The 15th Madeleine Award: balloon up, Trump mugs up, humanity reaches up
11 Jan 2024|

Pick your response: Big Brother is watching, perhaps? A passport snap on a really bad day? The worst school photo ever? Maybe it can be a read as a wanted poster that asks: ‘Do you want me?’

Donald Trump’s police mugshot welcomes you to the annual Madeleine Award for symbol, stunt, prop, gesture or jest. The award is inspired by the late Madeleine Albright, the US ambassador to the United Nations (1993 to 1997) and US secretary of state (1997 to 2001) who sent diplomatic messages via her lapel brooches.

For Albright, it wasn’t ‘read my lips’ but ‘read my pins’. She wore a golden brooch of a coiled snake to talk to the Iraqis, crabs and turtle brooches to symbolise the slow pace of Middle East talks, a huge wasp to needle Yasser Arafat, and a sun pin to support South Korea’s sunshine policy. Her favourite mistake was wearing a trio of monkey brooches to meet Vladimir Putin, causing him to go ape.

The Donald is the gift that keeps on giving for these awards. The 45th president of the US won the 9th Madeleine for post-truth ‘alternative facts’ and the 10th for a magnificent stare-off with Angela Merkel (the supporting cast included the crossed-arms resignation of the Japanese prime minister and the astonished brow of the French president).

Trump doesn’t win this year’s main award for this mugshot in August at the Fulton County Jail, in Atlanta, after being indicted on racketeering charges. Instead, this first police booking photograph of a US president gets a minor gong, the ‘Diana prize’, marking ‘the utility and force of photographs’. The trophy is named for Diana, Princess of Wales, a noblewoman who understood pics: ‘As Diana used to say, the picture is what counts,’ former UK prime minister Tony Blair wrote.

The way Trump’s pic will count is still being added up. True to form, Trump embraced the image and started making money and merry politics. The image generated  ‘a record-breaking fundraising haul’ as his campaign sold shirts, posters, bumper stickers and beverage coolers bearing the mugshot. Cut-up pieces of the blue suit he wore are priced at US$5,000.

The New Yorker scowled that the scowl shot is the true presidential portrait. The chief fashion critic of the New York Times dubbed it the de facto picture of the year:

He glowers out from beneath his brows, unsmiling, eyes rendered oddly bloodshot, brow furrowed, chin tucked in, as if he is about to head-butt the camera. The image is stark, shorn of the flags and fancy … Mr Trump is a man who has always understood the power and language of theater. Of putting on a show. Of the way an image can be used for viral communication and opinion-making.

From the Trump mug-up we move to the moment when the balloon went up: the Chinese balloon that floated across the US before being shot down by the US Air Force on 4 February. The balloon caused a huge tizzy in America, making it the most bizarre crisis of the Biden administration. Seven months later, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff quietly announced that the balloon wasn’t spying, revealing Washington’s conclusion that ‘there was no intelligence collection by that balloon’. The balloon’s sensors had never been activated while over the continental US.

While thousands of jokes and memes floated free, Washington–Beijing relations plunged into the drink along with the balloon. The strangeness of it all makes the up-in-the-air moment the natural winner of the OOPS! Award for blooper and blunder. Next time China wants to wish America a happy Lantern Festival, it should just dispatch a card.

Not deterred by the OOPS!, Beijing has grabbed the idea of making mischief in the sky. There’s been a surge in sightings of Chinese balloons over Taiwan recently, sending a ‘calculatedly ambiguous warning’ to Taiwan’s voters ahead of Saturday’s presidential election.

Now to the George Orwell prize for double-think and euphemism. Orwell preached that ‘ugly and inaccurate’ language is the woolly cover for all sorts of dreadful deeds—‘political chaos is connected with the decay of language’—and the only way to get good politics is with the clarity of good  language.

In the Orwell spirit, the Plain English Foundation hands out awards for clangers, spin and gobbledegook. The people’s choice award for 2023 went to Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which described the explosion of one of its rockets on launch as a ‘rapid unscheduled disassembly’. Bravo for a mighty effort, but the Orwell must go to an inflection moment in thinking and writing.

The arrival of artificial intelligence means our species now shares the planet with something that might get smarter than us. And large language models like ChatGPT and Bard are doing our writing. Yet when the technology doesn’t know the answer, it wanders off into fantasy—or as the techies like to put it, the model ‘hallucinates’, generating text that is ‘incorrect, nonsensical or not real’.

In a nod to the new language of our AI future, the Cambridge dictionary made ‘hallucinate’ its word of the year for 2023. The Madeleine judges agree. As humans, we speak against lies and laziness, reaching towards dimensions of morality, honesty and rigour. Go program all that into a language model! Give the Orwell to ‘hallucinate’.

Finally, to the main event. The Madeleine Award always arcs towards optimism, toasting the times with a glass that’s half full. The award spirit channels a great Albright line: ‘I am an optimist who worries a lot.’

As La Madeleine was an unsettled utopian and vexed visionary, so this year’s award is a two-parter: the 75th birthday of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 2023, and 2024 as ‘the year of democracy’. The award honours humanity’s better angels, while noting those angels have dirty faces and ragged garments and calloused hands.

The United Nations says the declaration is the most translated document in the world, with 562 translations, proclaiming the ‘inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’. This year many in the family will get a chance to vote, with more than 80 national elections ‘directly affecting an estimated 4.2 billion people—52 percent of the globe’s population—in the largest election cycle the world will see until 2048’.

The year of elections says that even dirty despots and dastardly dictators want the legitimacy conferred by a vote: in embracing the election form, they must offer a small nod to its central function in creating democracy. You can have undemocratic elections, but you can’t have a democracy without elections.

And so, our hard-working angels take small wins and half-gains, always reaching for the best in our humanity.

The 15th Madeleine Award salutes the year of elections, partly built on the magnificent affirmation and aspiration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. More power to our better angels!