My choices for the 10 most overrated people, trends or events of the 20th Century

You'll probably disagree with these choices...

What am I saying? Of course, you'll disagree with these choices. That's the very definition of the word "overrated" -- something that everybody thinks is important, but not me. I can't call something overrated until the rest of the world overrates it. It's taken me years of studying the 20th Century to find out what sorts of things the rest of the world goes on and on about.

The ranking on this list is determined by the width of the chasm between my opinion and public opinion. If my statements infuriate you, then you're probably in the majority.

  1. The Cold War (1949-87)

    It's defining characteristic is that there was no war, so when we start listing the major events of the Cold War, we're talking about the major events of a non-event. Can you get any more Zen than that?

    Consider, for example, the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviets attempted to plant nuclear missiles in Cuba, but the US imposed a blockade and threatened to attack if the Soviets didn't stop their shenanigans. The world hovered on the brink of a nuclear showdown, but the Soviets backed down, so the world wasn't destroyed.

    By my count that's six non-events in a row:

    1. "Attempted to plant nuclear missiles" means that they didn't.
    2. "Imposed a blockade" means that the Soviet ships didn't go to Cuba.
    3. "Threatened to attack" means they didn't.
    4. The Soviets didn't challenge the blockade...
    5. ... or finish installing nuclear weapons.
    6. The world wasn't destroyed.

  2. Martin Luther King, Jr. (fl.1955-68)

    Look, I like having an extra day off in January as much as anyone, but have you ever noticed how the memory of the Reverend Doctor is solemnly trotted out whenever anyone wants to wrap themselves in an aura of self-importance? People Magazine's Most Intriguing People of the Century slaps him onto the cover along with Elvis, Jackie and Diana. Encarta plays me a clip of his dream speech whenever I log on. Time to give it a rest.

    When you sit down and think about it, it's difficult to determine what exactly King did to deserve this sainthood. Yes, he coordinated several protest campaigns, but these campaigns came after Booker T. Washington had struggled to create an educated black middle class, and after Thurgood Marshall had convinced the Supreme Court to outlaw segregation. Basically, the economic and legal underpinnings had already been kicked out from under segregation by the time the national news media woke up and saw that there was a problem, so to cover their mistake, the media now pretends that the civil rights movement didn't begin until King's bus boycott in 1955.

    Sure, King's rallies helped pressure Congress into passing the Civil Rights Act, but if that's such a big deal, why not eliminate the middle man and make the actual passage of the act one of the top 10 events of the Century.

  3. Clinton & Monica (1998-99)

    Once upon a time, the United States saved impeachment as a last resort for removing a president who had become a danger to the republic. Now we use it to trash a president who has become a mere embarrassment to the republic. This sets a bad precedent because, let's face it, how many presidents aren't an embarrassment to the republic?

    If the mess had simply remained a scandal, I'd ignore it. After all, half the point of politics is to distract us from real issues by smearing people who disagree with us, but as soon as Congress brought out the big guns, we crossed the line into overreaction.

  4. Any President of the United States except Roosevelt

    The American political system has a knack for weeding out both the extraordinarily bad and the extraordinarily good, leaving us with the extraordinarily ordinary. It culls the whiners, the madmen, the lazy and the loners, and drives out the easily angered, the easily depressed and the easily confused. Every four years, our system offers us a choice of two overpowering mediocrities, and should one of these hyperordinary presidents start to show any sign of rising above their mandated blandness, we've got a hungry press and a cranky Congress to whittle him back down.

    I don't understand why Americans bemoan the lack of leaders in this country. Hitler was a leader; Napoleon was a leader; so was Lenin. The US has had 200+ years of relative peace and prosperity because we avoid leaders and place non-entities over us instead. The only presidents of the 20th Century to have even slightly interesting personalities were Kennedy, Nixon and Clinton -- and look at what happened to them (shot, resigned and impeached)

    I excluded Franklin Roosevelt because

    1. He was elected to twice as many terms as any other president, so just by default he had twice the influence.
    2. He was on hand when the two biggest crises of the 20th Century hit, so he got a chance to show his stuff -- proving that the flip side of "not that good" is "not that bad, either". The mediocrities that we elect know how to keep their heads and listen to advisers.

  5. The Berlin Wall (1961-89)

    Berlin: the grim and lonely front line in the Cold War.

    What exactly happens on the front lines of a non-event? Border guards glare at one another; they patrol the barbed wire perimeter, and carefully check your papers before waving you through.

    Big deal; they do that on the Canadian border.

    Can anyone explain the importance of the Wall without using the word "symbolic"?

  6. The Battle of Dunkirk (1940)

    In the words of Sir Winston Churchill: "Wars are not won by evacuations" and "A successful retreat is not a victory."

    During the war, Dunkirk was treated as a major symbolic victory, but now that the war is long over, let's admit that it was a total, unmitigated defeat. The only reason that the British managed to save their skins was that Hitler needed his full army to concentrate on crushing the French.

    So basically, the much maligned French army took the fall, while the spunky, defiant Brits fled.

  7. The Seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran (1979)

    For over a year, the United States acted like some obsessive and pathetically dumped boyfriend. Every morning, we woke up and stared unshaven into the mirror with the sad realization that today we were beginning Day 42 without Debbie.

    There are times that I simply cannot believe that we, as a nation, willingly allowed ourselves to be paralysed by this -- and let's be clear about this: we were paralysed. This was the only time in the 50-year history of American television that the network news actually counted the days from an event.

    Four hundred and forty of them.

    Sure, some international crises are important and require action. The German annexation of the Sudetenland, the Soviet blockade of Berlin and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait all had tangible, international repercussions if they were allowed to stand, but was it really necessary to drop everything over some hostages? I mean, worst case scenario -- the hostages were all massacred -- tragic, yes, but would that really have altered the global balance of power?

    We forgot the first rule of international diplomacy: Nations have as much credibility as their armies can enforce or their economies can produce, but terrorists only have as much credibility as you give them.

  8. Charles Lindbergh flies across the Atlantic (1927)

    Why the big deal? Why do we know his name, and not the names of his predecessors?

    Was it because he made a solo flight? Sure, that's brave and all, but historically, flying solo was a dead end. The real future of air travel was in moving larger and larger groups by plane, so Lindbergh's crossing the ocean alone was actually a step backward.

  9. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (1929-94)

    Her sole claim to fame is that she slept with John Kennedy -- like that's hard to do. I mean, if she had nailed a couple of popes or something, that would be something to write home about (and I mean properly geriatric and celibate 20th century popes, not some Renaissance Borgia party-popes), but we're talking about a Kennedy here. Anyone with a pulse and a vaguely humanoid appearance could have nailed John Kennedy.

  10. Marilyn Monroe (1926-62)

    (Speaking of nailing Kennedies.)

    I've been told that this century's fascination with Marilyn Monroe is largely a gay thing. Am I the only one who thinks that letting gay guys pick the century's sexiest woman is probably a mistake?

  11. William Kennedy Smith is tried for rape (1991)

    (again: speaking of nailing Kennedies.)

    It all seems like a vague nightmare now. We've forgotten how obsessed we were with it, but this is, without a doubt, the most overrated Trial of the Century.

    "What?" you ask. "More overrated than the OJ Simpson trial with which we wasted most of 1995?"

    Damn straight, and here's why: 1995 was a slow year. As saturated as the airwaves were with OJ, it's not like there was another big story being shoved aside to make room for it. With the Kennedy Smith trial, however, the nightly news would lead with yet another day of trial testimony, yet another interview with a noted Kennedy-watcher, yet another fret over whether to remove the blue dot from the victim's face, and then, after the commercial, inform us that, oh, by the way, the Soviet Union collapsed today.

  12. John Glenn orbits the Earth (1961)

    The press liked Glenn, and they made him the most famous of all American astronauts despite the fact that he was the third one NASA put to use. And let's not even get into the fact that the Russians were first anyway.

  13. Amelia Earhart disappears (1937)

    If Lindbergh's achievements were overrated, then what can we say about someone who came a decade later -- and failed?

  14. Jackie Robinson (1947)

    Quick: name the first black man licenced to practice law in America. How about the first black doctor? The first commissioned officer in the Army or Navy? The first black senator, ambassador or cabinet secretary? The first African American Bishop of the Episcopal or Catholic Churches? Winner of the Pulitzer Prize?

    But you know the first African American to play major league baseball (in the 20th Century), do you? Don't you find that a wee bit trivial?

  15. San Francisco Earthquake (1906)

    Sure -- at 500 or so dead, it's the most people killed in America in one sitting since the Civil War, but here in the land of smoke detectors, airbags and bike helmets, it doesn't take much to achieve this honor. Americans have no idea what real risk looks like. Any self-respecting Third World hellhole easily loses this many people daily to bus plunges and soccer riots, and saves its earthquakes for horrendously huge body counts in the tens of thousands.

  16. The Nobel Peace Prize

    Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho won one for signing a peace accord that lasted all of, what? a week? And this was after they had both enthusiastically pursued a war that killed over a million.

    Ralph Bunche won in 1950 for bringing peace to the Middle East. Anwar el-Sadat and Menachem Begin won in 1978 for bringing peace to the Middle East. Yassir Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres won in 1994 for bringing peace to the Middle East. With so many people bring peace to the Middle East, it should be the safest place on the planet, right?

    It worries me when people like Arafat win the Peace Prizes. It seems like the only criteria for winning is finally promising to really, sincerely try not to, like, kill any more hapless bystanders. By that standard, I earned my Peace Prize years ago, so where's my prize money and free ticket to whichever snowy, blonde country hands those things out?

    Might I humbly suggest a new rule:

  17. The Space Shuttle Challenger explodes (1986)

    Shuttle launches were delayed a couple of years while NASA looked into the problem, but all in all, there were no long term effects. Space exploration continues at the same snail's pace as before, and in terms of passenger miles, it's still safer than driving.

  18. Ayn Rand (1905-82)

    Well, technically, I suppose I can only award her an honorable mention since I've never actually read any of her works, but life is too short to waste precious days reading books that are endlessly pushed on me by people who -- how shall I put this delicately? -- lack credibility.

    The works of Ayn Rand easily rank as the philosophy most recommended by the least reliable people that I've ever encountered. They don't even attempt to make their philosophy sound appealing to new recruits. The core philosophy of all the Randites I've met seems to be "Some people are better than others -- for example, I'm better than you are -- and the better people deserve more," and "All social interaction is evil."

    Hell, even Klansmen are willing to buy me a beer if I pass the color test.

UPDATE Sept. 2005: I wrote this list in Oct. 1999. For the record, a half decade of 21st Century history has caused me to rethink some of these. After 9-11 and Katrina, I can no longer say that the SF Earthquake (#15) is the most Americans killed all at once since the Civil War, but I was wrong even when I wrote it. I hadn't heard of the (then) little known Galveston Hurricane, which actually proves my point. Why do we hear so much about the SF Earthquake, and not the more destructive Galveston Hurricane?

9-11 and Katrina have also made me realize how wrong I was about #4 -- minimal presidential competence. No president since the Vietnam War had seen a thousand Americans killed at a pop, but the current Bush has presided over three distinct events of this magnitude (the Iraq War being the third). He's either very unlucky or unusually incompetent.

However, despite our current fear of Islamic terrorists, I'm still right about #7, the Iran Hostage Crisis. It's still not as important as people say it is. And I'm more right about #17, the Challenger explosion. Now that there's been a second one, shuttle destruction has become sadly commonplace.

And now for the Underrated people and events of the 20th Century:

So as to not be completely negative, I've put together a small list of (what I believe are) the most underrated aspects of the 20th Century. Naturally, it's not nearly as much fun as whining about what I consider overrated, but have a look anyway.

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Last updated October 1999

Copyright © 1999 Matthew White