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Britain is notoriously slow to grant official recognition to those who serve the cause of civilisation. Shakespeare was only one of the first of our prophets to die without honour in his own country, making Othello declare, just before he stabs himself: "I have done the state some service, and they know 't." By contrast, the Americans give honour where it is due, not only to their own citizens, but to foreigners too.

To take just one example: Jacques Barzun is 104. Not many writers are remembered a century after their birth. Even in our era of unprecedented physical longevity, to be alive, not merely in the memory but in the flesh, and moreover to be writing at this age is almost incredible. Yet that is the case with Barzun, the French-born cultural historian, who is still flourishing some 80 years after he and Lionel Trilling ran Columbia's celebrated Great Books programme, deservedly imitated ever since. The United States knows what value to place upon those who defend, represent and augment Western civilisation, and Barzun has received many academic accolades; but it was only in his tenth decade that George W. Bush decorated him with America's highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

More remarkably, President Bush gave the same award to two British writers who appear in these pages: Paul Johnson (my father) and Robert Conquest. The latter, just a decade younger than Barzun, is still keeping alive the literary tradition he created with his close friends Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis. This month we are proud to publish "Fred Agonistes", a new sequence of Conquest's light verse. Conquest is, of course, also the author of The Great Terror, which told the truth about Stalin's crimes at the time when it mattered most but was least fashionable to do so. For his contributions to poetry and scholarship, Bob Conquest deserves at least a knighthood, which would symbolise the importance of moral courage to the West's victory in the Cold War.

Another prophet thus far without honour in our country, though not in her own, is Gertrude Himmelfarb, who has just published her latest book aged 89. Known to friends as Bea Kristol — she is the widow of the late, great Irving Kristol — Gertrude Himmelfarb has changed our understanding of British culture more than any living historian. In books such as The Idea of Poverty and The Demoralization of Society, she prepared the way for the return of "Victorian values", which she showed were neither Victorian nor values, but the timeless virtues that derive from the biblical and classical repository of Western thought. They are now championed by Michael Gove, the intrepid Education Secretary. In 1984, Margaret Thatcher made an important intellectual gesture when she made Friedrich Hayek a Companion of Honour. For the Cameron government to appoint Gertrude Himmelfarb an honorary CH (there are several other such) would send out a similarly significant signal.

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December 27th, 2011
12:12 AM
Well done, Standpoint! Fight on!

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