Most Influential People?

Time magazine has been once again working on their list of the world’s 100 Most Influential People (at the moment). As usual, I’ll probably disagree with most of it.

Whenever someone comes up with a list of the most influential people (or Australians, or politicians, or writers, or billy-cart racers, or whatever), and they take their brief seriously, they are bound to offend someone. An angry scribe will write: “How dare you include that monster Adolf Hitler!” or “How could you forget our greatest sportsman, Don Bradman?” Of course, these letter-writers don’t get the point. I’m not convinced that the world would have been a vastly different place if Bradman had never existed (or had concentrated on tennis instead). Hitler? Yes, I’m afraid that he was highly influential.

In 1978, a scholar named Michael Hart wrote The 100, which attempted to rank the 100 most influential people in history. The book has since caused endless shouts of “No way!” from people who just read the list without seeing his explanations. Muhammad ahead of Jesus (and everyone else)? Plato but not Socrates? Kennedy but not Lincoln? And where the heck are the Beatles? (Actually, he never explained that last one. No excuse, then.)

Hart did an update 20 years later, including Mikhail Gorbachev as the only living person. By then, he’d inspired a series of books by various authors, all purporting to rank different divisions of “most influential” people: The Jewish 100 (with Moses edging out Jesus for #1), The Black 100, The Italian 100, The Gay 100, The Left-Handed 100. Well, there wasn’t really a left-handed 100, but I for one would have been silly enough to buy it.

On one trip to America, I bought my Mum The 100 Most Influential Women by feminist historian Deborah G Felder. Mum liked it, I’m pleased to say, but I wasn’t overly impressed. (As it didn’t buy it for myself, of course, that didn’t matter.) Felder ranked Eleanor Roosevelt at #1. Her justification? Roosevelt was a childhood hero.

Huh? This was supposed to be “most influential”, not “favourite” or “most inspiring”.

Reading some of these books, I found myself longing for Hart’s unbiased appraisals. Hart’s original book had only two women in the list: Queen Isabella I at #65, and Elizabeth I practically just squeezing in at #94. This was disgraceful, of course. Was Hart being a sexist pig? No, but in case you weren’t paying attention in class, history has been appallingly sexist. Hart obviously had no room for tokenism. (He presumably ignored calls of “Why don’t you include Marie Curie or Joan of Arc, just to be a gentleman?”) If you protest his inclusion of notorious figures like Hitler and Genghis Khan, or obscure ones like ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, I suggest you look up “influential” in a dictionary.

If you’d prefer a nice list, with no bad guys, you’ll be happy to know about Simon Montefiore’s book, Heroes: History’s Greatest Men and Women. It’s not exactly a new idea, but as the “heroes” include Margaret Thatcher, it’s bound to get plenty of laughs. It includes plenty of women in its ranks, so it gives us a slightly more balanced history than the real-life one covered by Michael Hart.

But it’s still skewed towards westerners. If we were to do a book naming 100 heroes, and wanted to be completely balanced, we would need exactly 51 women, 44 Asians, 31 Christians (including 16 Roman Catholics), 20 Chinese, 19 Muslims, 16 Indians, 14 Africans, 13 Hindus, five English-speakers and only four Americans. (If someone is a Christian woman from Asia who did anything of note, she would have a good chance of making the list.) Australians? We are such a small part of the world population that we should feel amazed that anyone else has heard of us. Perhaps we can have just one entry, to keep us happy (but if it’s Bradman, I’d just as soon not bother). Meanwhile, to appease numerous psychologists, nine of the people should suffer from attention deficit disorder. Oh, and ten of the 100 would need to be left-handed.

To truly work out who belongs on any such list, it helps to be one of those people who know everything. Michael Hart, as far as I can tell, knows everything. Various other people believe they know everything, but they probably don’t. I’m fairly well-read, but I wouldn’t put myself in the “knows everything” class of people. Just for fun, I might start by listing influential people in one of my fields of knowledge. The most influential comic-book writers or New Zealand stand-up comedians, perhaps.

Or I could make it really easy and name the 100 most influential people in my own life. I’d disqualify my parents, of course, as they’d be too obvious (and besides, it’s not fair to blame them for everything). I’d also limit the list to people I’ve actually met, thereby eliminating candidates ranging from Groucho Marx to Douglas Mawson.

So who would be number one? My first thought would be Lachlan, a childhood friend who convinced me I should start watching Doctor Who. It completely changed my life, filling my high-school years with obsessive reverence for this TV series while everyone else was out finding a girlfriend.

That probably explains a lot.

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