Friday, September 3, 2010

The Greatest Vote Getters

In my last post I mentioned the fact that Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, Portugal's dictator from 1932 to 1968, was recently named the greatest Portuguese person ever by his homeland's TV viewers. These sorts of shows (The Greatest Belgian, Great Greeks, etc.) originated in Britain and have now run in more than two dozen countries. The Wikipedia provides a summary of the winners here.

It's fun to see who got picked and who got dumped by whom, and it's even more fun to come up with one's own alternatives. What do those bums know about their own history, right? :-)

Let's start with Britain, whose TV viewers put Churchill up top. I'm generally biased against politicians, but at least the entire world has heard of him and in between his drinking binges he did sometimes seem like a serious person. In contrast, I had never heard of Isambard Brunel before he was named the second greatest Briton ever on that show, and the less is said about Princess Di (#3) in this context, the saner. My problem with putting Darwin (#4) so high on that list is that humanity has been acting as if it already knew most of what he had to say since at least the birth of agriculture. Verbalizing the default assumptions of every farmhand and amateur genealogist who's ever lived and then extending those to their logical conclusions doesn't seem like a historic feat to me. Glossy's pick for greatest Briton ever? Newton. Also my pick for greatest human.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the German version did not include the word "German" in its title, calling itself "Unsere Besten" instead. The Princess Di spot (#3) was occupied here by Karl Marx, with Adenauer substituting for Churchill. In general the German list turned out to be more political than most. Glossy's pick? Beethoven.

Just like their historical rivals, the French chose a WWII-era pol (de Gaulle) as their top man. It was fun to see Zinadine Zidane and Charlemagne back together again on this list (nos. 21 and 22). I'm guessing that the footballer is just as enthusiastic about being called a Frenchman as Charlemagne would have been about being called a Gaul. Other than that the list is remarkable for having more actors and singers on it than most others. My pick would have been Lavoisier.

The Italians chose Leonardo, which is pretty good, but I'm going to argue against it anyway. Renaissance painting advanced towards realism and expressiveness gradually, over several centuries, so it's impossible to assign the bulk of the credit for it to any one person. And outside of painting Leonardo's output was more remarkable for breadth than for depth. I would have picked Galileo, for his role in the advancement of the scientific method.

The Greek top 10 is evenly divided between towering figures of universal importance, every one of whom has been dead for more than two thousand years, and more recent personages of whom almost no one outside of Greece has ever heard of. Alexander the Great, who initiated Greece's decline by integrating it with the East, came in first place. I would have picked Archimedes instead.

The Spaniards put their current king in first place, his wife in 4th, their eldest son in 7th and the son's wife in 15th - monarchism and patriarchy! Franco placed 22nd, Columbus was 3rd here, but 12th in the Italian list.

Alexander Nevsky ended up winning the Russian vote. Disregarding what I said about political leaders at the start of this post, I would have gone with Peter the Great instead. He Westernized Russia before the West started rotting, so his reforms were overwhelmingly positive in nature. Russia had not contributed anything to science or technology before he came along and it has never ceased such contributions since him. Before Peter, Russian high art existed strictly for internal consumption, after him it was able to be appreciated by foreigners. Russia was never a major power on the European or world stages before him and it has never stopped being one of a handful of Great Powers since him. And none of that had to happen, at least not in the 18th century. The Russian government had been aware of the country's lag behind the West for a long time [ru], but nothing was done about that until Peter came along, probably because no ruler before him possessed that much natural energy. OK, so he personally beheaded a few loudmouths. Trifles. Alexey Tolstoy's big book about him is still the best historical novel I've ever read.


  1. It says something about the Russian psyche that they prefer somebody who helped Russia survive when she was weak (threatened by Mongols, Germans, etc) over somebody who "merely" allowed her to thrive unprecedently.

  2. I saw a bit of the Russian show on YouTube some time ago. The current Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church (he wasn't the Patriarch then yet) was a panelist and argued for Alexander Nevsky. He defended Alexander's decision to fight the Swedes and the Teutonic knights while paying tribute to the Mongols by saying that in the Middle Ages western Slavs like Sorbs and Wends, as well as the Baltic-speaking, pre-German Prussians were partially replaced and partially assimilated by Germans. He said that this could have happened to Russia too, or at least to parts of it, if the Teutonic knights were successful. In contrast, the Mongols were a nomadic people who were never interested in tilling the land and settling down in Russia. They just wanted regular tribute. In this view the Germans were a greater existential threat. I'm sure that it also mattered a lot to the Patriarch that the knights whom Alexander Nevsky defeated were trying to spread Catholicism, while the Mongols did not proselytize for Islam, animism or anything else.

    One has to say though that the Mongols were more violent. During the initial conquest and when subduing revolts they behaved, uh.., like Mongols.

    I guess most historical systems of morality (though obviously not the modern PC system of it) would put a relatively more bloody path towards the long-term survival of a nation above a relatively more peaceful and civilized path towards its assimilation.

    These calculations are complicated by the fact that the Germans are closer to Russians genetically than the Mongols are and by the fact that in the 13th century the Mongols were unstoppable. Even if Alexander Nevsky decided to fight the Mongols, what would his chances of victory have been? He might have simply decided to fight the enemy against which he had a chance.