Meruitus Palmam – Meriting the Palm

By Fraser McKee

The title of the project of course implies that awards, or rewards, should be merited by well done endeavors, by using one’s skills – physical, mental, leadership and so on –  to merit the attention.  Maybe even factual rewards or advancement.  The College’s Latin motto exemplifies this very concept: Palmam qui meruit ferat – more or less “Give the prize to he (or she) who merits it.”

It is also the family motto of Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, who would certainly seemed to have merited some sort of award by his both dedication to being the best possible naval officer of his time, by his string of very real successes, and the great affection his crews had for him.  Assuredly deserving of a Palmam from his countrymen’s viewpoint, and the more critical and knowledgeable Lords of the Admiralty.   He captured enemy ships, successfully defended Allied countries such as The Two Sicilies, and won three notable battles – at the Nile, at Copenhagen and at Trafalgar in 1805 – through his own unusual tactics and leadership

One could argue reasonably that some of these battles, notably at Copenhagen, were fought for somewhat reprehensible political reasons.  That rather minor naval country, Denmark, at the time was inclined to join in support of France’s Napoleon.  The British, rather naturally, strongly objected to this, being then at war, more or less, with France.  That doesn’t detract from Nelson’s deserving of the Palm for his outstanding naval enterprises, at the behest of his government.  Nor does his equally well known liaison with Emma Lady Hamilton, which was even approved of by her then husband, the elderly diplomat Sir William Hamilton.  Thus the Palm of not only promotion but wide approbation would be considered awarded for the skill that he displayed in his assigned profession – naval leadership. For that alone, he warrants adopting the motto.

But then the very phrase “To those who deserve it” tends to draw to mind all too many occasions of rewarded palms going to those who in even a narrow sense did not deserve it.  Too often awards of one sort or another have gone for simply loyally adhering to a party line, or for long service of no great moment.  While I happen to be a strong supporter of the concept of the Canadian Senate as a body “of sober second thought” (and I have appeared before a couple of its Committees, so know whereof I speak), it is probably, for many Canadians, seen as the ultimate reward for too many citizens who very questionably did not really “deserve it.”  For simply following a leader unquestionably., or making large donations in his cause.  Meruit?  Hardly.

To continue with the naval parallel simply because I am quite familiar with it, a case could assuredly be made concerning an advancement that was not really earned in the job – the appointment of Vice Admiral Clarence Jones to being Chief of the Naval Staff in 1944.  Technically Jones was competent.  He’d joined the Navy as a lad, worked his way up through the ranks during the lean years of the 1920’s and ’30s, commanded a destroyer or two and held various staff appointments.  What more could one ask, for promotion to head of the Navy, particularly in wartime.  Well, it turns out in careful examination, quite a bit more.  And very much connected with the job of running such an organization.  For Jones had almost no “man management” abilities.  He was from early on striving too obviously to advance himself, at the expense of those just above him for sure, arranging to move ahead in the promotion lists of one very much competent contemporary by some now unknown nefarious means.  As he became more senior, his lack of ability to “get on” with many of those around and under him became notorious.  He issued orders without leadership, was abrupt and rude.  If you crossed him, you were dead.  He studiously catered to his Minister of the Naval Service, right or wrong.  He appointed juniors to circumvent the normal lines of responsibility to report back clandestinely on those reporting to the ones by-passed.  He denounced his subordinates for failures without giving them a chance to defend their even defensible positions.  A pretty thoroughly disliked person, whether technically qualified or not. To be given the palm of the top naval ranking officer as deserving of it?  It would appear to be the very antithesis of the intent of the motto.

So obviously the key word in these examples is “merit.”  The awarded Palm is simply a wider recognition of merit, not, as some recipients tend to flaunt, the end in itself.  This, of course, then opens a very real problem file:  “Merit” in whose eyes?  If a politician is supported in everything he does, right or wrong, or such a supporter raises funds to ensure that politician can run a machine-like election campaign and the efforts are successful, then in that politician’s eyes, he merits whatever seems fitting, and maybe a few questionable activities can be excused in the greater good achieved.  But in that politician’s opponent’s eyes, there may be very little merit.  In fact the “questionable activities” would tend to be dominant, and little merit seen.  The same is true for awards given for such subjective accomplishments as in the arts.  One man’s marvelous painting or sculpture (Edward Munch’s “The Scream” and Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup cans come to mind!) is another’s terrible daub or waste of money.   So we are left with the assessment that merit lies in the eye of the beholder, not, too often, in genuine or widely accepted deserving actions, agreed upon by all.  And is that necessarily bad?

It will be almost impossible to arrive at an entirely acceptable definition of merit, for the scales of measurement are too variable, and people who do the measuring themselves too variable.  But then there is no doubt that the motto itself can stand as a goal to be striven for – Palmam Qui Meruit Ferat.

Fraser McKee (UCC Class of 1943) was in the Cadet Corps at UCC, and rose to Drill Sergeant. In 1943, he decided he’d go into the Navy. He did his Sub-Lieutenant’s courses at HMCS King’s at Halifax, went to sea in an Algerine Escort, and came back to Toronto when released from active service in March of 1946. Mr. McKee rejoined the Naval Reserve, and then retired in 1975 from the Navy as a Commander. He was chairman of the Sea Cadets for Ontario, and Ontario President of the Navy League, and National President of the Navy League. He was Executive Director of the Navy League, and then retired. He is the author of seven books, all on Navy history or Merchant Navy history. His eighth book, a naval novel about the Arctic, will be out this year.

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