Lists of the great are overrated

By now we've all had a good laugh at the National Geographic Society for making Kim Campbell one of the 50 greatest political leaders of all time. And honestly, she wouldn't be among Canada's 50 greatest prime ministers if we'd had 51. So now let's pause, take a deep breath, and use it to laugh at most of the rest of the list. We should not grant undue importance to the lists and indexes churned out by various organizations. Our press and politicians, for instance, got very excited about Canada being No. 1 on the United Nations Human Development Index then sliding ignominiously to eighth, when the index was itself a crude and useless measurement. I even have serious reservations about Gross Domestic Product. Not everything can be quantified. But we should also not dismiss all lists of, say, great political leaders just because there are inevitably quarrels about what the criteria should be and who really meets them.

Far from it. It is very useful to reflect on what constitutes historical importance and who had it. Canadians have every right to howl at National Geographic for including Avril Phaeda "Kim'' Campbell in its Almanac of World History top 50 political leaders of all time. But we shouldn't then run out of things to say about the other good, bad and ugly choices.

For instance, she isn't the only preposterous Canadian on the list. William Lyon Mackenzie King cannot in good conscience be described as of world-historical importance. Nor is she the only preposterous woman. What's Eva Peron doing there? Or Benazir Bhutto? For that matter, why is Chiang Kai-shek on the list, or Charles de Gaulle? Hitler, sure; it's a list of people who had a big impact on history, not a good one. But Mussolini? He was a second-rate tyrant. And while I admire Margaret Thatcher, she would have trouble qualifying among the 50 most important leaders since the Second World War.

Thus while the list's most obvious, typically modern defect is its evident affirmative action regarding both gender and nationality, it is also dreadfully biased toward the recent past. Of its 50 key political leaders of all time, 21 are from the 20th century. It also has a secular bias: conspicuously missing are Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. True, Jesus was not, directly, a political leader. But then where's Constantine, who made the Roman Empire Christian? For that matter, where's Augustus, who made it an empire? The only emperor on the list is Nero. Is he the only one they'd heard of?

I don't mean to be a snob here. The list contains names I don't recognize but probably should (not including Shanakdakhete), and others I recognize but don't know enough about. And I had an extensive education in history, despite which I struggle to remember key Roman emperors. But just because something is difficult doesn't mean it's not worthwhile.

For instance, we should know enough to debate whether Hannibal should be on the list. He was a great military leader but would history be much different if he'd never existed? Rome won anyway. Alexander the Great's political ambitions fared little better, but he spread Hellenistic civilization in way that did matter. Meanwhile, Montezuma I may have been inept, but between technology and disease I don't see the Spanish-Aztec clash turning out differently without him. As for John Kennedy, it has been suggested that he belongs on such lists because he decided to send a man to the moon which, as we all know, history will eventually record as the start of a giant leap for mankind. Not much could be more characteristically modern than to list people who will be important in the future and call it a list of historical greats.

In The Globe and Mail on Monday, its quintessentially modern former editor, William Thorsell, wrote "I used to say quite naively to history students at the University of Alberta that we studied history to get rid of it.'' I sympathize with his desire that people should not adopt attitudes without examining their origin, and his horror that some students taught about old historical grievances promptly adopted them as their own. But I insist that we can and should learn from history rather than either repeating it mindlessly or discarding it mindlessly.

I much prefer Plutarch's explanation for his extensive set of comparative biographies of great Greeks and Romans: "It was for the sake of others that I first commenced writing biographies; but I find myself proceeding and attaching myself to it for my own; the virtues of these great men serving me as a sort of looking-glass, in which I may see how to adjust and adorn my own life.'' We may also learn a great deal, it seems to me, about what has worked in the past and what has not, and what is therefore likely to work now and what apparently exciting novelty is in fact an old idiocy.

Regrettably it seems we did get rid of history. And wound up instead with Kim Campbell as one of the all-time great leaders. Hoo hah.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson