Free speech at the Speakers Corner (P. G. Wodehouse on offensive speech)

When we visited London for the first time two years ago, we didn’t want to leave without visiting Kensington Gardens and the adjacent Hyde Park.  Kensington Gardens was a priority because James Barrie, author of Peter Pan, had frequented its gardens and ponds (like Round Pond, shown above) from his home just north of the park. (Read Emsworth’s review of a recent Barrie biography at this post.) And we wanted to visit Speakers Corner at Hyde Park on a Sunday morning.

In all Christendom there is no finer symbol of freedom of speech than Speakers Corner. Since the 1870s, socialists, radical priests, Muslim extremists, and crackpots of all varieties have been coming to this patch of grass to exercise their lungs for anyone who will listen.

And so a Sunday morning in May found us gawking rudely at perhaps half a dozen such speakers, all standing on their soapboxes telling little groups of Londoners and tourists what was wrong with the world and how to fix it. In our quest for local color (or “colour”, as the Brits quaintly would have it), we got our money’s worth at Speakers Corner.

One fellow, a tireless talker, stood over a Socialist Party banner, looking just as a socialist ought to look, preaching to a dozen listeners that Britain had fallen abjectly short of achieving true socialism. Subsequent research by Emsworth identified him as Danny Lambert, a perennial candidate for local public office.

Another man in colorful attire seemed to be speaking on behalf of an Islamic group of some kind. He was explaining that the United States was in Iraq solely because Americans hate the Muslim religion and because the United States government is controlled by the Jews (not by “Jews”, but “the Jews”, if you catch the distinction).

Yet another speaker was readily identifiable as a professional leftist. He was enthusiastically slandering George W. Bush and the United States, while holding up Hugo Chavez’s thuggish regime in Venezuela as a model. We knew his type, adept at following his party’s marching orders and sticking to talking points. In the seventies, when we did time on an upstate New York university campus, his leftist counterparts were giving exactly the same speeches, except that it was Castro they were pimping instead of Chavez. In the sixties, it was Mao, in the eighties; it was Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas.

Yet why should we try to describe Speakers Corner at Hyde Park, when no one can improve on P. G. Wodehouse’s description in his short story “Comrade Bingo,” from The Inimitable Jeeves? The story begins, as Bertie Wooster tells it,

in the Park — at the Marble Arch end — where weird birds of every description collect on Sunday afternoons and stand on soap-boxes and make speeches.

On the edge of the mob farthest away from me a gang of top-hatted chappies were starting an open-air missionary service; nearer at hand an atheist was letting himself go with a good deal of vim, though handicapped a bit by having no roof to his mouth; while in front of me there stood a little group of serious thinkers with a banner labelled “Heralds of the Red Dawn.”

Not much has changed at the Speakers Corner since Wodehouse published “Comrade Bingo” in The Strand in 1922.

But we still have with us the question of how to deal with highly offensive speech. In Canada, as I noted sourly in an earlier post, the government has installed speech police in the form of “human rights tribunals,” with authority to punish people who offend the sensibilities of religious and ethnic groups.

The Wodehouse approach is better. In Wodehouse’s story, one of the Heralds of the Red Dawn begins to berate Bertie Wooster and his aristocratic companion, Lord Bittlesham, with hilarious invective. But instead of complaining that there are no laws against such diatribes, Lord Bittlesham simply turns his back:

“Come away, Mr. Wooster,” he said. “I am the last man to oppose the right of free speech, but I refuse to listen to this vulgar abuse any longer.”

Wodehouse was to politics as a eunuch is to sex, but his policy concerning offensive hate groups and authoritarian figures cannot be improved upon. When he did not ignore them (as did his character Lord Bittlesham), he mocked them without mercy. The closest Wodehouse ever got to a political theme was the creation of Roderick Spode, a nemesis of Bertie Wooster in several stories, most memorably in Wodehouse’s masterpiece The Code of the Woosters, written during the second World War.

In the 1920s, Wodehouse surely ran across characters like the Heralds of the Red Dawn in “Comrade Bingo,” foolishly infatuated with Russian socialism. In the 1930s, Wodehouse must have been appalled to see so many Englishmen attracted to Hitler’s national socialism. One such misguided person was Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, upon whom Wodehouse’s character Roderick Spode is modeled. Spode is a outlandish figure with a Hitler moustache who loves to hear his own voice, makes his sycophantic followers wear black shorts, and dreams of becoming Dictator.

No amount of laws against fascist ideology could have damaged the cause of fascism more effectively than the sort of mockery and ridicule that Wodehouse brought to bear on Roderick Spode. Today’s thought police ought to take a lesson from Wodehouse.

“What a curse these social distinctions are. They ought to be abolished. I remember saying that to Karl Marx once, and he thought there might be an idea for a book in it.”

— P. G. Wodehouse, in his novel Quick Service

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Reminding myself why I don’t watch television (a season of Seinfeld)

Several weeks ago, someone related by blood to Emsworth urged upon him a DVD box set of episodes of a defunct TV sitcom called Seinfeld. I had never seen the show and knew nothing about it.

But Emsworth is nothing if not open-minded, so I loaded up my DVD player and sat back in my recliner. A couple of weeks later, I had gotten through the four DVDs that contained the seventh season of Seinfeld. It seems that these were originally aired around 1996.

Midway through the fourth disc, I finally stopped asking myself why I was still watching. The answer was that this show, despite its shortcomings, owes a lot to P. G. Wodehouse.

Bertie Wooster (Hugh Laurie) and Jeeves (Stephen Fry) in the BBC series "Jeeves and Wooster"

Now a typical Wodehouse plot goes like this: One of Bertie Wooster’s domineering aunts summons Bertie, a passive and obliging character, and sends him on a simple errand, like picking up an antique brooch from a jewelry repair shop. But Bertie bungles everything and lets the brooch come into the possession of someone who will not give it back. The situation becomes hopeless, but at the last minute, through an ingenious plot twist, Bertie’s man Jeeves sets everything aright.

Then take the plot of “The Bottle Deposit,” the 21st episode of the seventh Seinfeld season. Elaine’s domineering boss gives her a simple errand: she is to go an auction and bid up to $10,000 on a set of golf clubs once used by President Kennedy.

But she bungles the job, first by rashly bidding twice as much as authorized (just the sort of thing Bertie Wooster would have done!), then by entrusting the vintage clubs to Jerry, who leaves them in the back seat of his car, which is then stolen by a crazed auto mechanic. The clubs end up mangled and bent. But in a hilarious, last-minute plot twist, Elaine’s boss jumps to the conclusion that the clubs were bent by the late President himself in moments of golfing temper, and Elaine comes up smelling like a rose.

Then there’s the gag that runs from the first to the last episodes of the seventh season: George Costanza has rashly become engaged, and, like Bertie Wooster in nearly every Jeeves and Wooster novel, he is desperate to get out of it. This too is classic Wodehouse. As Bertie Wooster said after one of his dangerously close brushes with matrimony: “I was in rare fettle and the heart had touched a new high. I don’t know anything that braces one up like finding you haven’t got to get married after all.”

Newman (Wayne Knight) in "The Bottle Deposit"

Wodehouse might have written “The Bottle Deposit” himself, and I would be very surprised to learn that Larry David, the principal writer for Seinfeld, did not know his Wodehouse. In fact, Jerry’s friends Kramer and Newman are stock Wodehouse characters, amoral ne’er-do-wells and moochers who, like Wodehouse’s Ukridge, spend all their time dreaming up easy money schemes. (I find that blogger Mark Grueter has also noted the relationship between Larry David and P. G. Wodehouse.)

So the writing in Seinfeld, grounded on the Wodehousian formula, isn’t bad. But the eight hours or so I spent on these episodes served as a bracing reminder of why I don’t watch network television shows.

Let’s start with the laugh track.  Long ago, when TV shows were filmed live, audience laughter was natural enough. But canned applause annoys me beyond words. And this show isn’t always funny. I was surprised, for example, at how little I found to laugh at in Jerry Seinfeld’s opening monologues.  But the laugh track keeps rolling, regardless.

Then there’s the debased popular culture portrayed in Seinfeld. Emsworth is no prude, but Seinfeld and his friends have the sexual morals of characters in a soft-core porn movie — not for comic purposes, but just because that’s the way they live. The essentially sluttish Elaine, for example, is ready to bed someone she has just met, but hesitates because she has only a limited number of discontinued contraceptive devices. Should she waste one on him? Elaine’s schtick over whether he was “sponge-worthy” was cringe-making.

But worst of all is the yelling. Jason Alexander is clearly a talented actor. So why does his character, George Constanza, always yell at fellow characters who are only six inches away from his face? Why don’t TV sitcom directors realize think that high-decibel discussions are only funny if they’re the exception, not the rule?

A strike for freedom at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park

For some reason, the major league pitching debut of Yoslan Herrera last Saturday evening (July 12), made me think about Alec Baldwin.

First, a little about Herrera. At the age of 24, Yoslan Herrera was a success in the Cuban “amateur” leagues, where he had a career pitching record of 18-7, with a 3.27 ERA. But his baseball career had hit a ceiling, because under the Castro dictatorship, superior Cuban athletes are prohibited from playing outside their country. Herrera told a Pittsburgh reporter last weekend that a few glimpses of video of American baseball had persuaded him that he wanted more than anything to test his talents against major league competition.

So three years ago, on July 13, 2005, Herrera paid someone everything he had in the world for a place on a small boat with a rickety motor headed for Florida. (The Castro government confiscates the property of defectors anyway.) He found himself risking his life with eighteen other persons, including two children.

Fidel Castro

Thousands of Cubans have lost their lives in similar attempts to escape Fidel Castro’s “socialist paradise,” so this was no pleasure cruise. But Herrera and his fellow emigrees enjoyed good weather, and although they had no food, their water held out for the two days it took for them to reach Florida. Herrera averted his eyes from the shark-infested waters of the Caribbean. Fortunately, the freedom-seeking Cubans were not intercepted by Cuban officials, and they reached land before they were spotted by American officials who would have returned them to Cuba. Herrera hasn’t seen his parents since then and isn’t likely to anytime soon, barring radical changes in Cuban government policy.

In December 2006, scouts for the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Herrera to a major-league contract and paid him a bonus of over $2 million. He pitched for the Pirates’ Double-A affiliate Altoona in 2007 and for the first two months of this year. His fastball improved under professional tutelage, but no one knew whether he would ever become a successful major league pitcher like fellow Cuban exiles Orlando Hernandez (“El Duque”) or Jose Contreras, who had also risked the sharks for a chance to play against the best.

PNC Park in Pittsburgh, PA

But last Saturday the Pirates, with their rotation in a mess, called him up to start at PNC Park against the St. Louis Cardinals before a sell-out crowd of 38,000. In the first inning, Herrera made the first out himself on a grounder to first, then struck out Albert Pujols (Albert Pujols!) and Rick Ankiel. In the second, he got out of a bases-loaded jam by starting a 1-2-3 double play.

The Cardinals had better luck against Herrera the second time around the lineup, and he didn’t get through the fifth inning. The Pirates trailed 10-4 in the eighth. But as if to reassure Herrera that anything is indeed possible in America, the Pirates scored two in the home half of the eighth and four more in the ninth, then won the game 12-11 in the bottom of the tenth with a walk-off home home from Jason Michaels. Herrera had been the starting pitcher in the most dramatic baseball game the Pirates had played this year.

Herrera may never be a star and he may never have another $2 million payday, but he’s going to get at least one more start next weekend, after the All-Star break. I couldn’t understand him in his interview — he doesn’t know much English besides baseball talk — but he sure sounded happy to be in America. It was “a big joy,” he said in Spanish, to record his first major league strikeout against Albert Pujols.

Then there’s Alec Baldwin, also blessed with exceptional abilities, not to mention looks. He was born into a working-class family, but his God-given talents got him into acting school, then into TV and onto the big screen, where he has become a star in films like The Hunt for Red October and The Departed. He was even nominated for a Tony for a role in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Unfortunately, Baldwin also suffers from diarrhea of the mouth, chronic messy episodes of which have made it clear that no one in America is more ungrateful than he for the opportunities that our nation has given him. Not content to disagree with our elected officials, as is his right, he despises our country when democracy does not produce the same results that an Alec Baldwin dictatorship might. Unhappy about the impending impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998, Baldwin longed for simpler times, with the charitable thought that “if we were in another country, we would stone Henry Hyde to death and we would go to their homes and kill their wives and their children.”

Unhappy with the first term of George W. Bush, Alec Baldwin claimed that Bush’s election had harmed democracy as much the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Of course, Baldwin’s notions of “democracy” may be different from yours or mine, as he openly admires Fidel Castro, who has seen to it that no democratic election has taken place in Cuba in nearly 50 years.

In 2004, petulant over polls showing that Americans were likely to re-elect Bush, he said that if Bush won, it would be time to leave the country. (Some thought he’d go to Canada, but the betting odds were on Cuba.) Baldwin to Cuba for Yoslan Herrera would have been a good trade for the American team; America would still have been sufficiently diverse without Alec Baldwin. But the actor proved more talk than action, and he is with us still.

Some people take great risks to live where they’ll have an opportunity to use their talents to the fullest. Other people despise the nation that has nurtured their talents and helped them to become rich and famous.

Update (July 24, 2008): In his second start for the Pirates, on Saturday, July 19, Yoslan Herrera was shelled by the Colorado Rockies, giving up seven runs and getting only five outs. Desperate for pitching, however, the Pirates sent him out for a third start on July 24. This time Herrera was sharp, shutting out the San Diego Padres through six innings, striking out four, and lowering his ERA from 19.50 to 9.75. The Pirates won 9-1, and the Cuban exile was the winning pitcher.

Further update: October 19, 2008. Herrera’s other starts for the Pirates in 2008 went badly. He was sent down to the minors and was not recalled with other prospects after his minor league season ended. It doesn’t seem likely that he’ll make the Pirates next spring.

Meanwhile, the ever-bitter Alec Baldwin has written a book, just published this month, I think. It’s about how unpleasant it is to get divorced in America, a interest stimulated by Baldwin’s own rancorous divorce from Kim Basinger and accompanying child custody dispute. Baldwin blames Basinger and her lawyers and the judges for ruining his relationship with his daughter, even though it was Baldwin who left a cellphone message for the child last year calling her a “rude, thoughtless little pig”. We think we’ll give Baldwin’s book a pass.

Dark days for freedom of speech in Canada

Have you heard about the Mark Steyn case? Two years ago, the Canadian journalist published a book entitled America Alone, in which he (a) pointed out that the cultural views of many foreign Muslims are sharply incompatible with those of most Americans and Canadians and (b) drew the conclusion that, if nations in the West want to protect their values and their civil liberties, they need to curb immigration from Muslim countries. The Canadian magazine Maclean’s reprinted a chapter from the book, entitled “The Future Belongs to Islam.”

UPDATE — see THIS POST

For this “crime,” incredibly, both Steyn and Maclean’s are being prosecuted in Canada. After a long trial that ended in early June, the defendants are waiting for a verdict from the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal as to whether they are guilty of insulting Muslims by publishing the piece. They face draconian financial penalties.

In Canada, it seems, there’s now a law that a person must not publish anything that exposes a group of people to “hatred or contempt.” Exploiting this vaguely worded statute, a Muslim organization in Canada has accused Maclean’s of committing a “hate crime” by publishing the article and some follow-up letters to the editor from readers who agree with Steyn.

You wouldn’t expect any tribunal in the United States or Canada to give such a complaint the time of day. Any high school civics student could see that that Steyn and Maclean’s were merely exercising free speech (which is protected under Canada’s Charter just as it is under our Bill of Rights.)

But the complaint wasn’t thrown out. Instead, it’s being prosecuted at government expense, while Steyn and Maclean’s have had to pay for their own lawyers. The case isn’t tried in a regular court, and the defendants don’t have the benefit of the rights customarily afforded to those charged with crimes. Ironically, considering that these are supposedly “human rights” proceedings, there are no rules of evidence — for example, no rules against hearsay.

Lay aside the glaring issues of freedom of speech and due process, if you can, and consider whether anyone could possibly deem Steyn’s piece “hate speech.” (Many commentators don’t seem to have actually read it, but you can judge for yourself. It’s still posted on the internet here.)

In fact, in the article, Steyn doesn’t rant or rave against Muslims. He doesn’t call them names, and he neither denigrates the Islam religion nor takes issue with any of its tenets. He says nothing about the oppression of women in many Muslim societies, nothing about the outrageous anti-Semitism that children are taught in many Islamic countries, nothing about polygamy, nothing about death penalties against Muslims who convert to other religions, nothing about Muslim women who are shunned after they are raped, nothing about clerics who urge believers to assassinate prominent novelists, nothing about barbaric criminal penalties for petty crimes.

Instead, the article focuses on demographics – the contrast between the dangerously low birthrates in many Western countries and the high birthrates in Muslim societies. Steyn points out the obvious: when large population segments identify themselves primarily as Muslim rather than as Dutch, French, American, or Canadian, there will be pressure on our societies to change and to compromise our values.

And Steyn makes his strongest points not by villifying Muslims, but by quoting them. Libya’s Colonel Gadhafi: “There are signs that Allah will grant Islam victory in Europe — without swords, without guns, without conquests. The fifty million Muslims of Europe will turn it into a Muslim continent within a few decades.” A Norwegian imam: “We’re the ones who will change you. Just look at the development within Europe, where the number of Muslims is expanding like mosquitoes. Every Western woman in the EU is producing an average of 1.4 children. Every Muslim woman in the same countries is producing 3.5 children. . . . .Our way of thinking will prove more powerful than yours.”

The defendants are not racist crackpots. Maclean’s is a weekly Canadian current-events magazine like Newsweek, not particularly conservative. Steyn is one of Canada’s best-known journalists; Emsworth has had the pleasure of reading him regularly in such respectable American publications as The Atlantic and National Review.

To their credit, many Canadians are up in arms about the case and the out-of-control Human Rights Commission. But the censors have plenty of defenders. The Toronto newspapers, for example, have dutifully editorialized on the case in favor of free speech — but they clearly feel that Steyn was out of line and should have left the subject alone.

That’s certainly what the members of the Ontario Human Rights Commission thought. Despite admitting in late June 2008 that it didn’t have jurisdiction over the matter, this government agency issued an official statement condemning Steyn’s article as “xenophobic”, “destructive”, “Islamophobic” and “promoting prejudice”. Earlier, one of the Commission’s principal investigators, asked about the value he puts on freedom of speech in his work, answered, “Freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don’t give it any value.”

Well, it is an American value; he was right about that. Today’s the Fourth of July, a good day to remind ourselves that in America, at least, free speech still means freedom to say things others would rather leave unsaid. (July 4, 2008)

UPDATE (October 19. 2008) — The complaint against Steyn has been dismissed! The thought police blinked! See this post.

Dark days for the rights of Englishmen (John Mortimer’s Rumpole Misbehaves)

John MortimerIs John Mortimer trying to wean us away from Rumpole? His latest Rumpole book, Rumpole Misbehaves, clocks in at a mere 197 pages of unusually large type. I suppose you can’t blame an infirm 85-year-old man for writing economically, but neither can you blame fans for wanting as much Rumpole as possible.

Anyway, in this new book (actually published last December), barrister Horace Rumpole is retained once again by his most faithful clients, the Timson family. This time, an “Anti-Social Behaviour Order” is being sought against twelve-year-old Pete Timson for chasing a ball into an upscale neighborhood and annoying one of its residents. Rumpole takes on the defense.

UPDATE: John Mortimer died on January 16, 2009. See this post.

Despite my modest familiarity with legal terminology, I had never heard of an “Anti-Social Behaviour Order.” (Neither had Rumpole.) In Rumpole Misbehaves, Mortimer describes it as a new procedure under English law that lets a magistrate issue an order against someone who may be accused of nothing more than bothering someone. Then, if the person violates the order, he’s committed a crime and can go to jail.

And so, in Mortimer’s story, a woman has accused young Timson of disturbing her peace and tranquility merely by playing football in her street. (The author apparently means “soccer.”)  Rumpole tries to to defend the boy in Magistrate’s Court with a speech extolling the ancient liberties of the English people, but his words fall on deaf bureaucratic ears.

At first I assumed that Mortimer was making this up. Surely an English magistrate could not simply order you not to do something – in essence, make up a new law that applies only to you – and then give you a criminal record if you do it anyway!

Even less could I believe that an “Anti-Social Behaviour Order” could be issued, as happens in Mortimer’s story, on hearsay evidence, without the complainer’s even coming into the magistrate’s court.

But I had never before detected elements of Orwellian fantasy in Mortimer’s writing, so I did a little research and was alarmed to find that “Anti-Social Behaviour Orders” are all too real. They are already so well known in England that the acronym (asbo) is usually written in lower case.

I found that it doesn’t take much for someone to be given an asbo. A person can get one for nothing more than – here’s what the statute says – “conduct which caused or was likely to cause alarm, harassment, distress, or harm” to someone outside your own home.

So proceedings like the one against Rumpole’s client are entirely possible, and not uncommon. A person really can go to jail – for up to five years, two if he’s a minor – for violating an asbo. And a magistrate really can issue an asbo on nothing more than hearsay.

Don’t think this can be blamed on Margaret Thatcher. This law seems to have been one of the first measures the Labour Party passed in 1998 after it took power. ASBOs seem to be a bit controversial in Britain, but they are apparently around to stay, and old-fashioned ideas of due process aren’t allowed to interfere.

In the United States, surely, such a law would surely not stand. Our courts would strike down a statute like this as unconstitutionally vague, and our Bill of Rights gives people accused of crimes the right to be confronted by our accusers, not convicted on hearsay.

But the Brits seem to be systematically untethering themselves from their heritage of individual liberty. “ASBOs” are just one of a number of sobering legal “innovations” in the UK. Unfortunately, they coincide with an internationalist trend in American jurisprudence in which some Supreme Court judges look at what the Europeans are doing to help them interpret our own Constitution.

Sadly, England can no longer be relied on as a fellow keeper of the Anglo-American tradition of personal liberty. We’re on our own now.

The most famous men and women in American history

He who criticizes should have constructive ideas of his own. In an earlier post, I scoffed at the results of a survey of school-age kids conducted by Sam Wineburg, which yielded a list of Americans that had as much to do with misplaced political correctness as actual fame. (To see that dubious list, see my post.)

But if the kids in Wineburg’s survey didn’t really select the ten most famous persons in American history, who should be on such a list?

In that survey, reported in the Smithsonian, American presidents and first ladies were ineligible. Let’s stick with that: no presidents, no first ladies.  But let me propose two lists, one for men, one for women.

Ten famous American men:

1. Benjamin Franklin
2. Martin Luther King Jr.
3. Babe Ruth
4. Albert Einstein
5. Mark Twain
6. Billy Graham
7. Elvis Presley
8. Lewis & Clark
9. Louis Armstrong
10. Charles Lindbergh

Their claims to fame?

Benjamin Franklin. Catalyst of the American Revolution; for a time during his lifetime, the most famous person in the world. Invented the Franklin stove, bifocals, the lightning rod. Printer, scientist, politician, diplomat, writer. Poor Richard’s Almanack. Ben Franklin impersonators. Picture on the hundred-dollar bill.

Martin Luther King Jr. Catalyst of the American civil rights movement, which led to lasting changes in laws and racial attitudes. Gave one of history’s best-known speeches (“I have a dream”). National holiday named after him.

Babe Ruth. The biggest name in America’s national game. Larger-than-life personality. Could pitch nearly as well as he could hit. A bigger sports figure even than Mohammed Ali or Joe DiMaggio. Candy bar named after him.

Albert Einstein. Physicist and discoverer of theory of relativity, supposed to be comprehensible by fewer than a dozen people.  Looked the part of a mad scientist, though he wasn’t one. A name synonymous with genius.

Mark Twain. Our greatest writer, creator of Tom Sawyer. Has the strongest claim of any author to having written the great American novel (Huckleberry Finn). Steamboat operator, humorist, lecturer, literary critic. Immensely popular during his lifetime. Mark Twain imitators.

Billy Graham. America’s best-known religious figure. Brought millions to faith in Jesus Christ at crusades around the world. Best-selling books. Prayed with presidents. Modest lifestyle, scandal-free life.

Elvis Presley. The King of Rock and Roll. “Jailhouse Rock,” “Love Me Tender,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Burning Love.” Star of B-movies. Las Vegas nightclub star. Legend cemented by early death. Graceland. Elvis impersonators.

Lewis & Clark. Captain Meriwether Lewis, Lieutenant William Clark, America’s best-known explorers. Paddled up the Missouri River, crossed the Rockies, reached the Pacific. Couldn’t have made it without Shoshone guide and translator Sacagawea (picture on dollar coin).

Louis Armstrong. America’s greatest jazz musician. Ebullient personality, unmistakable style on voice and trumpet. “Hello Dolly.” The ubiquitous “What a Wonderful World.”

Charles Lindbergh. “Lucky Lindy.” Unprecedented celebrity from solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. Baby boy kidnapped and murdered in the crime of the century. “Spirit of St. Louis” in the Smithsonian.

If the list went up to 20 famous American men, it might include (11) Thomas Alva Edison (inventor), (12) the Wright brothers (aviators), (13) Walt Disney (moviemaker), (14) Frank Sinatra (singer), (15) Henry Ford (automobile tycoon), (16) Muhammed Ali (boxing champion), (17) Robert E. Lee (general), (18) Daniel Webster (statesman), (19) John D. Rockefeller (oil tycoon and philanthropist), and (20) Ralph Waldo Emerson (writer and philosopher).

Candidates for an even longer list of famous American men might include Nathan Hale (Revolutionary War hero), Daniel Boone (pioneer), Bill Gates (Microsoft billionaire and philanthropist), John Wayne (actor), Winslow Homer (painter), Alexander Graham Bell (inventor), Robert Frost (poet), Douglas MacArthur (general), John Glenn (astronaut), Norman Rockwell (painter and illustrator), Frederick Douglass (abolitionist and editor); Henry David Thoreau (writer and philosopher), Henry Clay (statesman), Jack London (writer), William Penn (Quaker founder of Pennsylvania), Howard Hughes (billionaire), Houdini (magician), Norman Vincent Peale (clergyman and author), Ernest Hemingway (writer), F. Scott Fitzgerald (writer), Andy Warhol (painter), Walt Whitman (poet), Horace Greeley (newspaper editor), Billy Sunday (Protestant evangelist), John C. Calhoun (statesman), Neil Armstrong (astronaut).

Ten famous women:

1. Oprah Winfrey
2. Marilyn Monroe
3. Pocahontas
4. Helen Keller
5. Emily Dickinson
6. Harriet Beecher Stowe
7. Susan B. Anthony
8. Betsy Ross
9. Edith Wharton
10. Amelia Earhart

Their claims to fame:

Oprah Winfrey. Fabulously rich, incredibly popular, remarkably influential television talk-show hostess, producer, magazine publisher, entrepeneur, book critic, philanthropist.

Marilyn Monroe. Actress, model. Posed for Playboy. Married Joe DiMaggio. Classic movies The Seven-Year Itch and Some Like It Hot. Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind.”

Pocohontas. Daughter of Powhatan chieftain. Saved Virginia colonists from starving, risked her own life to save John Smith’s. Married John Rolfe, died in England. Disney animated movie.

Helen Keller. Overcame dual disability. Author, suffragette, political activist. Academy award-winning “The Miracle Worker.”

Emily Dickinson. Relusive New England spinster, first-rate poet.

Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me —
The Carriage held but just Ourselves —
And Immortality

Harriet Beecher Stowe. America’s single most effective enemy of slavery. History’s most influential novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Susan B. Anthony. Suffragette, orator, abolitionist, temperance advocate. Convicted in Rochester for voting illegally (and caught because she imprudently mentioned in a letter to a friend that she’d voted a straight Republican ticket!). American’s most influential proponent of legal rights for women; responsible for Frederick Douglass-Susan B. Anthony Bridgeeventual enactment of the Nineteenth Amendment. New bridge over the Genesee River in Rochester named after her and fellow Republican Frederick Douglass (known locally as the “Freddie-Sue”). Picture on dollar coin.

Betsy Ross. Fighting Quaker, Revolutionary War patriot. Reputed to have designed and made the stars-and-stripes flag, though she probably didn’t.

Edith Wharton. First-rate American novelist, landscape architect, war reporter. Authored The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence. For every tenth grader, Ethan Frome.

Amelia Earhart. Pioneer woman aviator, feminist icon. First woman to fly the Atlantic solo. Disappeared in the Pacific trying to fly around the world.

Other famous women: Madonna (singer), Rosa Parks (civil rights catalyst), Lucille Ball (actress), Georgia O’Keefe (painter), Flannery O’Connor (writer), Aretha Franklin (singer), Sacagawea (Indian guide), Sandra Day O’Connor (Supreme Court Justice); Willa Cather (writer), Billie Jean King (tennis champion), Ida Tarbell (investigative journalist); Katharine Hepburn (actress), Harriet Tubman (hero of Underground Railroad); Carrie Nation (temperance crusader), Dorothy Parker (writer), Margaret Mead (anthropologist), Gertrude Stein (writer). Still more possible candidates are in the National Women’s Hall of Fame, mostly non-entertainers. Famous American women ineligible for our list, because they were wives of Presidents: Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton, Abigail Adams.

Of course, being famous and deserving fame are different matters. These are famous people. Lists of men and women based strictly on merit and historical importance would be quite different.

Hardly the most famous men or women in American history

Last month’s Smithsonian magazine included a startling article on a recent survey by Sam Wineburg to determine the most “famous” Americans since the time of Columbus, other than presidents and first ladies. According to a survey of school-age children, six of the most famous Americans are women, and four are African-Americans.

In order, these were the top ten:

  1. Martin Luther King Jr.
  2. Rosa Parks
  3. Harriet Tubman
  4. Susan B. Anthony
  5. Benjamin Franklin
  6. Amelia Earhart
  7. Oprah Winfrey
  8. Marilyn Monroe
  9. Thomas Edison
  10. Albert Einstein

On its face, this is not a list of either the ten most famous Americans or the ten most important Americans. (Mr. Wineburg felt he would have gotten the same results if he had asked participants to name “important” Americans.)

Emsworth offers his own list of the most famous men and women in American history, other than Presidents and their wives, at this post. At any rate, from Mr. Wineburg’s survey we learn (or are reminded of) three things.

First, children usually tell grown-ups what they think they’re supposed to. That’s why no rappers or studio wrestlers made the list. Any kid who’s heard of “diversity” knows he won’t go wrong by identifying Martin Luther King or Susan B. Anthony as a person of fame.

Second, political correctness has triumphed in our history classes. This survey makes clear that history teachers (now, regrettably, “social studies” teachers) are now giving as much time to the better-known women in American history as they are to men, and as much time to African-Americans as to Caucasians. What else can explain the name of Harriet Tubman on this list? Hers is a great story that schoolchildren ought to know. But who would seriously argue that she had more than a very modest impact on American history – even on the history of abolition? And what else can explain the name of a woman aviator best known for failing to fly around the world?

At any rate, my concern is with the third lesson that I draw from this list: History teachers are giving pre-eminence to those strands of American history that deal with the struggle for equal rights, at the expense of all the rest.

Where are the pioneers and explorers on this list? Don’t schoolchildren learn about Lewis and Clark anymore? Or even about Sacagawea? Fifty years ago there were television shows about Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, and the boys all wanted coonskin hats. I wonder if boys today even know who they were. Not the Wright brothers? Or Charles Lindbergh? What about John Glenn and Neil Armstrong? Are teachers today embarrassed that Americans conquered the wilderness, learned to fly, orbited the Earth, and walked on the moon?

Where are the generals and admirals? General Washington and General Grant were ineligible for the list because they became presidents, but what about Commodore Perry? General Robert E. Lee? General Douglas MacArthur? Surely we’re not ashamed of the military accomplishments that have kept us free and democratic for 200 years! Rosa Parks was a bona fide hero and a catalyst for the civil rights movement, but what about Revolutionary War catalysts Paul Revere (the midnight rider) or Nathan Hale (“I only regret that I have but one life to give my country”). Do we think that the Revolutionary War didn’t count for much because the Founding Fathers left slavery in place?

What of giants of industry and finance like Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, Andrew Mellon, John D. Rockefeller, George Eastman, and John Paul Getty? If political correctness is de-emphasizing military figures in our history curricula, I suppose it should be no surprise if kids aren’t being taught about the men who built modern America, either. When I was a boy, we all knew about the only two billionaires in the world (Getty and Howard Hughes). In 2008, shouldn’t Bill Gates be on a list of famous Americans?

Where are the giants of American philanthropy (essentially the same names as the giants of industry and finance)?

Where are the religious leaders? For 50 years, Billy Graham’s name sat at the very top of surveys of most-admired Americans while other names came and went. One can only conclude that decades of muddled ideas about “separation of church and state” in the schools are making people shy away from mentioning this man of God in the same breath with such secular saints as Dr. King and Susan B. Anthony.

Where on this list are any of America’s novelists, poets, musicians, artists? Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, or Ernest Hemingway? Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, or Leonard Bernstein? Surely Mark Twain, America’s greatest writer and a celebrity of the first order in his day, or Louis Armstrong, the world’s greatest jazz musician, achieved enough fame for such a list.

The survey does show, at least, that the kids are learning something about American’s technological and scientific accomplishments, with Franklin, Edison, and Einstein each making the cut.

The real proof that the kids told the survey-takers what they thought they were supposed to say is that there are only two entertainers on the list (Marilyn Monroe and Oprah). No Babe Ruth? Or Madonna? Sinatra? Elvis?

Millions flock to Graceland, Elvis records are still sold by the millions, and Elvis impersonators still proliferate. Here in Rochester, though, a tiny nonprofit organization struggles to keep Susan B. Anthony’s modest inner-city home open to the public as a museum. My recent visit was well worth the time, but I wonder if even five thousand souls visit the Susan B. Anthony House in a year. Are we really to believe that this remarkable American woman is more famous than Elvis?

We can be sure of one thing: our children are being taught that our nation’s greatest heroes are not pioneers, soldiers, writers, or preachers, but instead those who crusaded for civil rights. Four of the names on the list represent the struggle for racial equality (King, Parks, Tubman, and Winfrey); two of the names are identified with the struggle for women’s rights (Anthony, Earhart). Civil rights are all well and good, but they are not America’s only story.

Update: Emsworth humbly suggests two lists of the most famous American men and the most famous American women at this post. (Presidents and their wives are excluded.) Not everyone who’s famous deserves to be, and some men and women who richly deserve fame don’t have it, so don’t shoot the messenger!