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Wednesday 18 June 2003

The Greatest American

The BBC recently ran a program called ‘What the World Thinks of America’, in the run-up to which they asked readers of their website for nominations for the greatest American ever. They produced a shortlist of ten nominees, and posted the final results on Tuesday.

Here are the results, with my comments.

1. Homer Simpson, 47.17% Homer enjoys a significant advantage in that he’s almost certainly more familiar to the viewers of the BBC and the ‘ten other national broadcasters’ that showed the program. A significant disadvantage is that Homer is a fictional character, but that shouldn’t necessarily disqualify him. It’s too soon to really gauge Homer Simpson’s effect on the world, but it’s likely to be at least as great as Bob Dylan (see below) and many other cultural icons.

2. Abraham Lincoln, 9.67% I don’t fully understand how Lincoln is seen outside the United States (and, I suppose, inside the United States). I suppose the best that can be said is that Lincoln made the best of a bad situation. Human slavery had to be brought to an end in the United States; it’s so antithetical to everything else that the country is about that it couldn’t be allowed to continue. This could probably have been achieved without significantly altering the relationship between the various states and the federal government, though.

3. Martin Luther King Jr., 8.54% King, in as much as he represents the broader civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, is deserving of praise. Just as slavery had to be abolished, so did the Jim Crow laws and other instruments of legal discrimination against people based on the color of their skin. It’s been forgotten, though, that King was also in favor of racial set-asides, reparations for slavery, a socialist economy, and class war. Were these things better known, though, he might actually have received more votes from people in places like France.

4. Mr. T, 7.83% That’s right, Mr. T was voted the fourth-greatest American ever. Be sure to think of this whenever anyone says that Americans don’t know anything about foreign countries: most foreigners don’t actually know anything about our country, either. They just think they do.

5. Thomas Jefferson, 5.68% Jefferson would get my own vote. It’s heartening to think that he only trails Mr. T by 2.15%. I repeat my comment, above, about foreign knowledge of things American. And where is James Madison in this list?

6. George Washington, 5.12% If you conducted this poll in the United States, Washington would almost certainly wind up on top of the list, though few people would be able to articulate why they’d voted for him. Washington’s biggest contribution to the country was his conduct as president: he wasn’t a tyrant, and he left after two terms. Many other countries with similar systems have not been so lucky, and have wound up with democratically-elected presidents who never left.

7. Bob Dylan, 4.71% Name recognition at work again. He was a great artist in the 1960s and early 1970s, but as anyone who’s been to one of his concerts in the last twenty years can tell you, he’s been coasting since then.

8. Benjamin Franklin, 4.1% Franklin is the only person depicted smiling on U.S. currency. Possibly he’s pleased to find himself on the $100 bill. Franklin stands out among the founders of the country as being the one with a sense of humor.

9. Franklin D. Roosevelt, 3.65% Roosevelt saddled the country with a lot of socialist folderol, but he also managed to prevent the country going entirely to the dogs during the Depression, and his leadership during World War II seems to be endorsed by the results.

10. Bill Clinton, 3.53% Like Homer and Dylan further up the list, Clinton probably benefits significantly from name recognition. This is like putting Teddy Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore: the achievement that got him there was that of being well-known when the thing was carved.

Posted by tino at 15:16 18.06.03
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