Sunday, December 09, 2012

All-Time Individuals

Most nations on this globe have been around for hundreds of years, and exactly 157 nations currently have populations of more than one million people.  But despite the millions and millions of people who have lived within any given nation's borders, history books are comprised by and large of the names of select individuals.  The "Great Man Theory" has been long discredited, but it's still the shorthand default for how we think about important events in history.  Artistic movements are usually summarized by recitation of names of people who exemplify the movement, and every single artistic endeavor has inspired innumerable lists and arguments about who is the all-time best individual in a particular field.  Sports franchises are synonymous with the hall of famers who have played for them.  Time Magazine is famous for designating a "person of the year" who supposedly has influenced the world the most in the previous twelve months.

But despite all this, I know of no effort to compose a list of all-time most influential or emblematic individuals for specific nation-states.  I would think that in our list-obsessed society, we'd love to argue about "Top Icelandic citizen of all-time," but apparently not.  So to fulfill a gap that may or may not need to be filled, I've decided to name the "all-time person" for the top 10 most populous countries in the world, from an American perspective.  My criteria is simple--when a country is mentioned, who is the first person that most Americans will think of?  Without further ado:

1. China: Nobody would argue that it's Mao.  Kind of ironic given that a supposed champion of collectivism, in a nation that is more populous than any on Earth, is the one guy that stands out.  Yao Ming would probably be second.

2. India: Again, this one isn't close.  Ghandi is the only Indian that most Americans could name.

3. USA: In 1984 Michael Jackson probably would have taken the prize, but in the Internet era fame is too diffused for one mega-star to embody America.  So it's got to be a Mt. Rushmore figure.  Washington is the father of our country, but nobody has made any movies about him lately.  America loves martyrs, too.  So Abraham Lincoln joins the list.

4. Indonesia: I've got to cheat.  There are 237 million Indonesians living today, and I don't know any of them (though I have visited a few of their Facebook pages).  But Wikipedia tells me that Eddie Van Halen is part Indonesia (Alex is, too, of course, but Eddie is obviously the choice here). 

5. Brazil:  It's got to be Pele.  Ayrton Senna has has fanbase, and is probably more iconic in most parts of the world, and David Beckham has more cache with the youngsters, but to many Americans, Pele is still the Babe Ruth of soccer.

6. Pakistan:  The first guy that pops into my head is Pervez Musharraf.  And it's hard to think of anybody else.  I think of the Carmen Sandiego theme song before I think of anyone else.  So by default, Pervez Musharraf embodies Pakistan.

7. Nigeria: Tell me that most Americans who lived in the late 1980s wouldn't immediately think of "The Nigerian Nightmare," Christian Okoye.  Most American academics would name Chinua Achebe.  But he's didn't have a nickname with the word "Nigerian" in the title.

8. Bangladesh: Does George Harrison count?  He'll have to do, since I don't recognize any names on the Wikipedia list.

9. Russia: Certainly lots of possibilities.  I'm partial to Dostoevsky.  But in the end, Stalin is still the face of Russia.

10. Japan: There have been some great Japanese artists.  Japanese technological products are a part of American life.  But when it comes to specific Japanese people, most Americans think of baseball players.  And the Japanese baseball player who stands above all others is Ichiro.

Conclusion: I can now see why no one has done this before.  And if you got Mao, Ghandi, Abraham Lincoln, Pele, Eddie Van Halen, Pervez Musharraf, Christian Okoye, George Harrison, Stalin, and Ichiro in a room together, they might not agree on much.  But they probably would agree on one thing: individuals are a lot less influential than we give them credit for.


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