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Ronald Reagan...the Greatest American?

Activist Terri Jean sent the following message to her Native Truth mailing list:

Natives completely omitted from Discovery's 100 Greatest Americans list

Have you seen the list of the Top 100 Greatest Americans? The Discovery Channel is hosting a seven hour series with the first show premiering last Sunday at 8pm. More than half a million online nominations were tallied, and the list is supposed to represent "the pulse of the nation," revealing "the qualities we most admire." At the end of the premiere episode, Matt Lauer announced the top 25 Greatest American nominees (based on nominations held earlier in the year) and how viewers can cast their votes via a toll-free number.

The project is supposed to "highlight Americans of importance and the incredible contributions they made to our society" and perhaps as many as 89 million households might tune in.

Here's what they'll see...

The Top 100 Nominees (for more info visit http://www.discovery.com)

Abraham Lincoln
Albert Einstein
Alexander Graham Bell
Alexander Hamilton
Amelia Earhart
Andrew Carnegie
Arnold Schwarzenegger
Audie Murphy
Babe Ruth
Barack Obama
Barbara Bush
Benjamin Franklin
Bill Clinton
Bill Cosby (William Henry Cosby, Jr.)
Bill Gates
Billy Graham
Bob Hope
Brett Favre
Carl Sagan
Cesar Chavez
Charles Lindbergh
Christopher Reeve
Chuck Yeager
Clint Eastwood
Colin Powell
Condoleezza Rice
Donald Trump
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Eleanor Roosevelt (Anna Eleanor Roosevelt)
Ellen DeGeneres
Elvis Presley
Frank Sinatra
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Frederick Douglass
George H. W. Bush
George W. Bush
George Lucas
George Patton
George Washington
George Washington Carver
Harriet Ross Tubman
Harry Truman
Helen Keller
Henry Ford
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Howard Hughes
Hugh Hefner
Jackie Robinson (Jack Roosevelt Robinson)
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
Jesse Owens
Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Stewart
John Edwards
John Glenn
John F. Kennedy
John Wayne
Johnny Carson (John William Carson)
Jonas Edward Salk
Joseph Smith Jr.
Katharine Hepburn
Lance Armstrong
Laura Bush
Lucille Ball
Lyndon B. Johnson
Madonna (Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone)
Malcolm X (Malcolm Little)
Marilyn Monroe
Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens)
Martha Stewart
Martin Luther King Jr.
Maya Angelou
Mel Gibson
Michael Jackson
Michael Jordan
Michael Moore
Muhammad Ali (Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr.)
Neil Alden Armstrong
Nikola Tesla
Oprah Winfrey
Pat Tillman
Dr. Phil McGraw
Ray Charles
Richard Nixon
Robert Kennedy
Ronald Reagan
Rosa Parks
Rudolph W. Giuliani
Rush Limbaugh
Sam Walton
Steve Jobs
Steven Spielberg
Susan B. Anthony
Theodore Roosevelt
Thomas Edison
Thomas Jefferson
Tiger Woods
Tom Cruise
Tom Hanks
Walt Disney
Wrights Brothers (Orville & Wilbur Wright)

I must admit, this list definitely surprised me. First of all, a few people are just celebrities. Actors who are great at their craft, but have they really made any great contributions to this country, the world, society or the human race. For America to note them as the best of the best makes us all look ridiculous.

Dr. Phil? Martha Stewart? Barbara and Laura Bush? Tom Cruise? Mel Gibson? Marilyn Monroe? Brett Favre? Rush Limbaugh? Arnold Schwarzenegger?


This list is nothing but a high school popularity contest. It reflects a near total lack of appreciation and knowledge of United State history. There are glaring omissions and only a handful are what I would call "great" -- and for the most part, their contributions continue to impact society today.

And of course, the biggest problem of all is the absence of a even one Native person. (I mean come on...to mention Michael Jordan and not Jim Thorpe is baffling. You would think Thorpe would get a nod.)

Rob weighs in
I didn't give the Discovery contest much thought. I figured Washington or Lincoln were shoo-ins. I was wrong.

The following note on networking led to the following ruminations:

1. Thomas Jefferson Stayed in Constant Communication without a Blackberry: While Thomas Jefferson did not have access to any form of instant messaging; he did stay in constant communication through letter writing. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, Jefferson wrote 1,268 letters in one year! Nierenberg points out, "Today we have no excuse not to follow up on a regular basis with people we want to network with."

1,268 letters a year = four e-mails a day. What's the big deal? <g>

This is a good argument for e-mail. Constant writing can create a body of work like Jefferson's. Deep thoughts come from expressing oneself in writing.

On the other hand, Ronald Reagan was just voted the Greatest American for his 1,268 inane homilies and sound bites. Yes, Ronald Reagan. Which shoots the credibility of the Discovery Channel to hell.

The final ranking:


Actually, we could've predicted this. Lincoln and the others probably split the intelligent/historical vote, while Reagan won the fanatical/know-nothing vote. If the country was divided 60-40 between the two groups, the finally tally would be Reagan 40, Lincoln 15, King 15, Washington 15, and Franklin 15. So you can see how being the only recent figure boosted Reagan to the top.


No. 1 has to be celebrity?
Correspondent Khan responded to this posting and the following debate on the concept of greatness ensued:

>> My knowledge of history is decent, but I wouldn't call myself an expert (my sister majored in it, tho), so you can take this for what it's worth, but if you pinned me down and said, "pick 100 great Americans," I'd have a hard time doing it <<

The list of "100 Greatest Americans" would be a good starting point if you subtracted every actor or celebrity (including Reagan) and everyone who's alive. That would leave you with maybe 50 to work with.

>> My point was that the above being the case, if you ask the average American to come up with 100 great Americans, they'd /have/ to go with celebrities, for lack of knowledge of anybody else. <<

Which is why shows like this are ultimately lame. If I were Matt Lauer, I'd have problems with the whole concept. I'd insist that we favor the old dead people so "fans" wouldn't pick their favorite celebrities.

I mean, how did Madonna and Dr. Phil even get on the preliminary list? Things like this make a legitimate contest into a joke.

>> That brings Reagan into the mix, and as an effective President of our time, it stands to reason that he'd come out on top. (Not to mention the fact that Right Wing talk radio speaks of him like he's God.) <<

Which is kind of what I said in my little analysis. The fact that he was the only modern entry was probably the key.


Who cares who wins?
The debate continues....

>> What does it matter if the majority thinks Ronald Reagan is the greatest American? What does that have to do with me? <<

I heard Matt Lauer tell Conan O'Brien that the show was a teaching or learning opportunity. It was encouraging people to discuss who and what are really important in our history.

Most people never think about America's history, so it was indeed an opportunity for some to consider the subject. The question is how the program shaped this consideration. The answer is: not well. By acting as if only great white men and celebrities matter, it reinforced the predominant way of thinking. It didn't do much if anything to contradict this pradigm or present a truer, better one.

How does this affect you personally? It affects you the way all stereotyping does. Whether it's by commission or omission, stereotyping shapes people's perceptions.

Consider this: The show didn't include any Native Americans among the top 100. That reinforced the message that Natives are invisible and irrelevant in today's world. Unless they've done something "bad," like opening a casino in your neighborhood, they don't deserve your attention.

The same applies to any minority that didn't get included. What's your background again: Pakistani? Asian Indian? I don't think anybody with that ancestry made the list either. Message to America: You and "your" people haven't done anything worth noting.

If you've ever experienced racism or discrimination, this is part of the reason why.

If Sitting Bull or Tecumseh or Geronimo had made the list, the learning opportunity might have gone differently. Many people might have said, "Why did those losers make the list? Are they really even Americans? I thought they were just a bunch of savages."

Some informative responses to these ignorant objections would have educated people. If they were at all open to new ideas, that is. Many people aren't, but some are.

>> What makes it a legitimate contest? It's just a popularity poll. <<

The initial selection of the Top 100 wasn't done by a survey, I believe. I believe it was done by the show's producers or advisors. Whoever did it, the process shows an obvious bias toward the kind of people Americans think SHOULD be the greatest. I.e., people who achieve fame and wealth, not people who do genuinely good things for humanity.

If your response is that what's "good" is subjective, well, yes and no. In the short term, yes, it's hard to say who or what is great. Especially across different cultures and classes of people. But in the long term, short-term achievements get forgotten and only the truly important ones remain. That's why certain people are remembered around the world while others are consigned to the dustbin of history.

By almost any cultural standard, you can pick the greatest people in history. They include Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, et al. In fact, here are a couple lists:

Prophet Muhammed—The Most Influential Person in History

The World's 100 Greatest People Audio CD Collection

You can argue endlessly about the choices and the order, but there are no celebrities on the lists. Americans are represented on both lists by people such as George Washington, Thomas Edison, Thomas Jefferson, and Henry Ford. These are the people who should've been among the top 5 or 10 Americans, not Ronald Reagan.


The debate digresses (8/26/05)....
Khan's questions started to get philosophical—e.g., how can we know what's true or good—and thus less interesting. But first came this exchange:

>> The thinking that we somehow know what's "right" or "better" or "more intelligent" or any other qualitative judgement you can name is the /exact/ same mindset colonizers used in destroying native cultures. <<

Wrong. The multicultural perspective, which is what I advocate, seeks to understand and appreciate the merits of every culture. No one with this perspective ever would've colonized or destroyed an indigenous culture.

In contrast, the American perspective says that our culture is best and that we know best. The "Greatest American" special echoed this perspective by making choices that reinforced it. It told us that people who embody the American mindset—i.e., Reagan—are people whom we should admire and emulate.

If we had done it my way, we wouldn't necessarily have come up with different choices for the greatest American. Several of the choices probably would've been the same. But some of the choices would've been different because we would've thought about them more deeply, with something other than the predominant American mindset.

Who is the greatest Native American?
Terri Jean asked her readers to vote for the greatest Native American. The results:

Final poll results for the top 25 Greatest Native Americans

  1. Leonard Peltier
  2. Tecumseh
  3. Wayne Newton
  4. Crazy Horse
  5. Chief Joseph
  6. Wilma Mankiller
  7. Jim Thorpe
  8. Lillie Roberts & Robbie Robertson [tied]
10. Geronimo & Sitting Bull [tied]

Some responses
First, an exchange with a non-Native:

>> Wayne Newton?!? <<

An article on this poll said Wayne Newton's fans voted en masse after someone made fun of him.

Several of the results are questionable, including the No. 1 spot. Leonard Peltier? Is being a martyr the greatest thing an Indian has ever done? This guy may or may not be guilty of murder. He's incarcerated because he arguably didn't get a fair trial, but that isn't anything he did. Maybe the award should go to the judicial system, not to Peltier, for inadvertently exposing how flawed it was during the prosecution.

You see, I don't take the politically correct position on these things. Besides, my man Tecumseh came in second place. He wuz robbed!

I'm surprised Sitting Bull and Geronimo didn't rank higher. They're justifiably famous for what they did, so why the No. 9 ranking? Chief Joseph was great too, but "all" he did was avoid capture and utter a memorable sound bite. Sitting Bull and Geronimo actually led a semi-successful resistance against the government.


Next, some exchanges with Natives:

>> Sorry Rob, but the poll lost ALL credibility for me the moment I saw Peltier in first place. <<

No problem. I didn't say the poll had any credibility. <g>

>> Yeah, he's an activist (partly by necessity), but he was also a small time thug elevated to fame ONLY by his incarceration. <<

See my response to that point.

>> He isn't a HUNDREDTH the man that millions of unremembered Native Americans (of EITHER gender!) were. <<

I voted for Tecumseh. My second choices probably would've been Sitting Bull and Geronimo. Hey, they're famous for a reason.

It never even occurred to me to vote for Peltier. In fact, I wouldn't have thought a modern Indian would've made it into the top 10. I thought the ranking probably would go something like: Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Tecumseh, Chief Joseph.

>> Who voted in this poll? Mostly White people who are going strictly by how often they've heard a name parroted in the media? <<

Probably. I think Terri Jean, the poll-master, said she tried to get Natives to vote. But realistically speaking, there's no way she could've enforced or even verified the ethnicity of voters.

The same thing happened with the Discovery Channel's survey of the "100 Greatest Americans."

>> Radical leaning whites who prefer a living symbol of the "big bad U.S. govt's oppression" to real life living or historical heroes who weren't politically radical? <<

Maybe. Perhaps they're liberal do-gooders who wanted to stand shoulder to shoulder with their Indian brothers. Who didn't know exactly what Peltier was famous for but knew he (sort of) symbolizes the oppressive history of Indians.

>> It certainly wasn't Indians. Or people with a decent knowledge of history. <<

I'd guess that Indians were over- rather than underrepresented among the voters. But I'd guess the majority of voters (75%? 90%?) were white.

>> Heck, whatever unsung genius first came up with the idea of fiddling with teosinte (corn ancestor) has had BILLIONS more impact already than Peltier ever will. <<

It probably took a whole chain of people and events to produce that result. So I doubt any single person, even if we could identify him or her, would deserve the credit. But I agree with your point.



>> Peltier? Not on my list. <<

I voted for Tecumseh. I didn't think of voting for Peltier or anyone in the modern era. I'm amazed that he won and Wayne Newton came in third. I guess Heather Locklear wasn't eligible.

Americans respect Indians?
So the "Greatest American" poll didn't include any Indians. Despite this, a poll claims most Americans respect Indians:

Angus Reid Global Scan : Polls & Research
Three Countries Respect Indigenous Culture

May 31, 2006

(Angus Reid Global Scan) — Many adults in the United States express pride in their country's Native American heritage, according to a poll by Roy Morgan International. 70 per cent of respondents believe indigenous culture is an essential component of American society.

Australia was next on the list of the three nations surveyed with 69 per cent, followed by New Zealand with 58 per cent. The percentage of Australian respondents who acknowledged the contribution of Aboriginal culture increased by five points since 2000, while in New Zealand, the number of respondents who endorsed Maori culture went up by nine points.

Related links
The 200 greatest pop culture icons

Readers respond
"I wonder about the 30% of Americans who said NO on this [Roy Morgan poll] question."

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