Debating current affairs
Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: On the list or off it - it's a different world


We love lists, whether they're relevant (The 10 events that shaped the world we live in) or contrived (The 10 best songs with "moon" in the title).

Lists are harmless fun, potted knowledge or opinion masquerading as knowledge pandering to our urge to put things in their rightful place and provide a yardstick of our own erudition and taste.

But don't be too hard on yourself. "Best of" lists often have a strong one-upmanship component, the list-makers wanting to show how well-read or travelled or worldly they are.

Plus there's a natural gravitation towards the new or the obscure, otherwise this year's list would be much the same as last year's. Hence the high turnover of beautiful people even though faces, especially those lovingly maintained, don't change much from one year to the next.

Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world is a classic of the genre. There's a generous sprinkling of people most of us have never heard of. There's the rubbery premise: "most influential" and "world" seem hard and fast, leaving little room for manoeuvre, but it doesn't quite work that way.

For a start there's an underlying assumption that America more or less is the world, or at least the part of it which really matters. Nothing new here: the World Series is a baseball championship contested by 29 American teams and the Toronto Blue Jays. Mind you, navel-gazing isn't an exclusively American pastime: according to the Australian edition of Who magazine, more than a third of the most beautiful people in the world are Aussies.

Apparently Portia Simpson Miller, the Prime Minister of Jamaica, a Caribbean island nation of 2.8 million noted for reggae music, murder and homophobia, is one of the most influential people in the world.

This seems absurd, so we refer to the accompanying mini-essay by US Congresswoman Yvette Clarke. (In a rather cosy arrangement, these blurbs are written by friends and admirers of the nominees or people very much like them. Thus, septuagenarian gadfly Ralph Nader, who has run six quixotic campaigns for the US presidency, contributes a piece explaining why septuagenarian gadfly Ron Paul, now winding down his forth quixotic campaign for the US presidency, is the only figure in US politics who tells it like it is.)

"There is a great sense," writes Clarke, "that [Miller's] leadership will expand far beyond her island nation." We're not told what gave rise to this great sense nor who, apart from the author, is gripped by it. In fact, this airy assertion invites the conclusion that Time has jumped the gun; if and when Miller's leadership does expand far beyond Jamaica, then her claim to global influence might have some substance.

The same applies to comedian Louis CK. "Spielberg without the beard and with humour" says his blurbist Joan Rivers, the antique comedienne and survivor of multiple plastic surgery misadventures, even though the full page photo shows Louis CK sporting what looks for all the world like a beard. "He's the next Big One," she gushes, leaving the reader to wonder how someone who's not yet big in their relatively narrow field can be so influential.

Then there's the woman who opened a bookshop in Nashville, Tennessee (population 600,000) after had seen off every bookshop in town. Good luck to her, but I wouldn't have thought owning a bookshop in Nashville would make you one of the million most influential people in the world.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, claims that "the world watches carefully, wondering will this endeavour actually work?" Really? I strongly suspect that most people on the planet couldn't give a rat's arse whether a bookshop in Nashville sinks or swims.

Sometimes the blurbs are more about the author than the subject. The words "I" and "my" appear eight times in Elton John's 12 sentences on singer Raphael Saadiq.

Then there are the glaring omissions. Influence works both ways, for good and bad, yet the dark side has only four representatives: two tyrants and two terrorists. Surely the heads of the major drug cartels whose malign influence is felt in practically every corner of the globe are more influential than celebrity chefs and the star of Homeland.

And sometimes you have to wonder if they're talking about the real world or an alternative, bowdlerised version. Given the pervasiveness of pornography, it seems bizarre to include E.L. James, author of the so-called Mummy-porn trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey, while ignoring those who run the industry that dominates cyberspace and is increasingly infiltrating and influencing popular culture.

- NZ Herald

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