Monday, May 16, 2005

Greatness vs. Celebrity

As part of a publicity campaign for its new television show “Greatest American,” which premieres on Sunday, 5 June, the Discovery Channel, together with America Online, on 18 April released their list of the “100 Greatest Americans.” If you have the time to waste, and are that interested in who Discovery Channel and AOL came up with, see the list, here.

El Jefe expected to have some major quibbles about this list and his expectations were not disappointed. I had originally intended to go through the list person-by-person and comment on the rejects, and on omissions, but I soon found that there were more persons on the list I had quibbles with then approved of – so the exercise was pretty pointless. I think my real beef with the Discovery Channel list is that it is not so much a list of the greatest Americans, as it is a list of celebrities – that is, the most famous Americans.

When I was “editing” the list, before I gave up the job entirely, I found myself striking off “celebrity” types. Yes, I know Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ellen DeGeneres, Madonna, Christopher Reeve, Clint Eastwood, Malcolm X, Mel Gibson, etc., etc., etc. have accomplished or did accomplish much in their lives, sometimes despite serious disadvantages and handicaps, but we’re supposed to be talking “greatest” Americans here. I mean, George Washington, Audie Murphy, George Patton, and Dwight D. Eisenhower (also on this list) were what I would call great Americans. Similarly, Theodore Roosevelt was a great American, as was Alexander Hamilton – but Barack Obama, Rush Limbaugh, Barbara Bush and John Wayne ? All worthy of admiration in many respects, but I’m not buying the last four in the company of the others.
Some of the choices just seemed, well, wacko to me. Lyndon Johnson ? What did he do, besides screw up Vietnam beyond belief and almost bankrupt us ? Michael Moore ? Not buying that one at all -- some of us think he ought to be behind bars rather than on a pedestal.

I found some of the omissions interesting also. I’m a southerner, so I would quarrel with any list of the hundred greatest Americans that didn’t include Andrew Jackson, Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee. For that matter, where are Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman ? Without these last two gentlemen, we would be talking about two countries, not one. Where is James K Polk, who engineered the Mexican War, effectively doubling the size of the United States. How about James Madison, author of the Constitution, or John Marshall, its first important expositor ? What of Walter Reed, conqueror of Yellow Fever ? Where is George C. Marshall, organizer of victory in World War II, and savior of western Europe from communism ?

None of these people, or many others, makers of the American nation, are present on this list of “greatest” Americans, but don’t worry, Oprah Winfrey made the list.

This list is of course a product of a species of democracy in action – a half million online nominations. Discovery and AOL’s interests are easy enough to figure out – your average bear would certainly prefer to watch a half hour of TV on Hugh Hefner, Marilyn Monroe or Martha Stewart rather than a show on Chester Nimitz, and the job is, after all, to sell ads and make money. Still, wish Discovery and AOL had used a little truth in marketing and called their show FAMOUS Americans rather than GREATEST. Finally, the historical ignorance of persons who could really call Michael Jackson, Donald Trump, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, "great Americans," on a level with Mark Twain, Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, is just staggering to me.

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