Can the Public Be Trusted to Say Who Among Us Is Great?

From the Guardian (Nov. 18, 2004):

How dull the list of greatest Britons looks now. Churchill top, followed by Brunel, Princess Diana, Darwin, Shakespeare . . . What a conventional view of "greatness" - winning battles, making scientific advances, writing King Lear. Princess Diana and John Lennon added a welcome touch of lunacy to the poll that started a worldwide trend in searching for the "nation's greatest" back in November 2002, but where were King John, Richard III, Oswald Mosley, the Krays? Where was that more imaginative notion of greatness that other nations have managed?

The Dutch have just held their own poll and, unlike the British, eschewed the obvious. Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Anne Frank, Erasmus, Spinoza. Bosh! In fact, Hieronymus Bosch! The winner of the poll, organised by TV station KRO (the Dutch equivalent of the BBC) was Pim Fortuyn, the far-right, anti-immigrant politician who was murdered two years ago. Choosing a racist seems to have given KRO pause for thought, since shortly after announcing that Fortuyn had won, it put out a correction to say there had been a computer malfunction and the real winner was William of Orange (ultra-nationalist, adulterer, usurper of the English throne in 1688, hammer of the Irish), with Fortuyn second.

Earlier this year, historian Tristram Hunt argued that "the public prioritisation of great historical figures speaks volumes about national identity and its foundation myths". Churchill won in Britain because we are still obsessed by the second world war and will send a battalion into battle at the drop of a hat, as Iraq demonstrates. But what does it say about the Dutch that they prefer a rabid racist to some of the greatest artists and philosophers Europe has produced? Is it a reflection of their renowned sense of humour, or has the recent murder of director Theo van Gogh (a descendant of the painter) distorted their sense of values? Or was it just a small group of Pim-ites voting 130,000 times?

These polls are becoming dangerous things. When Germany voted, the organisers were so worried Hitler would win that they refused to count votes for him. (If only they'd thought about that in 1933.) In South Africa, Nelson Mandela eventually romped home, but the initial mountain of votes for apartheid PM Hendrik Verwoerd, racist Eugene Terreblanche and disgraced cricketer Hansie Cronje led them to redraw the rules and start again. The public seems to have trouble differentiating greatness from notoriety, which makes you worry for the future of democracy.

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