Greatness

So, I got to meet these guys:

Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie
Larger ImageMatt Welch and Nick Gillespie

That’s Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie from Reason magazine, and on Tuesday night they were at a book signing event sponsored by the Heartland Institute at Jaks Tap in Chicago to promote their new book The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America. (I reviewed part of the book here).

Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie
Larger ImageMatt Welch and Nick Gillespie

I must admit, it was a bit of a fanboy moment. I’ve been reading and admiring Reason magazine for years, and these guys are the current editors-in-chief. Actually, according to the masthead, Matt Welch is the real editor-in-chief of the magazine, and Nick Gillespie is the editor-in-chief of the website version of the magazine and of reason.tv which is the video production arm of Reason. Really, though, Nick is kind of a libertarian-at-large who manages to appear on an amazing number of talk shows.

When I first started reading Reason, Virginia Postrel was editor-in-chief, but when she moved on to other things, Nick Gillespie took over. Most of us readers didn’t know much about him, and it soon became a running joke that everything the magazine did was “better when Virginia Postrel was in charge.” The truth is, though, that Reason is still a great magazine, and Nick Gillespie did a lot to make sure that not just a handful of libertarians knew it.

Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie
Larger ImageMatt Welch and Nick Gillespie

One of Nick’s announced goals was to pay more attention to cultural issues. I was skeptical when I first heard about that, because I was reading Reason for the way it addressed policy issues from a libertarian point of view. What the heck did culture have to do with that?

I think I’m beginning to understand what he was getting at: The best parts of our culture are often the result of individuals doing thing their own way. It’s not that very best books or music are highly individualistic. Rather, with so many people writing their own books and music, we each have a better chance of finding something that appeals to us, and we each have a better chance of writing something that appeals to others. In an age where following the smallest authors and bands is as easy as following the giant superstars, our culture has become customized. The libertarian impulse to do things our own way is thriving.

I’m less sure of Matt Welch, because his job isn’t really all that visible from outside, but Reason is as good as ever, so he must be doing something right.

When I met Matt and Nick, I snarked at them a bit about their performance at Reason–they had pretty much seeded the room with snark during their presentation, so it was hard to resist–and while I’m 99% sure they recognized the snark for what it is, I feel I really should say that Reason is the best magazine I’ve ever read, and they’ve done a spectacular job with it. It remains the only paper magazine I still subscribe to.

Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie
Larger ImageMatt Welch and Nick Gillespie

Update: Matt and Nick at Jaks photo dump.

“American Superhero” is what Congressman Tom Latham just called Norman Borlaug in explaining why he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. As I explained in a post last year, Borlaug is arguably the greatest American. His Green Revolution improved the efficiency of world-wide agriculture and saved a lot of people from starvation.

Just how many people were saved is hard to say, but the lowest estimate I’ve read was half a billion. That’s twice what’s needed to offset all the war dead of the 19th and 20th centuries. If Latham’s estimate of one billion is correct—it’s certainly possible—then the Green Revolution has saved more people than the entire current population of the United States, Europe, and Japan combined.

That sounds like a job for a superhero.

(Heck, there’s even a Rap song about Norman Borlaug.)

Over on Hit & Run, they’re discussing in the comments the comparative merits of Survivor, The Sopranos, and Six Feet Under.

Which of these will future art historians most admire? Which of these television shows will future historians look back on as our Madame Bovary, as our Moby Dick?

I say none of them. A hundred years from now, historians will describe this as the era of the soap opera: A single play, performed an hour a day for decades on end, featuring the work of dozens of writers and hundreds of actors, following story arcs that stretch for generations, in real time, and all made feasible by the unique economics of the emerging broadcast media.

Nothing else like it ever before.

Whole academic conferences will be convened to discuss these remarkable artistic endeavors. And, as with Madame Bovary or Moby Dick today, nobody else will care.

Now that the search for the Greatest American is over, I’d like to add one more name to the list. This gentleman didn’t even make the top 100—probably because his greatest contributions occurred outside the United States—but he could well be the greatest American of all.

Norman Borlaug

I’m speaking of Dr. Norman Borlaug, winner of the Medal of Freedom and the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1944, Borlaug and his staff began a program to develop high-yield wheat in Mexico. Over the course of 20 years, they managed to breed several varieties of dwarf wheat that were resistant to many kinds of pests and which had several times the yield of older types of wheat. Mexico went from a net importer to a net exporter of wheat.

The new grain was soon made available to farmers in India and Pakistan. Wheat production nearly doubled in the first five years. A similar effort brought high-yield rice to the Asian nations. Hundreds of millions of people on the brink of starvation…didn’t starve. This was the Green Revolution.

I’ve seen several estimates of how many people were saved from starvation by Borlaug’s revolution. Some people put the number as high as a billion. The low end is probably around 500 million.

To put this in perspective, Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution more than balances the 50 million who died in all nations during World War II. In fact, even using the low estimate of lives saved, the Green Revolution offsets all the war dead of the twentieth century—including all those killed by oppressive regimes and man-made famines—and all the war dead of the nineteenth century, twice over.

The benefits to humanity from the efforts of Dr. Borlaug and his team are unparalled in history. He should have made the list.

Note: You can learn more about Dr. Borlaug at the Norman Borlaug Heritage Foundation.

Well, AOL‘s Greatest American contest is over. After months of voting, the previous list of 25 had been narrowed down to just 5:

  • Benjamin Franklin
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Ronald Reagan
  • George Washington

And the winner is…Ronald Reagan.

Sigh. As I said earlier, these lists are silly. Actually, I take that back: Picking winners is silly. The lists themselves aren’t all that bad.

Granted, it seems a little funny that Ronald Reagan, Elvis Presley, Oprah Winfrey, and Tom Cruise all made the original list. Although you can argue that none of them deserves to be the Greatest American, there’s no denying that each of them is considered to be great at something by a large number of people. As a celebration of ways to be great in America, these lists are pretty interesting.

The problem comes when you start to pick winners. That’s when you have to decide which forms of greatness are more important. That’s also when you have to decide how to weigh the good against the bad.

For example, Abraham Lincoln was a powerful United States President, so it can seem pretty silly to rank him along with Elvis Presley, a drug-addicted entertainer. On the other hand, the Civil War killed more Americans than all our other wars combined, whereas Elvis killed only himself. On the scale of “How many people died?” Elvis is the greater American.

Ronald Reagan is one of those people who inspires both admiration and hatred. Enough bandwidth has been expended carrying that argument around the internet, so I’m not going to get into it here. People’s opinions differ on what’s important and why. All I’ll say is that I can’t understand how even the most one-sided of Ronald Reagan’s fans could say he’s a greater American than George Washington. Then again, I don’t know much about Washington’s dark side.

Like I said, picking winners is silly.

By the way, AOL‘s description of Ronald Reagan’s major accomplishments is pathetic:

The oldest U.S. president, Ronald Reagan founded “Reaganomics” and was known as “The Great Communicator.”

Shouldn’t they have said something about his leading a military build-up that helped topple Soviet communism and bring the Cold War to a peaceful end? Granted, not everyone feels he should get the credit for that, but don’t you think the web site should list one of the biggest reasons so many people think he’s the Greatest American?

Finally, the strangest and most memorable comparison between very different types of people I’ve ever read was in “Love Thy Neighbour” by Julie Burchill in the British Guardian. It compared Osama bin Laden with…wait for it…Kylie Minogue.

My favorite bit is this:

If you sat down with graph paper, a slide rule and a liberal selection of body parts, you literally could not create two beings belonging to the same species who are less alike than Osama bin Laden and Kylie Minogue.

It sounds insane, I know. But it stuck in my head for a long time, and it gave me a lot more respect for the accomplishments of people who merely provide light entertainment. Heck, when you keep in mind that guys like Osama bin Laden are at the bottom of the scale, all the rest of the people of the world seem pretty great.

Update: One more Great American who should have made the list.

Over at AOL Television, they’re running a show called Greatest American on which they’re trying to pick…well I’m sure you get it.

I’ve avoided many such lists in the past, like the AFI‘s list of the greatest 100 films, because if I do care about the subject, I have my own opinions, and if I don’t care then I don’t care. However, the best of these lists are always more about stirring up controversy and discussion than presenting a definitive choice, and the concept of the Greatest American seemed like such an over-the-top attempt at controversy that I had to check it out.

They’ve narrowed the field down to 25 nominees. Unfortunately, the show’s official web site is all cool and Flash animated which means that I can’t just link to the top-25 page. I have to link to the main page. Right now it’s displaying the top 25, but it could be anything by the time you read this. I’ve retyped the list here:

  • Muhammad Ali
  • Neil Alden Armstrong
  • Lance Armstrong
  • George W. Bush
  • Bill Clinton
  • Walt Disney
  • Thomas Alva Edison
  • Albert Einstein
  • Henry Ford
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • Bill Gates
  • Billy Graham
  • Bob Hope
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • John F. Kennedy
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Rosa Parks
  • Elvis Presley
  • Ronald Reagan
  • Eleanor Roosevelt
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt
  • George Washington
  • Oprah Winfrey
  • Orville & Wilbur Wright

Taken purely as a field from which to choose the Greatest American, it’s a pretty silly list. I mean, Oprah Winfrey? And Bob Hope? On a list that also includes Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Lincoln? It gets even sillier when you look at the larger list of the top 100, which includes the likes of Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Dr. Phil, Ellen DeGeneres, and of course Madonna. Even more amazing to me, Dr. Jonas Salk was on the top 100, but he didn’t make the cut. I guess inventing a vaccine for polio doesn’t bump you ahead of the top talk-show host.

It may not be much of a list of the greatest Americans, but I still like the list a lot because it’s a pretty good list of ways to be great in America: Scientist, inventor, statesman, media mogul, international diplomat…and that’s just Ben Franklin!

This list also includes George Washington, a successful general in the American Revolution who refused the offer to become a king. Later, when he became President, he stepped down at the end of his second term. These two acts of turning away from power did as much as anything to create our American democracy.

There are six other Presidents of the United States on the list. Love ’em or hate ’em, they had one hell of a job.

There are also men of God: Billy Graham, who has ministered to millions, and Martin Luther King Jr., who lead the civil rights movement.

There are inventors and scientists who’ve brought us amazing things. One guy, Thomas Edison, invented the electric light bulb, electric generators, a method for recording sound, and motion picture projection. Albert Einstein is widely known for the theory of relativity, but his Nobel Prize was actually for his explanation of the photoelectric effect. Orville and Wilbur Wright invented the airplane.

I like it that entertainers like Bob Hope, Walt Disney, Elvis Presley, and Oprah Winfrey made the list. They may not save lives, run the country, or invent great things, but they made life just a little more fun for millions of people, and that’s not bad.

These people have also made lasting contributions to the arts. Disney made a lot of films that have influenced popular culture and the art of film-making, and Elvis certainly made his mark on rock and roll.

Then there’s Bob Hope. Stand-up comedy is a short-lived art form. It depends so much on the context in which it was created that a few decades’ passage can wear down even the greatest performances into little more than a historical note. Yet Bob Hope’s career extends so far back in time that when he started, there was nothing we would recognize as stand-up comedy. The performers were costumed and made up like clowns: It was all minstrels and lovable tramps. Bob Hope was the first successful guy to get up there as himself and tell jokes. He’s as important to stand-up as Monet is to impressionism.

Bill Gates and Henry Ford are towering captains of industry. Controversial and often hated, their products were eagerly purchased by consumers. Lance Armstrong and Muhammad Ali are champions of sport and athletics. Rosa Parks was a fighter for the cause of civil rights. Neil Armstrong was the first human being ever to visit another world.

So who would I vote for? It’s hard to say. But I suppose that if anyone has read this far, I owe them my opinion. A small, peevish part of me wants Bill Gates to win, just because that would piss off so many people. Then again, I’d also like Muhammad Ali to win because it would be so cool if he really did turn out to be The Greatest.

Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt both brought this country successfully through some terrible times. Either of them has got to be pretty great. They’re also pretty controversial. I love Thomas Jefferson’s concept of liberty, but if he were alive today, he’d be doing federal time on peonage charges.

I guess none of these people are perfect. I’ll just have to pick the one I like the most.

I have long been amazed by Ben Franklin. Among all the other things, in his own time he was known throughout the world as the inventor of the lightning rod. It’s an impressive invention, especially when you consider that towns at the time often used their churches as an armory, and the church steeples were the tallest things in the town. Explosions were pretty common.

Consider also the way that Franklin invented the lightning rod. It’s how we do science and technology today, but nobody was doing it this way back then. Franklin first showed that lightning and static electricity were the same thing (his experiment with the kite), then he experimented with the properties of static electricity, and finally he worked out how to use those properties to tame the lightning.

I guess if I had to choose one Greatest American from this list, it would be Benjamin Franklin.

Update: My comments on the final winner, and one more Great American who should have made the list.