Scam of the Century

Scam of the Century

Scam of the Century

How you look at things.
Dec. 31 1999 3:30 AM

Scam of the Century

After weighing the relative merits of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Mohandas Gandhi, and other great figures, Time has named Albert Einstein the "Person of the Century." How do you become the POC? There are two steps. First, do something great. And second, get your pals and admirers in the punditocracy to rig the contest in your favor by fiddling with the meaning and sequence of the judging criteria.

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1. Influence. At first glance, this seems the most obvious criterion for choosing a POC. Trouble is, it's been a nasty century (two world wars, Holocaust, Communist purges), so if you look for who did the most to cause it, you'll end up with a monster. In the POC debate, this has become the Hitler Problem. Colin Powell, Richard Holbrooke, and former Time Editor Henry Grunwald have identified the Führer as the century's most influential person, and in Time's online poll (with 4.5 million votes cast), Hitler is in third place for POC, trailing only Elvis Presley and Yitzhak Rabin.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The Los Angeles Times makes fun of Time's deliberations about Hitler. In a story on the POC debate, the paper leads with Time Managing Editor Walter Isaacson saying, "You can't write off Hitler," since "many people" argue "that he had the most influence on the century by far. To not consider him would intellectually dishonest." Time ends up crediting Hitler with all similar evil, calling him "Führer of the fascist genocides and refugee floods that plagued the century."

So why doesn't Hitler win POC? Not for the obvious reason--that he was a really, really bad person--but because, as Time puts it, "He lost." He wasn't influential enough. If only he had won the war, he'd have bagged POC. Time also offers two other reasons why Hitler doesn't get the award: First, he was derivative of Lenin, who sort of "begat" him. And second, if you check the stats, Stalin and Mao actually killed more people.

Then there's the populist-elitist debate over what sort of influence counts most. According to Isaacson, Darwin, the "great theoretician," was originally going to be Time's person of the 19th century, but the magazine dumped him for Thomas Edison, who invented gizmos that "had more impact on our lives." The populists have the upper hand in this debate, because the media want to please their mass audience by naming somebody whose contributions most people can relate to. That's why U.S. News & World Report's "25 Shapers of the Modern Era" features world-historical figures such as Lucille Ball, Levi Strauss, and former National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle.

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Time rigs the debate in favor of its nominees by defining influence to include the spread of their ideas and sentiments. While conceding that Gandhi failed to establish peace and justice in India, Time argues that his doctrine of nonviolent resistance has overtaken the world. (Never mind that two of his other big ideas, sexual and material abstinence, went nowhere.) And while admitting that the New Deal was confused and failed to halt the Depression, the magazine argues that Roosevelt "restored Americans' faith and hopes" and thereby "saved them from fear itself." (Never mind that a similarly artful case could be made for Ronald Reagan, but isn't.) In general, the interpretation of influence as the dissemination of ideas improves the POC chances of cultural figures. On Meet the Press, William F. Buckley Jr. nominated Pope John Paul II as his POC for "providing the special spiritual animus that made all the difference in the '70s and '80s in overcoming the greatest threat of the century, which was the Soviet Union."

2. Virtue. You'd think this was the obvious criterion for choosing a POC by something other than body count. Virtue favors guys like Gandhi and JP II. But since this factor confounds Time's choice of Roosevelt over Churchill (who was more brave and honest), Time makes it a team game, arguing that Eleanor Roosevelt supplied the earnestness and uncompromising principle her husband lacked. The spin job on Einstein is even more egregious. On Meet the Press, Doris Kearns Goodwin argued that Roosevelt's "courage," unlike Einstein's brains, teaches a lesson. In Einstein's defense, Time turns his physics into philosophy, saying he "taught the greatest humility of all: that we are but a speck in an unfathomably large universe." Furthermore, says the magazine, Einstein believed in "divine harmony" and "often invoked God."

One of the great tricks of the virtue debate is the reciprocal blurb. To prove that Einstein, Gandhi, and Roosevelt are worthy POC finalists, Time quotes them praising each other. What better way to validate a great man than to quote another great man calling him a great man? Goodwin plays the same game between Roosevelt and Churchill. Churchill's fatal mistake, it turns out, was giving Gandhi a negative blurb. "He called Mohandas Gandhi 'nauseating' and a 'half-naked fakir,' " sniffs Time, crossing Churchill off its list.

3. Themes. This is the most convenient way to pick a POC: List the top themes of the century, and then select figures who "embody" them. Time explicitly uses this method to pick Einstein (science and technology), Roosevelt (the struggle against totalitarianism), and Gandhi (liberation and justice). Others personify the theme with a composite POC such as "the American GI" (submitted by Powell), Rosie the Riveter (submitted by Goodwin), and Uncle Sam (submitted by U.S. News). Once you're a finalist representing a theme, the trick is to elevate your theme. In principle, this is how Einstein wins: Science gets the nod. As Time puts it, "He serves as a symbol of all the scientists … who built upon his work." He gets credit for the Big Bang, the bomb, the PC, and above all, television.

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In practice, it's more complicated. The ideal POC represents all the big themes of the century. This triathlon kills Churchill, who wins the defeat-totalitarianism contest but flunks the liberation-and-justice contest. "He bulldoggedly opposed the women's rights movement, other civil-rights crusades and decolonization," objects Time. Roosevelt has better crossover appeal, since, in addition to defeating Hitler, he expanded economic opportunity through the New Deal (and gets credit for his wife's contributions to "feminism and social justice"). But Einstein wins the triathlon because in addition to acing the science test, he prodded Roosevelt to build the bomb (10 points for defeating totalitarianism), fled Germany and immigrated to the United States (five more points for defeating totalitarianism and five for liberation and justice), and preached pacifism and praised Gandhi (10 more points for liberation and justice). "As the century's greatest thinker, as an immigrant who fled from oppression to freedom, as a political idealist, he best embodies" the century, says Time.

4. Causality. The debate over whether to pick a politician, scientist, philosopher, or artist often turns on which of these fields drives the others. Those who think culture drives politics (e.g., Buckley) argue that Gandhi and JP II overthrew tyranny. Those who think politics drives culture (e.g., Goodwin) argue that Roosevelt spawned the civil rights and feminist movements by putting everyone to work regardless of race or gender.

Those who think politics determines the course of technology (e.g., Bill Kristol) argue that technology built Hitler's power and that brave politicians defeated him. And while some, such as Goodwin, argue that the wars against totalitarianism made economic progress possible, others, such as Sen. Pat Moynihan, D-N.Y., argue that economic progress made possible the end of world wars.

Time seals the case for Einstein by arguing that science drives everything. Not only did it promote freedom "more than any statesman or soldier did" by creating CNN, faxes, and e-mail, but furthermore, Einstein's theory of "relativity paved the way for a new relativism in morality, arts and politics," influencing James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, and others. (The press, of course, has its own causal theory: The press drives everything. That's why This Week panelist Linda Douglass picked Johann Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press, as the man of the millennium: "The written word … enables us to preserve our laws.")

5. Indispensability. The best way to rig the debate in favor of an artist is to stipulate that the POC should be someone whose accomplishments would never have happened without him. Since art is infinitely various and complex, it's particularly implausible that anyone else would have written Shakespeare's plays. This is how George Will justifies his selection of William Shakespeare as man of the millennium, while dismissing scientists on the grounds that "science has its own logic and is going to get where it's going," regardless of which scientist gets there first. Scientists counter this spin by arguing that the inexorable logic of their field makes it more significant than art or politics. Time quotes Einstein on this point: "Politics is for the moment. An equation is for eternity."

6. Timing. If your POC nominee scored his achievements early in the century, stress his long-term influence. By this standard, Einstein's timing was excellent, earning him credit for subsequent decades of technological progress. (JP II and Reagan, by contrast, showed up too late to get much consideration.) If your nominee showed up later, stress the immediacy of his achievements, since most people can relate to today's breakthroughs and gizmos and have forgotten those from the first half of the century. This dynamic explains why Will picked James Watson and Francis Crick (who discovered DNA in 1953) as his men of the century, why Kristol picked Abraham Lincoln as his man of the millennium, and why end-of-year movies score well in the Academy Awards. What has the POC done for us lately?

If your nominee showed up too late for this year's contest, don't worry. Nominate her for next time. If she's worth it, she'll still be in the running 100 years from now. And if she's not, you won't be around to explain your goof. By its nature, the POC debate is retroactive. No wonder the pundits love it.