Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Greatest American

I am a little late to the party, but I thought I would point out a poll by AOL and the Discovery Channel from 2005 that asked: "Who is the greatest American?" I found this poll by looking at the Greatest Briton list, which I found because it was mentioned on his wikipedia page that Thomas Malthus wasn't on the list. Obviously, I have too much time on my hands, which I guess is why I have a blog. Now this list is an unscientific poll, but still (via Wikipedia):
  1. Ronald Reagan - 24% of the First place votes
  2. Abraham Lincoln - 23.5%
  3. Martin Luther King, Jr. - 19.7%
  4. George Washington - 17.7%
  5. Benjamin Franklin - 14.9%
  6. George W. Bush
  7. Bill Clinton
  8. Elvis Presley
  9. Oprah Winfrey
  10. Franklin D. Roosevelt
  11. Billy Graham
  12. Thomas Jefferson
  13. Walt Disney
  14. Albert Einstein
  15. Thomas Alva Edison
  16. John F. Kennedy
  17. Bob Hope
  18. Bill Gates
  19. Eleanor Roosevelt
  20. Lance Armstrong
  21. Muhammad Ali
  22. Rosa Parks
  23. The Wright Brothers
  24. Henry Ford
  25. Neil Armstrong

1. Ronald Reagan as the greatest American of all time? Does anyone, literally, ANYONE, believe that to be true? Greater than George Washington, the first President, the General who more than anyone contributed to America even existing, the man who presided over the Congressional Congress, the man who refused to be king and stepped down after only two terms? Really? Not only that, but Washington comes in behind two others! Reagan meanwhile, is a mediocre actor and a President whose only significant accomplishment, the fall of the Soviet Union, came at the cost of years of nuclear paranoia and a huge national deficit. Plus, there was Iran-Contra, which, according to some, was only the tip of the iceberg of Reagan's crime in South America. I don't think it is even possible to make the case that Reagan was the greatest American ever, even if he did die the year before this poll.

2. Abraham Lincoln. I don't want to get into all of the specifics, but Abraham Lincoln is generally overrated. He failed to prevent the bloodiest war in U.S. history, issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963- three years into his administration and not primarily because he cared about the interest of the enslaved, rather he was trying to block Europe from entering the war- and he excercised near fascist state power during the war, including suspending the writ of habeas corpus and severely limiting both freedom of speech and press. I am not saying he wasn't one of the most important figures in U.S. history, merely that his role is badly misunderstood. History has turned him into "Honest Abe the slavery hating man", but the reality was far more complex. He belongs on the list, and I can understand why so many people like him, but I would put him down a few rungs.

3. MLK was by any standard a great American and I would put him over Lincoln or Reagan (I mean seriously, Reagan over MLK?), though I would still put Washington first.

4. George Washington, the greatest American ever. The only knock on him is he had slaves, which is significant. But slavery was legal then and I don't think you can dock him too many points by rejudging history in the light of present morality. Plus, he wouldn't sell slaves if it broke up slave families and he released slaves upon the death of his wife. Not enough absolve his involvement with the institution, but fairly admirable. He should be number one with a bullet.

5. Ben Franklin belongs on the list somewhere, but probably not this high. He did numerous important things, but never was president and didn't have that much of a prominent role in the revolution. Still a minor error, entirely overshadowed by:

6. George W. Bush in a ranking that is already strikingly anachronistic two years after the poll was taken. Bush would probably top a list of the 25 worst Americans today, but I suspect that some Conservative ballot stuffing got him and Reagan so high on this list.

7. Bill Clinton, God love the big guy, is not one the of the top ten Americans of all time. He is more like the modern Calvin Cooledge than a President of note. Sure, Bush makes him look really, really good, but his Administration was non-descript and the booming economy was not his doing. I imagine all the people who didn't vote for Bush put Slick Willy this high on the list.

8. Elvis Presley, um no. Beyond the questionable nature of putting entertainers on a list of the "greatest" people, I wonder how "great" an entertainer Elvis was. He was a bad actor and spent the last third of his career as the world highest paid night club singer. He didn't write most of his songs and stole his sound from African Americans. How can he be on the list, but Bob Dylan, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemmingway aren't? Answer: the average idiot has heard of Elvis, but the other three earn blank looks and indifferent shrugs from the masses.

9. Oprah... Wow. She is 13 places over Rosa Parks! She is infinity places over Jonas Salk, who only managed to develop the polio vaccine. Sure she does some charity work, but how can someone primarily known for having a day time talk show be among the ten greatest Americans of all time?

10. FDR. Overrated, but definitely one of the most important Americans. His untimely death saved us from the first psuedo monarchy in U.S. history and 22nd Amendment ensured that no one else will serve for longer than George Washington.

11. Billy Graham... Well at least it isn't L Ron Hubbard or the Morman Jesus (he came over here and became an American). More ballot stuffing by Conservatives.

12. Thomas Jefferson, had some characters issues but I think he should be in the top five for sure. It is cultural revisionism to paint him as a racial monster according to our current values. The Declaration of Independence is best piece of writing in U.S. history, and then we have the Louisianna Purchase, the "Revolution of 1800" that demonstrated peaceful political transition, the Lewis and Clark expedition that he authorized and on and on.

13. Walt Disney? Geez, are people just voting for the names they recognize? Henry Ford was a better industrialist and there are many movie people who are more influential. The Disney corporation's continual strengthening of intellectual property law (to protect 1928's "Steamboat Willy" and thus Mickey Mouse) is a major problem for artistic freedom. Nothing would pass into the public domain, ever, if Disney had its way.

14. Albert Einstein - First he should be way higher on this list and second he shouldnt be on it at all. He was only a citizen of this country for 15 of his 76 years and he retained his Swiss citizenship until his death. At least he was a legitamately great man.

15. Thomas Edison - This is about where Ben Franklin belongs. Both were great men, though not inner circle Greatest Americans.

16. John F. Kennedy was one of the worst Presidents of all time. He was hopelessly out of his league in Cuba and almost caused the end of the world with his leadership during the missile crisis (how come no one mentions that we had missiles in Turkey that convinced the USSR to put missiles in Cuba? It should be the Cuban-Turkey Missile Crisis, since the missles were only removed from Cuba when we agreed to remove our missiles from Turkey). If a little Texas redneck (or a vast conspiracy) hadn't ended his Precidency prematurally, then who knows how bad things he would have mucked up foreign policy. He was good looking however, and a lot of baby boomers identify him with the idealism of youth. Never mind that his dad was a bootlegger and he was elected President under false pretenses (read: mob related). Not a great American.

17. Bob Hope, I don't know if he was particularly significant in an artistic, political or social way. He did perform a lot of USO shows, and I guess that makes him the 17th greatest American ever (despite being born in England).

18. Bill Gates went from being a hated, cut throat capitalist to one of the greatest philanthropists in history in only a short few years. I have high hopes for what he is going to do with all of Warren Buffet's money and I can admire an American success story. Bill was smart and went from not much, to more than anyone else.

19. Eleanor Roosevelt did some good things, but how could she possibly be on this list when Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross, isn't? Another example of people voting for the names they have heard of.

20. Lance Armstrong is pretty amazing and this list was from before he started partying with Matthew McConaughey all the time. Still, I don't see what makes him better than Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, not to mention Jackie Robinson (!) or...

21. Muhammad Ali is, to my thinking, far and away the most significant American Athlete this side of Jackie Robinson (whose exclusion from this list is criminal). He sat out the draft, joined the nation of Islam, aggressively self-promoted (now the norm), fought in Africa and generally refused to be quiet. The model that every loud mouth super-star tries to live up to, and no one has come close.

22. Rosa Parks wasn't the first person to sit in the white section of the bus and the popular story of the woman who refused to get up after a long day at work is fiction, still, hers was the most significant act of civil disobedence in this country since the Boston Tea Party. Hard to argue with those credentials.

23. Wright Brothers are certainly worthy.

24. Henry Ford personifies the American Industrial ideal (now exported to the country with the worst paid workers). I would put him a lot higher on the list.

25. Neil Armstrong was just the monkey in a space suit prancing around a moon set in Los Angeles. At least that is what I read in Cracked magazine.

To summarize: 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 13, 16, 17, 19 and 20 don't belong on the list at all and 1, 2 and 5 were overrated. I propose we substitute James Madison (who wasn't even nominated, though Tom Cruise was...), Bob Dylan (not nominated, though Arnold Swartzenegger was), Mark Twain, Jonas Salk, Michael Jordan, Ernest Hemmingway, Andrew Jackson (controversial, but undoubtably one of the most important presidents), Susan B Anthony (where are the women on this list?), John Marshall (not nominated, though Donald Trump was), Jackie Robinson and Theodore Roosevelt.

If we can take solace in anything, it is that we are not the only country with no clue who was important. On the list of the 100 Greatest Britons, Princess Di is 3rd, ahead of William Shakespeare. Evidently being the prettiest Royal trumps being the greatest writer of the English language, EVER. Sigh.

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