Sunday, January 23, 2005

The Greatest American of All Times

Discovery Channel and America Online have a contest to name "The Greatest American" ever. You can nominate up to five individuals online through February 1. What happens then is this:

The top nominees will be listed in March, with Discovery planning a seven-hour, four-night series in the spring about the leading vote-getters and the winner.

The first episode will air in May and will profile a selection from the top 100 nominees. The list will be pared down by further online voting, with the No. 1 choice profiled on the final episode in June.

There is a gimmicky quality to all this, of course, but it's interesting to think about what it means to be "The Greatest American" ever. According to the ad from which I quoted, the definition of greatness would be somemone who most influenced how we work, think and live. So the person doesn't have to be "good"; someone really evil might well qualify if that person had great impact on everything. Of course future generations might have very different ideas about who the greatest American ever was, even if their selection was limited to the same time periods that we consider, for sometimes a person's impact can only be seen clearly from a distance.

One is not a leader if nobody follows. So "The Greatest American" can't be too much ahead of the pack or too different. Probably someone who is just one step ahead of everyone else and who can be easily made into the myth of One Person Doing Great Things. This competition, and others like it, are really about the symbolic meaning of individuals. What we might vote for are the develoments for which they stand, not really what the individuals did themselves. And even Rosa Parks was a culmination of a long period of agitating and work by a large group of individuals. In this sense probably "The Greatest American" is the community of like-minded individuals who got something done.

But this goes against the rugged individualism thing.

It will be interesting to see who gets nominated. My predictions are that we are going to have George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan nominated from presidents, Martin Luther King and possibly Rosa Parks from the Civil Rights Movement, and lots of athletes and movie stars. Thomas Alva Edison, Henry Ford and some other inventors and industrialists might also be nominated. Then writers like Walt Whitman and Mark Twain and so on. Jonas Salk and other medical inventors who changed lives in concrete ways. Painters, musicians, the list goes on.

But it won't have very many women on it. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan Anthony deserve to be included, and I hope that they will be. Surely the fact that women can vote has made a big difference in the way we live. On the whole, though competitions like this seek for people who had power to influence things on a large scale and only few women have been in that position.

The winner should probably be the unknown American, of unknown sex, race and ethnicity, who worked so hard and strived so earnestly to produce something better, and who has, for most of American history, opened his or her arms to those who needed shelter and food. You know, the one who cares about the huddled masses.