better honor. After all, Alfred Hitchcock turned down a C.B.E. in 1962, then later accepted being named a Knight Commander of the British Empire. But I like what Terence Blacker wrote in the Independent. Noting that the opt-outs “have little in common politically or personally beyond the fact that their work is the product of uncompromising individuality,” Blacker suggests that “Simply by accepting a bauble of thanks from the nation, they would be sacrificing what was best about them – their apartness. Once they became part of the national community, their voice, their eyes, their strength would be changed. They neither accepted the honour nor, in what has become a new form of boasting, told the world that they had rejected it.”