Go to previous post:
Face forward, pilgrim.

Go to Electrolite's front page.

Go to next post:
Plowed under.

Our Admirable Sponsors

August 19, 2003

Lists apart. John Hawkins of Right Wing News asked a bunch of right-leaning and left-leaning webloggers to list their twenty greatest figures of the 20th century. 31 right-wingers and 23 left-wingers replied. (I was in the latter set.) Hawkins then listed the top choices from right and left.

In turn, here are few pointless lists I’ve derived from the data:

People I chose who made both lists:
Albert Einstein (chosen by 15 on the left and 16 on the right)
Mohandas Gandhi (chosen by 10 on the left and 10 on the right)
Martin Luther King (chosen by 20 on the left and 12 on the right)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (chosen by 20 on the left and 11 on the right)
Theodore Roosevelt (chosen by 5 on the left and 11 on the right)

People I chose who made only the Left list:
Louis Armstrong (chosen by 5 on the left)
Nelson Mandela (chosen by 14 on the left)
George Orwell (chosen by 4 on the left)

People I chose who made only the Right list:
The Beatles (chosen by 4 on the right)

People I chose who didn’t make either list:
Ian Ballantine
Stewart Brand
Dorothy Day
William O. Douglas
Jane Jacobs
Alexander Solzhenitsyn
I. F. Stone

People I almost chose, then cut at the last minute, who made both lists anyway:
Alan Turing (chosen by 3 on the left and 4 on the right)
Vaclav Havel (chosen by 4 on the left and 4 on the right)

People I would have seriously considered if I’d thought of them:
Jonas Salk (chosen by 11 on the left and 9 on the right)
Margaret Sanger
John Maynard Keynes

People from my own field whom I seriously considered, then decided against because I’m too close to the subject:
John W. Campbell
J. R. R. Tolkien

People whom, on second thought, I probably should have included:
Winston Churchill (chosen by 13 on the left and 26 on the right)

Evidence that I’m as provincial as anyone else:
The near-total absence of serious novelists, poets, painters, sculptors, classical composers, scientists, scholars, and almost the entire non-English-speaking world

Disconnected thoughts inspired by the comments on Hawkins’s site and at Matthew Yglesias’s:

It’s a bit startling, indeed, that the Beatles only made the right-wing list. I know that at least one left-leaner listed them—me, and I’ll defend the choice against all comers. My highly unfair speculation is that, overall, we 23 left-leaners distributed our votes over a broader range of musicians, because we’re ever so much more musically broad-minded and well-informed. (As everyone knows, we have all the best songs.)

A bit more seriously, it’s just as startling that George Orwell made only the left-wing list, given that so many conservatives have tried to co-opt him over the years.

And it’s even more striking that neither list includes Solzhenitsyn. Sure, he’s a cranky old jerk, but how many books in the 20th century had the global impact of The Gulag Archipelago?

On the subject of Gandhi (or “Ghandi,” as Hawkins spells it) making both lists, Matthew Yglesias remarks: “In general, I think the widespread admiration of Gandhi by people—left and right—who would never dream of embracing the pacifism that lay at the center of his politics is a bit odd.” Well, I’m not a pacifist, but I doubt I’m unique in admiring Gandhi as a tactician. My problem with the Harry Turtledove story in which Gandhi tries non-violent resistance on the Nazis, and is swiftly dispatched with a bullet, is that I think Gandhi might have come up with some other way to resist the Nazis. Or, at any rate, the Gandhi of my imagination would have.

Imagination is what a lot of this is about. Do I think Dorothy Day (whom I listed) had a greater impact on the planet than Henry Ford (whom I didn’t)? Nah. Does the life of Dorothy Day furnish my imagination, my “sense of the world,” more than Henry Ford’s does? Yeah, that would be about right.

[05:36 PM]

Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Lists apart.:

Andrew Northrup ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2003, 07:23 PM:

Churchill was an important anti-Nazi (duh), but he built his career as an imperialist. Not a "cultural imperialist" or anything like that, but the real old-school, nasty kind. He was an advocate of fighting Nazism, but he was also an advocate of mustard gassing "uncivilized tribes", men, women and children, and ordered the gas deployed, although not used, against the Kurds in (I believe) 1945 or 1946. (I'm remembering from James' "Rise and Fall of the British Empire", which I've misplaced, if somone wants to check my dates. I can't remember the page, but it's in the decliney bit.) He's also got to be held somewhat accountable for the division of the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, which wasn't exactly a triumph of long-range planning. Gave good speech, and rose to the occassion brilliantly, but not top 20.

I think the Beatles are clean, though.

Andrew Northrup ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2003, 08:08 PM:

It was 1919. Right century, at least. Churchill wasn't even PM in 1946, so perhaps he did order it, but no one paid any attention. It's so weird. I could have sworn it was after WW2. I've really got a photographic memory for stuff that never happened.

the talking dog ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2003, 08:45 PM:

At least 2 lefties listed the Beatles, Patrick, seeing as I did as well.

Of course, I also listed Churchill, who, on balance, was a great figure (despite possibly unfortunate imperialist overlays). AS to the subcontinent, Churchill opposed the ultimate partition (as did Gandhi, who also made the list). Churchill believed that the Hindoos and Mohammedans would use the occasion to massacre each other. Which they did.

I do wish I had thought of some of the others, but with only 22 respondents, a lot of my faves are there.

Judy Moffitt ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2003, 09:11 PM:

Personally I'm saddened that my personal hero, Admiral Grace Hooper didn't make anybody's lists.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2003, 09:19 PM:

[thwacks forehead] Another goiod choice! I suspect I'll be doing this for a while.

Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2003, 09:32 PM:

I think I might have been tempted to include Oppenheimer or Teller, but, as we all know, I have a Thing for physicists. Hmm. Carl Djerassi?

Faulkner for American lit; Borges and Vikram Seth for the rest of the world. I dislike much art from that century except maybe Matisse so I couldn't contribute there.

Steve Jobs? Definitely not Gates.

Do we think Gorbachev contributed significantly to the decline of totalitarian communism in Europe or just presided over its decline?

Must stop this rambling and go get ready to tape West Wing. Everyone knows Bravo is re-running it in order right?


Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2003, 10:05 PM:

The trouble with the word "great" is that it means only "supremely talented or skillful" to some, and "really Good (in a moral sense)" as well to others. Hitler was great in the first sense, particularly as regards speechmaking (and, oh, getting an entire nation to go psycho not to mention using your name as a greeting). It would be hard to find an example of a person with less moral goodness, however!

Plainly this list is talking about people we approve of, not just people whose skill we respect.

The near-total absence of serious novelists, poets, painters, sculptors, classical composers, scientists, scholars, and almost the entire non-English-speaking world

I'm provincial, too, but I thought I'd fill in a few here. Just to bring up their names, not in any way to imply that you couldn't think of them yourself.

John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, James Joyce.

Gertrude Stein, e.e. cummings, Wilfred Owen.

Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollack.

Alexander Calder (whose work influenced your childhood whether you realize it or not), ...and then I run out of 20C sculptors. Huh. Better get meself doon ta MOMA, eh?

Here's where my provinciality shows the most: Ralph Vaughan Williams, Claude Debussy, Francis Poulenc, Richard Strauss, Carl Orff (well...soft spot), Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Krzysztof Penderecki, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams.

Watson & Crick, Sigmund Freud, Abraham Maslow, Leonard Bloomfield, Noam Chomsky (as a linguist, though even there he's kind of a jerk), Edwin Powell Hubble, Stephen Hawking.

Not quite sure what you meant by scholars, exactly.

For non-English, well, look up there under composers. I'd add Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse, not to mention Albert Camus, to the writing list.

This is just a quick skim. And then there are playwrights, like Williams, O'Neill, and Miller. And actors, like Olivier and Hepburn (Kate, not Audrey). And...and from this we're supposed to pick out just twenty? I couldn't have done it at all.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2003, 10:08 PM:

I join your thwack on Grace Hooper.

Jo Fish ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2003, 10:17 PM:

Interesting choice of John W. Campbell, I had his protege, Isaac Asimov on my list...since his contributions to science (science education?) and a whole genre of literature were ... influential.

CHip ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2003, 10:19 PM:

I thought it was Grace Hopper?

I'd agree with several of Xopher's musical nominees, but would argue that Mozart and J.S. Bach need to be on the list (fitting his "great in the first sense" definition at least -- it looks like most of the responders were working on the second definition, or the subset of the first that includes "obviously influential"). Both poured out huge quantities of music massively better than what was going on around them -- and did it while living in the world, not isolating themselves as later composers often did.

(I won't start on Watson and Crick versus the people who actually figured out the double helix.)

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2003, 10:22 PM:

Mozart and Bach lived in the 20th century? The things you learn on weblogs.

Reimer Behrends ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2003, 10:47 PM:

Interesting to see that Henry Ford made both lists. But I guess "greatness" is separate from being a bigoted anti-Semite. (Sorry. Pet peeve.)

Odd that Lindbergh of all people didn't make either list.

To add more great people of the 20th century: David Hilbert, Emmy Noether, Kurt Gf6del, Georg Riemann, Werner Heisenberg, Max Planck, Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, Ernest Rutherford for scientists. Arnold Schf6nberg, Leonard Bernstein, and too many other composers, really, not to mention artists (de gustibus, etc.). Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, and Bertrand Russell as philosophers. Berthold Brecht, Friedrich Dfcrrenmatt, Franz Kafka, the various Manns, Erich Ke4stner (yes, I'm filling out the German-language corner here), and we could theoretically squeeze Emile Zola in (by two years), and definitely Anatole France. As to politicians, and politically involved people, consider Willi Brandt, Hans and Sophie Scholl, Aristide Briand, Henri Dunant.

Hmm. On second thought, there are way too many great people to cut them down to 20. Especially if you want a fair and balanced view.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2003, 10:52 PM:

Mozart and Bach would go on my list of "Greatest People Ever." But we were talking about 20C. I also wouldn't have left out Michelangelo or Da Vinci or Georges Seurat or Sun Tzu or K'ung Fu Ts'e or Pythagoras or...even I would get tired first. Hrair squared.

And I think you're right, it was Hopper.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2003, 10:54 PM:

Reimer, that's "Fair and Balanced (tm) view." :-)

Reimer Behrends ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2003, 11:12 PM:

Xopher: Only if I were so ignorant of US trademark law to not know that my use of the phrase cannot possibly constitute infringement. :) (But that's off-topic, and let's stop it right here.)

Madeleine Reardon Dimond ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2003, 11:28 PM:

I'm surprised that Gandhi made both lists in such a, um, balanced and fair manner. In Massachusetts I used to live near Peace Abbey, which had a large statue of Gandhi right by the road, a busy thoroughfare, where everybody and his hound dog could see it. The local patriots raised quite a stink about honoring such a wuss, but the last I heard, the statue was still standing.

Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2003, 11:28 PM:

Had I been asked, I would have considered adding Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Moses.

Lois Fundis ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2003, 11:39 PM:

Philo T. Farnsworth/Vladimir Zworykin/John Logie Baird (choose up to three)-- Inventor(s) of Television.

JP ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 12:42 AM:

There seem to be a lot of these lists around in various forms - I've always felt they reveal more about the people being polled than about who (whom?) the important figures in the relevant areas really are. There is always an overlap, but that's about it.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 12:52 AM:

"they reveal more about the people being polled than about who (whom?) the important figures in the relevant areas really are"

Goodness, I should hope so.

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 02:07 AM:

How did Pope John XXIII get left off? And Frank Lloyd Wright? (All right, maybe Wright was 19th century.)

Gods, where is Ansel Adams?

Only one visual artist (Picasso), no architects, no classical musicians, the only performer a lone musician, Gandhi the lone Asian, ...

And only three women.

Good grief!

Off the top of my head I'd also include Martha Graham (dancer), Georgia O'Keeffe (painter) and Alfred Steiglitz (photographer). Eisenstadt the director.

Margaret Mead.

Orson Welles.

Osamu Tezuka.

Robert Heinlein?

The canonical architects would be Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, who set the forms of the Modernist city (and numerous sf covers.) In the same class of perhaps greater influence than artistry, George Lucas and Stan Lee.

Other candidate designers: Louis Kahn, Ray Hood, van Alen (Chrysler Building), Alvar Aalto, both Saarinens, Gaudi (more sf covers), Louis Kahn, Charles and Ray Eames, Henry Dreyfuss, Norman Foster (still in practice), Tadao Ando (likewise).

Still not enough Asians.

Surely some bluesmen and a few more rockers belong on the list?

Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 02:12 AM:

Heavens. I forgot Les Paul.

Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 02:14 AM:

Freeman Dyson

Tim Cooper ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 02:48 AM:

So does this work in reverse? Can you tell my political orientation from my list?

Paul Dirac
Adm. Hyman Rickover
Chuck Berry
James Brown
Jesse Owens
George Herman Ruth
Steve Wozniak
Linus Torvalds
Hayao Miyazaki
Lenny Bruce
Shigeru Miyamoto
Steven Sondheim
Marie and Pierre Curie
Jonas Salk
Theodore Geisel
Wernher Von Braun
Nikola Tesla
Ansel Adams
Timothy Leary
Orson Welles

I'm rather annoyed by the lack of women. 21-40 would have at least seven, but I found it hard to justify any beyond Mme. Curie in the top 20.

The one who didn't quite make my list and I'm surprised no one has mentioned for artists is Auguste Rodin.

David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 04:47 AM:

Jesse Owens, Linus Torvalds, Lenny Bruce, and Timothy Leary all in different ways say "left" to me. Am I warm?

chris ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 05:43 AM:

Tim Cooper: This says "Liberatrian at right angles to worn out left/right cliches". Am I close?

Yonmei ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 06:25 AM:

Here's my 20. I know what this list says about me, but I'm genuinely interested to know what other people will think it says about me (and there's at least one name on it that I am certain will cause much forehead-smacking).

Peter Benenson
Tim Berners-Lee
Susan Brownmiller
Jean Henri Dunant
Alexander Fleming
Mahatma Gandhi
Fatimma Mernissi
Terry Nation
George Orwell
Beatrix Potter
Gene Roddenbury
Joanna Russ
Margaret Sanger
Charles Prestwich Scott
Huda Shaarawi
Marie Stopes
J.R.R. Tolkien
Desmond Tutu
Woodrow Wilson
Virginia Woolf

Suw ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 06:32 AM:

I always finds such lists difficult, because it's not really greatness that we're talking about at all. It's perceived greatness within the context of what we know about the person we're judging and who we happen to remember at the time we're making the list.

Last year the BBC ran several programmes about the Greatest Brit Ever, or somesuch, wherein various celebrities championed various famous British people in an attempt to persuade the viewers to vote for their choice.

The final 100 was the most bizarre list of people, including Tony Blair (what?!), Diana (in the top ten), David Beckham, John Peel and JK Rowling. Most were English and male. At least 40 were born after 1900, and many were musicians. (Robbie Williams? A Great Briton? Oh please!)

All these lists show us is that we've all got rubbish memories for anything that happened before last year (and an awful grip on history), an imperfect grasp of the contributions of cultures/countries other than our own and potentially inaccurate opinions of who actually achieved what.

But then, we all knew that in the first place anyway, didn't we? ;)

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 08:31 AM:

Yonmei, I give up; which name was supposed to cause the forehead-smacking?

Some good choices there. I considered Berners-Lee but decided it's too soon to rate the long-term importance of the achievement. The only one I'd strongly argue against is Woodrow Wilson, who was very possibly the most personally racist President in US history, and whose administration was a calamity for the small moves toward interracial comity and black civil rights that had been happening over the previous decade or so.

rea ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 08:32 AM:

"Ralph Vaughan Williams, Claude Debussy, Francis Poulenc, Richard Strauss, Carl Orff (well...soft spot), Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Krzysztof Penderecki, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams"

What, not Giacomo Puccini? He's as much 20th Century as Debussy . . .

rea ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 08:33 AM:

Not to mention Shoshtakovich & Prokofiev

MFB ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 09:14 AM:

How great is great? Do they have to be nice guys? If not, Hitler, Stalin and Mao are weird to be left off when much less significant world figures like Reagan are included on the right and Mandela on the left.

On the science fiction front; hmmm. Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein are all a bit obvious, and did their best work before 1960. What about J G Ballard?

Greatest general of the 20th century: Erich von Manstein (no contest).

rea ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 09:42 AM:

"Greatest general of the 20th century: Erich von Manstein (no contest)."

Vo Nguyen Giap?

Donald Johnson ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 09:49 AM:

I'd put Chomsky in there, not only for his linguistic achievements, but because his writings make it clear (to open-minded people, that is), that the phrase "American crimes against humanity" isn't an oxymoron. It's a point that needs to be made over and over again, until Americans come to realize that we're down in the muck with the rest of sinful humanity and I'm glad Chomsky has been doing this even if I don't always agree with him. I think he's made his share of mistakes and said some stupid things, but that could be said about virtually anyone who could be placed on a list of great (in the positive sense) people. (Gandhi and Mandela are both great men, greater than Chomsky on my personal list, but I wouldn't want to defend every position they ever took.)

What's really interesting about Chomsky is how polarizing a figure he is--people tend to either see him as an infallible guru or start frothing at the mouth when his name is mentioned in a positive way. Both attitudes are ludicrous.

Michelle ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 09:54 AM:

I am disappointed but not surprised that Watson & Crick made the list without Rosalind Franklin.

I recently read an interview (It would have been New Scientist, Discover or US News, but I can't remember which) with one of the two, and he still belittles Franklin's work.

Damien Warman ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 09:58 AM:

Riemann is 19C. (Also usually known as Bernhard rather than Georg.)

Michelle ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 09:58 AM:

What about Alexander Flemming?

CMuncey ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 10:52 AM:

Some surprising omissions so far from a group that does include some SF fans --

Robert Goddard, Max Faget, Sergei Korolev, Yuri Gagarin, Neil Armstrong . . .

I'm a bit conflicted about including Von Braun.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 11:10 AM:

Being an SF fan doesn't necessitate being in favor of manned space exploration.

I am in favor, but if I were to include an astronaut, I can think of several better choices than Armstrong. Without even leaving Armstrong's LEM, Aldrin makes a better choice--he didn't just land on the moon, he also did a lot of the original mathematical heavy lifting in the 1950s toward working out how spacecraft could dock in orbit. Elsewhere, there are impressively multitalented astronauts like Deke Slayton, Harrison Schmidt, and so forth...

I did consider Crick and Watson, and their treatment of Rosalind Franklin is why I dropped them.

Of course, "do they have to be nice guys" is a good question. I decided I was going to list people whose achievements I particularly admire and who, as I said, went particularly far toward furnishing my own imagination of what's excellent.

Yonmei ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 11:12 AM:

Patrick, I assumed that Tim Berners-Lee would cause forehead-smacking, but I'm unsurprised to discover that you'd not overlooked him, but considered/rejected his contribution to the 20th century. (I admit that my list was strongly influenced by having read a few others already and been struck by who they left out.) Woodrow Wilson I included because, regardless of his domestic policies, internationally he articulated publicly the principle that a people should have the right to determine how they should be governed. He received considerable international recognition and admiration for this immediately after WWI, from such diverse peoples as the Czechs and the Koreans: and frankly, if the US had respected this principle and supported the Vietnamese nationals against the French colonialists, a lot of things could have been different in South Asia...

CMuncey ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 12:21 PM:

Good point Patrick, but consider that you don't have to be for manned spaceflight to consider Goddard important.

Your point about Armstrong/Aldrin is a good one -- but if you are picking the best of the American astronauts, I would suggest John Young.

As far as computers are concerned, how about Edsger W. Dijkstra, John von Neumann, E. F. Codd, Seymour Cray, Douglas Engelbart, Jon Postel, William Shannon, and Vint Cerf, just to get the discussion started?

Seth Ellis ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 12:21 PM:

Woodrow Wilson I included because, regardless of his domestic policies, internationally he articulated publicly the principle that a people should have the right to determine how they should be governed.

Although he did invade Russia in July 1918, and kept the troops there until 1920, in an effort to head off the Bolsheviks. From a review of David Fogelsong's recent book on the subject:

He portrays Woodrow Wilson as an ambivalent, confused president, whose public high principles required him to evade and deceive American public opinion about U.S. clandestine military and economic operations against the Soviet government. His deceit was motivated by a desire not to lose the support of progressive public opinion and by a corresponding desire to let France, Great Britain, and Japan take the public blame for aggressive action against Soviet Russia. The United States could then portray itself as Russia's friend, defender of Russian democracy, and of course reap the political and economic benefits.

He articulated a policy of self-government, but didn't necessarily act on it.

Stuart Dimond ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 12:29 PM:

Two more composers who should cause forehead smacking: Igor Stravinsky and Duke Ellington.

Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 12:37 PM:

Igor Stravinsky. I mean, come on, if you're gonna have a musician, no one had a greater impact than Stravinsky. Really.

Much as I revere Ruth as the greatest ballplayer that ever lived, he didn't have the world-historical influence that Jackie Robinson did (though Branch Rickey gets credit for that too).

I haven't read the Turtledove story about Gandhi and the Nazis, but it is worth a reminder that even in India he eventually took a bullet.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 12:40 PM:

I considered Ellington long and hard, in fact. If we'd been talking 25 people, he'd have been there.

Stravinsky too, very likely.

brian ledford ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 12:48 PM:

As for scientists, Linus Pauling, R.B. Woodward, And Richard Feynman might deserve some consideration.

--kip ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 01:05 PM:

Winsor McCay
George Herriman
Walt Kelly
Charles Schultz
Will Eisner

And maybe Jules Feiffer, and maybe James Beard, but that's another kettle of fish. (Eleanor Roosevelt? Well, yes. Of course.)

Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 01:58 PM:

Henry Moore, she cries. Smacking her head against a large piece of bronze.


CMuncey ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 02:15 PM:

Looking at religion and/or spirituality, a start would be considering figures like:

D.T. Suzuki, Thomas Merton, John Paul II, Karl Barth, the Dalai Lama (the current one), Martin Buber, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Brother Roger of Taize.

And in philosophy, add Ludwig Wittgenstein and Edmund Husserl.

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 02:42 PM:

I'd want to put Ernst Mahr and JBS Haldane on the scientists list for the 20th century.

Alex Steffen ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 02:45 PM:

Lu Xun, who was sort of the Chinese Orwell, and not nearly well-known enough
Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold or David Brower
the architects of the eradication of smallpox
Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
Nelson Mandela
Vaclav Havel

Patrick: out of curiousity, why Stewart Brand? I think I might agree, but what are your reasons?

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 02:48 PM:

..."William Shannon"...

Sure that isn't Claude Shannon? Von Neumann, sure. Hamming? Mandelbrot? Dennis Ritchie?

Returning to building, I'd include [pdf] Ove Arup.

CMuncey ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 04:20 PM:

Absolutely right Randolph, and as my first name is Claude there is no excuse . . .

I like Dennis Ritchie, as well as Don Knuth.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 05:13 PM:

Two more composers who should cause forehead smacking: Igor Stravinsky


Puccini, shrug. I'm not a big fan. I don't think he made the difference Debussy did. I didn't look up his dates, or I might have noticed him overlapping into 20C.

Jack Heneghan ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 05:19 PM:

If 'Greatest Figures' refers to the people you admire most, independent of their influence on the rest of the rest of the world, then you will be limited. Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Walt Disney need to be considered, even if you don't care for the results.

Orson Welles
Frank Lloyd Wright
Ansel Adams
Hayao Miyazaki

Are some names I would add to the consideration.

Even thinking about coming up with a list of 50 that you would then trim to 20 boggles the mind.

My personal favorite is Michael Collins (Irish Patriot) but that gets a bit obscure.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 05:54 PM:

Stewart Brand, for having started more interesting conversations between more different people and different subcultures than any hundred other people I know.

CMuncey ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 05:58 PM:

muffled thwack

Collins -- good suggestion Jack, and one that should not be obscure . . .

PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 06:08 PM:

Nobody to add or comment on really--but I'd like to mention that I have a rubber rat (which squeaks) named John Maynard Keynes.

Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 09:28 PM:

The only one I'd strongly argue against is Woodrow Wilson, who was very possibly the most personally racist President in US history, and whose administration was a calamity for the small moves toward interracial comity and black civil rights that had been happening over the previous decade or so.

Not only that, if you start digging around at the roots of most of the US's less-than-completely-savory involvements in Latin Anmerican politics, you'll find Woodrow Wilson at the bottom of them. He sent Marines into Haiti and Santo Domingo; he sent troops into Mexico on at least two separate occasions; and while strictly speaking the US first sent Marines into Nicaragua a couple of months before his inauguration, they stayed in Nicaragua all during the Wilson administration.

Wilson appears to have been all for the right of non-brown-or-black-skinned people to determine how they should be governed.

Stephanie Zvan ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 10:09 PM:

I'm waffling between Bob Fosse and Gene Kelly. At least one of them goes on my list for their contributions to the vocabulary of dance and their bodies of work. Fosse's quality level is more consistent, but Kelly had the studio system to deal with. Kelly laid critical groundwork, but Fosse took it so much farther. They both produced work that was severly underappreciated at the time and looks much better now.

Grr. This is going to take a while.

In the meantime, a few that have to go on my list:

John D. MacDonald--for his pulp fiction as literature or vice versa

Madalyn Murray O'Hair

Enrico Fermi

Crystal Eastman

Alexander Fleming

Elizabeth Loftus--a fairly young nominee, but she's championed the cause of legal and policy decisions being based on scientific, rather than pop, psychology

Not that I wear my prejudices on my sleeve.

CHip ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 11:45 PM:

<thwack>I spend enough time fighting with the insides of a computer and lose track of the centuries.</thwack>

I'm also appalled at not thinking of Sondheim; as an excuse, he's not solely (or even primarily?) a musician (much of his orchestration was done by Tunick et al.), even if he's the sort of genius who creates New York Times crosswords in ink. Hindemith influenced many other composers; Britten may not have moved music forward in the same way but brought in audience members and would-be performers without dumbing down. Any any time you hear a French horn that sounds like you'd be willing to have it in your house, thank Dennis Brain. (Yes, that's reaching as far as influence over everything, but amid all the arguments over what music should sound like he demonstrated that there was no excuse for playing the horn badly.)

Stanton ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 11:57 PM:

I didn't see his name mentioned, so how about Alfred Hitchcock? Garbo and Dietrich, Katherine and Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart? I'm not certain if "great" is an appropriate modifier, but Jim Henson certainly has had a significant influence on a great many lives over the past quarter century or so (affirms this child of the '70s). Nabokov? Samuel Beckett? Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, or Coltrane? Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughn? And if the Beatles go on the list (as I believe they should), George Martin probably deserves a mention. Yeats, Auden, Eliot, Wallace Stevens?

Sylvia Li ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 12:26 AM:

What would my list say about my politics?

(Some of these would be lifetime achievement awards, some based on having done one very big thing right.)

Alan Turing
Alexander Fleming
Marie Curie
Carl Jung
Diana Wynne Jones
Nellie McClung
Fritz Kreisler
Joan Baez
J.R.R. Tolkien
Margery Allingham
Alfred Hitchcock
Groff Conklin
Walt Disney
Winston Churchill
Pierre Trudeau
Mikhail Gorbachev
Mickey Hart
Tommy Douglas
John Maynard Keynes
Robert F. Kennedy

I'd likely make a different list tomorrow, though.

Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 02:09 AM:

Stephanie: Fosse! No doubt in my mind.


Stefanie Murray ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 06:20 AM:

If I might add to the list o worthies in their fields, I would at least consider Woody Guthrie, Joe Hill, Mother Jones, Dario Fo, Federico Garcia Lorca, Aunt Molly Jackson, Ella Baker, Che Guevara, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, E M Forster, Patrice Lumumba, Kemal Ataturk, Bob Marley, Bruce Lee, Haile Selassie, Gordon Parks, Paul Robeson, V S Naipaul, and Betty Friedan.

Boy, that doesn't characterize my politics or anything, does it? :)

Xopher: in defense of Puccini, while artistically he is certainly debatable, I would argue that he is incontrovertibly one of a small set of bankable composers, especially in recordings, who puts enough money in the pockets of opera companies and singers that they can afford to continue staging works by Larsen, Corigliano, Glass, Argento, etc. Plus he's just fun to sing. :)

In the list of people with enormous influence on the world or in their field but who are personally not admirable, I'd put Rigoberta Menchu (her autobiog was discredited but she got the world to look at Latin America generally and Guatemala in particular), D. W. Griffith, Leni Riefenstahl, and Castro.

Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 07:49 AM:

When we were preparing for "Company" at CNU, I recall reading that Sondheim started out to be a composer, and ended up doing lyrics.

This has been a footnote.

Doug Turnbull ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 09:33 AM:

Regardless of their treatment of Rosalind Franklin, I don't think Crick & Watson deserve to make the list. The discovery of the exact shape of DNA is, in my opinion, kind of irrelevant. THe discovery of how it works, the protein coding, is the center of biotech. Yes, the one needed to come before the other, but I really don't see the basic double-helix discovery as that revolutionary.

Everyone knew what DNA was and had a vague idea of how it worked. They were just the first people to put the pieces together. ANd if they hadn't existed, somebody else (Pauling maybe?) would have done the same thing within the year. Despite the hype, Crick and Watson emphatically did *not* discover "the secret of life."

And if you're going to include any scientists or engineers, you can't leave off Bardeen, Brattain, and Shockeley, who invented the transistor. While he had the least to do with the original invention, Shockeley's later work on MOS structures was particularly important, as well as his (failed) entrpreneurialship, which more or less started Silicon Valley.

I forget the names, but the inventor of the laser should also get some love, as should the developer of the integrated circuit.

Tom Scudder ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 10:01 AM:

Running at it from a Middle East perspective: You'd need (better or worse) at least one of Israel's founding fathers, maybe Herzl or Chaim Weizman or Jablotinsky (not sure on that last name) and maybe Ben Gurion or Menachem Begin or somebody else more modern; Mustafa Kemal Ataturk; Gamal Abd-el Nasser; definitely Khomeini; maybe Arafat; probably Um Kalthoum and Naguib Mahfouz. I know people who would argue for Ziyad Rahbani. Bin Laden didn't have a real effect until after the 20th century was over. That's only nine or ten, but that's still way too many for a not very significant part of the world.

Abiola Lapite ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 10:53 AM:

How is it that this thread has gone so far without anyone even once mentioning Marcel Proust? Hasn't anyone here read him?

Timothy Burke ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 11:01 AM:

Was just commenting on this over on Crooked Timber. This kind of thing is a parlor game, a fun one, but any good game needs rules. Without first an agreement on the chronological period (lots of posts above wander well back of the 20th Century in their picks) and more importantly on the meaning of the term "great" (great as moral, political or intellectual exemplar; great as in hugely consequential in contingent individual ways on the course of events; great as in achieving long-lasting and pervasive influence on the thought and action of many other people), the debate is kind of a pointless one. Three people operating off different rules for their lists can only hope to find the common denominator person who makes them all (which is why Gandhi, for example, ends up on all the lists, from all sides of the spectrum).

Abiola Lapite ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 11:12 AM:

"Vo Nguyen Giap?"

Von Manstein was by no means a nice guy (he was an enthusiastic supporter of the "Kommissar Befehl" - a policy of shooting Soviet commissars on sight without trial), but from a purely military point of view, Giap is in no way comparable to him, or even to Heinz Guderian.

And now for something completely different! My nominees for the greatest mathematicians of this century are (in no particular order):

  1. David Hilbert
  2. Kurt Gf6del
  3. Andre Weil (brother of Simone)
  4. Robert Langlands
  5. Jean-Pierre Serre
  6. Andrei Kolmogorov
  7. John von Neumann
  8. Paul Erdf6s
  9. Alexandre Grothendieck
  10. Igor Shafarevich
    1. I'm sure there are equally worthy nominees, but the list above reflects the biases imposed by my own background.

Andrew Brown ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 11:43 AM:

Crick and Watson didn't stop, though, with the discovery of the structure of DNA. They went on to figure out how it worked. Watson did treat Rosamond Franklin badly; Crick did not, and she came to stay with the Cricks when she was dying of cancer. I do think that Crick, Watson and Sydney Brenner would have to be on a list, despite all the hype; and so would Monod and Jacob for discovering the way that genes can work as switches. And the man who did fly behaviour after he had finished with e.coli . Goddammit, I wrote a book about this only last year. Why can't I remember his name?

It is worth noting that Brenner _despised_ the human genome project.

Five matching physicists should be easy enough. But who in the last century was a really influential scientist outside those two disciplines?

Steward Brand is a _brilliant_ choice.

Doug Turnbull ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 12:08 PM:

Did they? I thought it was a combination of other researchers that ended up doing the follow-on work. If not, then I withdraw my objections to Crick and Watson. I always assumed they did mainly the structural work, since that's what they're known for (and that's where the Double Helix ends.) A little knowledge, as they say...

As for other influential scientists, there's a good list of mathematicians above, if they count. ANd there have been some big developments in chemistry/chemical engineering, although I don't know the names. Synthesizing artifical nitrates for fertilizers and explosives was a huge advance, made by some German guy right before WWI (and without which the Germans couldn't have sustained their fighting in either world war.) The entire plastics industry is a 20th century invention, I think, and has been transformational.

On a different topic, Proust was a great novelist but, like Beckett, is not widely read and has also been something of an evolutionary dead end, so I wouldn't put either on such a short list.

And unless I missed it, no-one has mentioned Niels Bohr, who was probably, apart from Einstein, the most influential physicist of the 20th century.

Ratherworried ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 03:44 PM:

This is kind of fun in a frustrating way. I think it would be easier to pick a subject matter and blast off twenty most influential people, but when you have to balance literature, performing arts, painting, politicians, philosophers, scientists, businessmen, civil rights advocates, athletes, etc...

I think I could come up with 20 subjects or professions that should be considered. No one has even mentioned any lawyers or judges for example. Does either Brandeis, Marshall or Berger etc... deserve a mention?

In business, how can you compare the impact of Henry Ford versus the impact of Steve Wozniak. Do we discount Ford today and hype the Woz because of our perspective? Or do we look only at success in business and select Gates over Wozniak. One is an inventor the other is just arguably the most successful businessman ever.

How about Ray Croc, the father of the franchise. His invention is what most of the world sees as United States culture.

I am surprised that no one has mentioned B.F. Skinner. His philosophical theories are frequently mentioned when discussing DesCarte, Rousseau, Aristotle, surely if he is discussed in that company he should be recognized for his incredible contributions!

I think I would have to pick one person as a representative for each profession that I wanted to include on my list. It is probably that strategy which is creating some very funny looking lists. If you insist on including writers, performing artists and painters you are going to over emphasize what in almost every case is a very subtle influence on culture. I know you don't want to admit it but Bill Gates has had a bigger impact on your life than any artist you could name.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 05:52 PM:

Well, there's that whole moral goodness thing...Skinner had important insights, but he started something really, really nasty.

As someone who was raised (so to speak) by a Radical Behaviorist, he's not going on MY list. To do so would only reward those bastards and reinforce their beha...aaaaarrrrgggggggh! I did it again.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 05:54 PM:

"I know you don't want to admit it but Bill Gates has had a bigger impact on your life than any artist you could name."

Look, we have telepaths posting here!

Too bad they appear to only be telepathic in some foreign language.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 05:54 PM:

And committed a grammatical blunder in the process. The antepenultimate sentence above should read, "As someone who was raised (so to speak) by a Radical Behaviorist, I'm not putting him on MY list."

Reimer Behrends ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 10:03 PM:

What I always find fascinating (for lack of a better word) is how poorly humanitarians score in these contests. Yonmei has listed Henri Dunant (Founder of the Red Cross) and Peter Benenson (Founder of Amnesty International), but they've seen scarcely any mention elsewhere. And I haven't seen Albert Schweitzer (who was not only a great humanitarian, but had a triple doctorate in medicine, music, and theology) mentioned anywhere.

Is the art of war (Alexander the Great [sic], Frederick the Great [sic]) a surer way to greatness than helping your fellow humans?

Reimer Behrends ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 10:26 PM:

Patrick, I didn't mean to say that humanitarians don't get any mention at all (witness my reference to Yonmei's listing of Dunant and Benenson); just that at the end of the day, they seem to be utterly "outscored". Or how many humanitarians do you count on either of the two original top twenty lists?

CHip ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2003, 11:01 PM:

Doug, Andrew: my recollection from around the time of my one biochemistry course is that Meselson is the one who actually worked out how DNA reproduces, and demonstrated it by inventing a massively useful analytical technique. He also gets points for applying science to at least one of the more bizarre claims of the Right: "yellow rain".

Andrew Brown ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 10:02 AM:

Well, there were lots of people involved in figuring out what sort of a code had to be involved, and then which of the possible codes it actually was. But Crick, certainly, played an important role in that process. He didn't just stop once he'd figured out the structure of the thing. Seymour Benzer was the fly man I was thinking of.

Actually getting the code completed seems to have been done by Nirenberg, Ochoa and Har Goband Khorana (he says, flipping through "the eighth day of creation"). And, of course, figuring out what genes actually are -- well, that's yet another story.

Andrew Brown ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 10:05 AM:

But this is drifting a long way form the 20 greatest figures. There is also the point that -- in temrs of who as influenced out lives and imaginations -- it is usually the popularisers, and the merely first rate, rather than the towering genuises, who fire our imaginations.

Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 04:52 PM:


"Synthesizing artifical nitrates for fertilizers and explosives was a huge advance, made by some German guy right before WWI..."

IIRC that would be Fritz Haber. Who was as patriotic a German as they come in the nineteen-teens, but as a Jew got dumped on in the thirties anyhow. Sad story.

"The entire plastics industry is a 20th century invention, I think, and has been transformational."

Very true. Leo Baekeland would be a good choice in the chemistry department of this argument. Not to mention Kary Mullis, who would qualify under biology as well.

nameless ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 06:57 PM:





Jim Thorpe
Babe Ruth
Jim Brown
Mohammed Ali
Wayne Gretzky
Michael Jordan


Sigmund Freud
Bob Dylan
Charli Chaplin
Andrei Sakharov

CHip ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2003, 08:33 PM:

Kip W: Secrest's biography of Sondheim says he was performing music at an early age, but his first creative work was as a lyricist - not surprising considering he grew up around the Hammerstein household.

Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2003, 02:18 AM:

I just want to go back to one of PNH's list, who is the person I've actually met that I believe affected the 20th Century more than almost anyone else, and that's Ian Ballantine. He made at least three Major Changes in publishing, which affected a lot more conversations than even Stewart Brand: he basically created the US version of the paperback book (first at Pocket, then at Bantam, then at Ballantine); he created the environmental publishing movement (with Silent Spring, Sierra Club Books and the like); and changed the way art books and calendars are published. And remained approachable, interested, and fascinating to the very end. He wasn't flashy, but he was incredibly important, and the history books will miss his importance while touting figureheads like Armstrong. He'll be one of the least remembered nexus points of the 20th Century. And I'll remember conversations with him for the rest of my life.


Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2003, 02:26 AM:

"Figureheads" like Neil Armstrong, I trust you mean.

(More than one Armstrong has been discussed in this thread. Although I will say that even Neil was hardly a talentless front man. Nobody in the astronaut corps was.)

Anyway, yes, Ian Ballantine more or less (with some help) invented the American mass-market paperback book, a profound event in the history of American consciousness.

Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2003, 08:06 AM:

CHip, the datum on Sondheim came, I believe, from him, in the introductory material for the script to COMPANY. My copy of this has been elusive since we started trying to put a lot of stuff out of the reach of a toddler.

Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2003, 11:09 AM:

Yes, Patrick, you're right about Neil Armstrong -- one problem with writing late at night is leaving out necessary portions of some nouns.... And while creating the mass market US paperback, Ian (and Betty!) Ballantine also managed to create the current calendar market, increased the number of people who buy art books by a large amount, and chose to publish books that started major conversations among lots of people. And they'll probably not even get a footnote in the big intellectual histories of the 20th century. Sigh.

Yonmei ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2003, 03:35 AM:

Behrends, I'm startled that you don't count Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes as great humanitarians... I certainly do.

My feeling is that great humanitarians rarely make the headlines - and if they do, they are only ever popular with the people in power in their homeland if they made the headlines far far away from their country of origin. Archbishop Romero could tell you that...

Oliver Morton ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2003, 06:50 AM:

On Andrew's question about non-physicist non-biologists, I'd offer Gene Shoemaker. Changed our view of earth by providing the definitive proof of large impactors and thus paved the way for the return of ctatstrophism to the earth sciences. Also later became involved in pioneering efforts to discover and track near earth asteroids and will thus, in time, be seen as someone who saved a lot of people (or who should have been taken more seriously). Provided the intellectual underpinning of planetary geology (and thus much of planetary science) with his photo-based geological mapping of the moon. Managed to get science taken seriously by the Apollo project. Enthused a generation of planetary scientists, and created one of the enduring institutions in which they work. Had his name on the century's greatest firework display. You could argue for Urey or Kuiper as "fathers of planetary science" but its hard not to end up favouring Gene.

Also Jim Lovelock -- the greatest living proof that chemists aren't boring. The insight that life and the planet on which it lives are components of something that must be seen as a system in its own right (Gaia), and that there must be all sorts of feedbacks involved in that system which we would be well advised to understand, has had a slow but persuasive influence on the earth sciences, less acknowledged than it should be if more acknowledged than it used to be. A great deal of what now goes under the heading "Earth System Sciences" is the result of the Gaia hypothesis. (Dept. of unsurprising coincidences; IIRC Lovelock first widely published outside the scientific literature in Co-evolution Quaterly, prop Stewart Brand.)

For the most part other scientists fall into the "if they hadn't done it someone else would have" problem inherent to their calling. (A friend of mine who is a scientist and a writer recently told me that he was considering putting his science -- very accomplished -- on a backburner as he grew older, because what he didn't do in that field would be done, whereas novels he didn't write would never be written.) Most of the players in the plate tectonic revolution seem to me to fall into the someone-else-would-have-done-it category. The scientists mentioned above avoid this by having done stuff that other people really might not have done.

Another scientist who might qualify sheerly for the importance of what he discovered, though, is Hubble. The universe is expanding -- it thus has a history and a beginning and maybe an end. That's a pretty big intrusion into our ways of thought.

On Gates, no contest that he doesn't make the 20c list. But if the Gates foundation achieves what it is being spectacularly well funded to attempt, he might make it on to the 21c one.

Doug Rivers ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2003, 11:59 AM:

Its funny how so simple an exercise can provoke some pretty interesting conversation. I'm fascinated and encouraged that the left and right agreed on at least a few names.

There is no rational explanation for the Beatles turning up on rightists' lists (Neocons undoubtedly) as well as History's greatest chronicler of left wing chicanery turning up on the leftists' list.

If you defined greatness in terms of the most "tangible" good done for the greatest number of people (via the shortest path) all of the artists, writers and social scientists, by definition, would have to go. Industrialists, scientists, politicians, great leaders would rule the day. And in that context, considering the geometric increase in productivity wrought by the assembly line, maybe Henry Ford (I know about his vile anti-semitism - hell, there is evidence that Harry Truman was anti-semitic - he was still a very good Pres.) has done more to upgrade the standard of living for more people than any other single individual and is the greatest (no, not the most virtuous) man in history.

Aziz ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2003, 06:46 PM:

It;s been said that the only reason Gandhi's tactics worked against the British was because the British had a free press. While a free pres may be necessary, I somehow doubt it's sufficient though. Ask Rachel Corrie...

Yehudit ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2003, 08:06 PM:

It's great to see Stewart Brand on a list like this. He is one of the key figures of the second half of the 20th century, and I'm waiting for some astute historian of technology and pop culture to figure that out.

Reimer Behrends ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2003, 12:29 AM:

Yonmei wrote: Behrends, I'm startled that you don't count Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes as great humanitarians... I certainly do.

Well, the examples I gave were examples, and were not supposed to be an exhaustive list. No judgment about other candidates should be inferred from that, though I obviously failed miserably at communicating it.

adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2003, 11:05 AM:

A name that has not yet been seen on any of these lists: Lyndon Baines Johnson.

No matter what one thinks of LBJ's Vietnam policies (and I am pretty damned harsh on them), it was Johnson who pushed the 1956 Civil Rights Bill through Congress. It was Johnson (not JFK) who put the power of the federal government behind the civil rights movement. It was Johnson who tried (and, to some extent, succeeded) to go beyond the New Deal with the Great Society.

I blame Vietnam on the generals and advisors who made a cottage industry out of lying to Johnson about Vietnam. Yes, he shouldn't've been fooled--shame on him. But his achievements in maintaining and protecting the Union (and that's an American President's primary responsibility) outweigh his foreign policy errors. For me, he ranks just below Lincoln, FDR, and Washington.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2003, 11:53 AM:

I'm certainly aware that it was Johnson, not the Kennedys, who deserves the most credit for political courage on civil rights.

But I don't buy that we can primarily blame the Vietnam escalation on "generals and advisors." Lyndon Baines Johnson was a powerful and determined man; his mistakes, however tragic, were his own.

As for "maintaining and protecting the Union," the first year during which I was consistently aware of current events was 1968. If there was a year in the 20th century during which the union seemed as if it might come apart, that was one. A major contributor to this was Johnson's stubbornness about the increasingly disastrous war. Full credit to Johnson for his strengths; I would not dance on his grave. But he bears a heavy burden of guilt, as well, for some of our worst modern turnings.

Sini ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2003, 02:30 PM:

It's always painful to read about the Johnson Administration--its strengths and weaknesses are way too extreme. Maybe my personal focus on his strengths reflects my being born in 1968 and therefore not having been quite as viscerally affected by the war. Had my best friend or brother died in the war, I doubt I would have quite as much affection for the man.

I was really glad and interested to see your mention of John XXIII. I imagine he wasn't included on too many rightwing lists, probably because he is probably Catholic rightwingers' least favorite Pope. And a lot of leftwing bloggers (though not all), might not consider any religious figures for their lists, although, as you point out, Gandhi is an interesting exception.

We love your blog by the way, and thanks for mentioning us today.

adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2003, 03:56 PM:

I won't say that Johnson doesn't deserve a truckload of blame for Vietnam. I will say his vigorous embrace of civil rights is why the country didn't come apart much earlier than 1968.

Johnson inherited the twin crises of civil rights and of Vietnam. Of the two, civil rights was the greater issue. What you say about 1968 is true enough; consider a counterfactual 1964 (substitute a different vice-presidential choice in 1960) in which Kennedy's successor sides against the civil rights movement. Think John Brunner's "The Inception of the Epoch of Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid".

Consider the 1964 we know: Hoover rarin' to go against the civil rights movement, with a particular animus toward King. The first black rioting of the sixties, outside the South; inside the South, some fraying of the consensus around non-violent civil disobedience. Vietnam not yet a major issue, except for a small number of people; not a political question at all for the majority.

Consider the weapons of hardball politics of that time--think Nixon's use of the IRS against his critics--enthusiastically used against the supporters of the civil rights movement. Cutting off the movement's financial and political support leaves the movement exposed to escalating racist violence (another feature of 1964 as we know it) and once-cowed racist local governments.

Has no one written an alternate history in which the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century was beaten, and the clock was turned back to effective slavery, like after Reconstruction?

I suspect not, for two reasons:

  1. It's too plausible...
  2. ...and thus too depressing

Nazi victories or a Confederacy triumphant (are there no "Booth misses" stories? Why not?) fulfills the second, but not the first; these we enjoy with only a slight unease, not unlike that gotten from quality horror. Douglas Jones' The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer fulfills the first but not the second; this sort of story worries me not at all.

There are so many dystopias that reflect a world which never was but might be--consider The Handmaid's Tale, the Native Tongue books--and we find those acceptable.

I don't know of any books in which the suffrage movement failed miserably, though--that isn't a world people care to think about. (Although...WWII minus Rosie the Riveter...hmm...naw.)

Sini ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2003, 09:07 AM:

Maybe I've always been fond of him because I'm a sucker for this moment (starts after note 50).