Hernando de Soto
Pope Benedict XVI
Born in 1928 in Philadelphia, Chomsky earned his academic stripes as a young linguistics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s. His theory of transformational grammar, forged at that time, posits that the capability to form structured language is innate to the human mind. But the general public first came to know Chomsky for his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War. For more than 40 years, he has been the academy’s loudest and most consistent critic of U.S. policies at home and abroad. Chomsky has written more than 40 books and continues to lecture frequently, as prolific a provocateur as ever.
Eco might be known as a medievalist, but it is probably more apt to call him a renaissance man. Although the 73-year-old Italian is employed as a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, his body of work defies a single label. He has written about the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, the relevance of aesthetics throughout time, and the cultural influence of comic strips. And that’s just the nonfiction. Eco became known around the world for his novels The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, and the former was turned into a major Hollywood film starring Sean Connery.
Richard Dawkins burst on to the scene with his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, which presented the gene as the central unit of natural selection. Now professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University, the 64-year-old Dawkins is a formidable critic of organized religion and is perhaps the world’s most vocal atheist. In books, essays, and media appearances, Dawkins makes the case for science to the general public in a way few can match. He is now reportedly working on a documentary about religion, tentatively titled “The Root of All Evil.”
Born in 1936 in Prague, Havel came to prominence in the 1970s for writing plays that ridiculed the absurdities of life in a dictatorship. His involvement in dissident activism led to imprisonment and the banning of his work. In 1989, with the Berlin Wall crumbling, Havel emerged as the leader of the “velvet revolution” and, a year later, he was elected president of Czechoslovakia. Then, after the country split in 1992, he served as the president of the Czech Republic from 1993–2003. He remains active in Europe, chastising the European Union for its passive approach to human rights in countries such as Burma and Cuba.
As a young Trotskyite, Christopher Hitchens made his name in the 1970s as a political writer for the New Statesman. After realizing that he didn’t care whether Tony Benn or Denis Healey became deputy leader of the Labour Party, he moved to the United States in 1980, writing first for the Nation and later for Vanity Fair and The Atlantic. A series of attacks on Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, and Henry Kissinger earned him notoriety, but Hitchens, 56, is now best known for his messy split with the antiwar left over Bosnia and later Afghanistan and Iraq, and for his loud support of the Bush administration’s war on terror.
Milton Friedman (Top write-in vote)
The New Jersey-raised son of Hungarian immigrants is most famous for championing individual freedom and for arguing that taxes should be cut “whenever it’s possible.” His theory of monetarism, which emphasizes the importance of control of the money supply, replaced Keynesianism for a time as the dominant strand in economic theory. Friedman’s work at the University of Chicago propelled his ideas into the political mainstream, and in 1976, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics. Although political conservatives have embraced Friedman’s economic policies, Friedman has fewer political takers when it comes to his belief that marijuana should be legalized. Friedman once remarked, “I am a libertarian with a small l and a Republican with a capital R. And I am a Republican with a capital R on grounds of expediency, not on principle.”
The People’s Choice
The two most striking things about this poll are the number of people who took part and the age of the winners. Well over 20,000 people voted, and they tended to reinforce most of the trends that stood out in the original long list of 100. More than half of the top 30 are based in North America. Europe, by contrast, is surprisingly underrepresented—a cluster of well-known names in the top 20 (Eco, Havel, Jürgen Habermas) but, then, it is a long way down to Julia Kristeva (48) and Antonio Negri (50). The most striking absence is France—one name in the top 40, fewer than Iran or Peru.
There is not one woman in the top 10, and only three in the top 20. The big names of the left did well (Chomsky, Habermas, Eric Hobsbawm) but there weren’t many of them. Scientists, literary critics, philosophers and psychologists all fared badly. And voters did not use the “bonus ball” to champion new faces. The top two names, Milton Friedman and Stephen Hawking, do not represent new strands of thought. (In fact, Friedman was specifically named in last month’s criteria for inclusion—along with other ancient greats like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—as an example of someone who had been deliberately left off the long list on the grounds that they were no longer actively contributing to their discipline.)
The poll was in one sense a victim of its own success. Word spread around the Internet very quickly, and at least three of our top 20 (Chomsky, Hitchens and Abdolkarim Soroush), or their acolytes, decided to draw attention to their presence on the list by using their personal Web sites to link to Prospect’s voting page. In Hitchens’s and Soroush’s case, the votes then started to flood in.
Although it is hard to tell exactly where voters came from, it is likely that a clear majority were from Britain and the United States, with a fair sprinkling from other parts of Europe and the English-speaking world. There was also a huge burst from Iran, although very little voting from the Far East, which may explain why four of the bottom five on the list were thinkers from Japan and China. What is most interesting about the votes, though, is the age of the top names. Chomsky won by a mile, with more than 4,800 votes. Then came Eco, with just under 2,500, Dawkins and Havel. Only two in the top nine—Hitchens and Salman Rushdie—were born after the Second World War. And of the top 20, only Naomi Klein and Bjørn Lomborg are younger than 50. That may reflect the age of the voters, choosing familiar names. However, surely it also tells us something about the radically shifting nature of the public intellectual in the West. Who are the younger equivalents to Habermas, Chomsky and Havel? Great names are formed by great events. But there has been no shortage of terrible events in the last 10 years, and some names on the list (Michael Ignatieff, Francis Fukuyama, Hitchens) are so prominent precisely because of what they have said about them. Only one of these, though, is European, and he lives in Washington, D.C.
Even if you disagree with Chomsky’s attacks on U.S. foreign policy, there are two reasons why few would be surprised to see him at the top of the poll. First, his intellectual range. Like a number of other figures in the top 10, he is prominent in a variety of areas. Havel was a playwright and statesman; Eco, a literary critic and bestselling author; Jared Diamond was a professor of physiology and now has a chair in geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, and writes on huge issues ranging over a great timespan. Second, and more important, Chomsky belongs to a tradition that stretches back to Emile Zola, Bertrand Russell, and Jean-Paul Sartre: major thinkers and writers who speak out on the great public issues of their time, opposing their government on questions of conscience rather than the fine print of policy. I said last month in my commentary on the original Prospect/FP list of 100 names that it seemed to represent the death of that grand tradition of oppositional intellectuals. The overwhelming victory for Noam Chomsky suggests that we still yearn for such figures—we just don’t seem to be able to find any under the age of 70.
David Herman is a writer and television producer in Britain.
(The complete vote tally is available at Prospect online)