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The 2010 Madeleine Awards for diplomatic symbol, stunt or gesture

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24 January 2011 11:09

Proust's memory of things past was launched by the aroma of petites madeleines being dunked in tea. In the Proustian spirit of remembering, it is time for the second annual Madeleine awards, for the best use of symbol, stunt, prop, gesture or jest in international affairs.

Our Madeleine is not named after a biscuit. Instead, it honours Madeleine Albright's penchant for sending diplomatic messages via the brooches worn on her lapel. The former Secretary of State 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.

The Madeleine award last year paid tribute to the rich harvest of climate change stunts, with the prize going to the Maldives Government ministers who donned scuba gear and staged a Cabinet meeting under water. Conducting cabinet business via white boards and hand signals was, we judged, a true Madeleine-winning performance.

In that spirit, let us consider some recent worthy contenders. An early entrant was Nepal for actually dispensing with a centuries-old tradition of having five virgin girls bid the head of state goodbye as he left on a foreign visit. Five pre-pubescent girls representing Hindu goddesses would present the leader with traditional marigold garlands in a ceremony designed to bring good fortune on the travels.

President Ram Baran Yadav, who took over as head of state following the abolition of Nepal's 240-year-old Hindu monarchy in 2008, scrapped the tradition because he felt sorry for the students who used to have to wait outside in the sun for hours. No argument from the judges that you can become a Madeleine contender for not doing something symbolic.

Partly in the same category, the head of Toyota gets a nomination for not bowing deeply enough. The president of Toyota performed only a short bow — a short, formal dip, head cast down, suggesting regret — when apologising for a massive car recall in the US. The LA Times suggested that the lawyers may have ruled against a deeper, sustained bow, which could have been construed as a sign that the company accepted its legal culpability in the mess over all those defects. These are the sorts of symbolic definitional issues that get one into the running for a Madeleine. See this follow-up article on the various categories and meanings of the Japanese bow.

Saying sorry is always difficult. Another sorry moment, with a large bit of stunt stirred in, was the decision of the Thaksin Government in Thailand to drop millions of paper folded cranes from military transport as a 'gesture' of peace. Here is Malcolm Cook with the details of this nomination for outreach through origami.

From dropping paper cranes we move to throwing shoes instead of shouting abuse. Australia's former Prime Minister, John Howard, had a sole moment during a TV appearance and tap danced through the sandal samba moment with humour and aplomb.

But it is the London's Metropolitan Police who might be in the running for a Madeleine, for accepting that Muslims are entitled to throw shoes in ritual protest. A British judge decided to tread softly and not stand on any toes by ruling that a student at London University was making 'a symbolic' political gesture when he threw a shoe during a protest. Shoe pelting as political expression is what the Madeleines are all about: the cops are happy you're not a heel, even if you give the boot the old heave-ho. (And that's about as far as we can kick this.)

All of these nominations are worthy of mention but none have quite made it into the final round. If you've got any late Madeleine nominations, chuck them in, as the Met might say. The next column will announce the winner of the Madeleine OOPS!! Award for inadvertent truth or simple blooper in relations between states. And following the OOPS!!, we will move quickly to the finalists and this year's winner of the Madeleine. Get those shoes and entries in flying in.

Photo by Flickr user studio08denver.

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