The Beanstalk


by David N. Townsend


November 29, 1999


The Top 100 Everything of the 20th Century (Pt. 5)

You've waited, you've anticipated, you've longed and pined, and now at last it's here: the top of the top, the cream of the crop.  For a mere five payments of $99.99 plus shipping and handling, you can at last know what everyone is aching to know: what are the Top Ten Everything of the 20th century??  Fill in credit card information here:  

Name_______________  Card No. ________________  Expiration ______

Credit limit _______  What? That's all? __________

Okay, okay.  I'll give it to you, anyway.  Just send me a check.

Now, before we start, some final commentary.  Judging from the gist of many reactions, some of you are in serious denial about the world we've lived in these past hundred years.  Try to understand, you and I may not be thrilled with the fact that sports and entertainment stars or mass culture products are of equal or greater stature with great artists, inventors, or political and philosophical movements.  But that's the reality of the 20th century.  And although an American bias largely pervades the list, the truth is that an American bias pervades the world, too.  Trust me, the Beanstalk's endorsement isn't going to elevate any of these icons any higher than they already are.  I'm just trying to give a (somewhat) objective assessment of modern culture to the collective social experience of the 20th century.

Is that so wrong?

I provide this disclaimer because I already anticipate that those of you who were unhappy with some of the previous 90 are about to be outraged by a lot of the Top 10.   Well, good.  Flame me, file a protest with the Beanstalk Executive Board.   Or put up your own web site and write your own damn list.

Now let me turn my attention from the few nitpickers to the vast multitude of adoring fan, waiting with baited breath (whatever that means) to be enlightened once more.   (--Hey, I really stuck it to those critics, didn't I?  Those whiny little... oh, wait, they're coming back into the room again . . .)

As I was saying, for the Top 10, I've decided to expand the scope the the items.   In each case, a specific entry is also more or less related to a general category of important developments, of which it is arguably the spearhead.  This is, of course, utter hypocrisy on my part, as I could have done the same with plenty of other entries, such as Hollywood or Team Sports, rather than having several different movie stars and athletes.  Still, I think there are more compelling reasons to offer the linking with these entries than with some of the others.  I'm just not going to tell you what they are.

Enough.  Onward, boldly.


The Top 10 Everything of the 20th Century

10.    McDonald's, and fast food franchising.   Well, you probably guessed the golden arches had to be here, the second-most recognizable retail brand symbol on Earth (see below).  When you've traveled all around the world as much as I have, you're forced to confront the ubiquity of this uniquely American export: there are McDonald's on the Champs Elysees in Paris, in downtown Moscow and Beijing, and in nearly every other major city in the World (Tehran may be an exception).  Back home, there is approximately one McDonald's restaurant per square mile throughout the United States.  Really.  In the middle of the South Dakota plains, where nothing but buffalo and dead grass exist, there are McDonald's franchises around every turn in the highway.  (The buffalo don't mind, as long as the company doesn't start contemplating a new McBuffalo Burger Deluxe.)

Meanwhile, all of Ronald's little illegitimate children (he must have had some weird looking lovers) have spread out around the world, like locusts: Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, Wendy's, Taco Bell . . . kids in Malaysia who have never heard of Kentucky beg their parents to take them to KFC.  In fact, a meal out at McDonald's et al. is considered a great treat in many countries: the perfect first date.  And they haven't even discovered drive-thru, yet.

9.    Disney, and children's mass merchandising.  From a little, scratchy cartoon of a mouse to a global mega-conglomerate peddling itself in all forms to children of all ages: movies, theme parks, toys, and every type of merchandise imaginable, from diapers to t-shirts to bicycles to furniture.  Pre-Disney, children didn't represent a "market" for consumer sales; Disney created that market, on a worldwide scale, and still dominates it overwhelmingly.  Only Disney could release a movie about a fictional hockey team, "The Mighty Ducks," and then go out and buy a real team and rename it the Mighty Ducks, in the image of the film.  (They did sort of the same thing with the baseball Angels, following "Angels in the Outfield".)

It's easy for cynics to focus on Disney's sanitizing and homogenizing of the childhood experience, but there are plenty of very good things about the company's exploits.   Not least of these is its persistent cutting-edge work in the art of animation, from its founder's innovations in the '30s to its pioneering computer animation (with Pixar) in "Toy Story" and "A Bug's Life".  And love it or despise it, Disney World is the single most popular vacation spot on the planet, precisely because it is high quality fun, affordable, extremely well managed, and relentlessly marketed.

Bottom line, there are three types of people, with three different views of Disney: (1) those who try to shield their children from its pernicious influence, sowing seeds of alienation and resentment that will spawn the next generation of serial killers; (2) those who cave in unremorsefully, making the pilgrimage to Orlando, buying the videos and the Mickey Mouse suppositories (and shares of Disney stock, if they know what's good for them); and (3) those who don't have kids, and consequently don't have a clue.  Yet.

8.    VJ Day, and the triumph over Fascism.  This was the best way I could figure how to include World War II in the list.  There's little to cheer about a war that consumed nearly the entire world, killed about 50 million people, and singularly focused all the scientific and technological energies of mankind on the creation of new and more lethal means of its self-destruction.  This was easily the century's most defining and dramatic event, but in terms of finding something to applaud, all we can really celebrate is its end: the equivalent of presenting someone an award for ceasing to hammer himself on the head.

7.    Coca-Cola, and sugar.  When you've traveled all around the world as much as I have, you soon realize that the Coca-Cola symbol is easily the most recognizable brand name of all.  I've seen Coke signs on little huts and concession stands in rural Philippine villages, Tanzanian street corners, Arab marketplaces, and Rain Forest parks.  I would venture to guess, without studying it, that more individual units (drinks, bottles, cans) of Coke are sold than any other product of any kind on Earth, and that number two is probably Pepsi, its immitator.   (Number three is probably "The People's Rice" or something like that.)

I'm not really sure what broader category Coke should represent, maybe drugs.  I chose sugar because the current mania for low-carbohydrate, low-sugar diets points out the overwhelming obsession with sugar-filled foods that has emerged in this century, and that arguably began with the introduction of sugar- (and originally, cocaine-) based colas in the 1890s.  Various studies have shown that the average American's sugar consumption in a year is enough to build a to sculpture of an elephant, whereas in the 1950s, it would have been only enough for a large pig (images which roughly correspond to the average American's waistline, too).  So blame Coke for your fat, and hence also for creating the immense U.S. "diet" industry.  The perfect 20th century commercial symbiosis: create a product of zero value but irresistible and addictive appeal, then create a whole wealth of other products and services to deal with the adverse effects of the first product.  ("I'd like to buy the world a Coke, and reap immense global profits . . .")

6.   The Beatles, and global youth/music culture.  When you've traveled all around the world as much as I have . . . you tend to annoy people with tales about how much you've traveled around the world.   Such as hearing a muzak version of "Yesterday" on the radio in a taxicab in Moscow; watching young waiters performing a dance to "She Loves You" in a fast-food mall in Jakarta; seeing John Lennon posters for sale in shops in Pretoria and Mexico City. 

We take these things somewhat for granted these days, and it's been, incredibly, 30 years since The End of Abbey Road. When it all started, however, the world was a much more fragmented and hostile place.  The Beatles arrived in a tumult of excitement and optimism, and somehow hit upon a sound, a set of harmonies and rhythms, that were so universal, so enrapturing, that they took hold like no force before: Beatles fans crossed political, religious, ethnic, and cultural divides, and perhaps the only remaining gap -- age -- has now been whittled away by time.

It's no use arguing that somebody else has been more "successful" (hey, Mariah Carey's sold more records!), or more "original" (how dare they steal Muddy Waters's legacy?) or longer lasting (are the Stones touring retirement homes next year?).  For three decades, the label of the Next Beatles has been prematurely pinned on everyone from the Bee Gees to the Clash to New Kids on the Block, and nobody, but nobody, has come within a hundred miles of their musical and cultural impact.  Maybe it's a good thing that they quit early, and even, in a perverse sense, that John died; those of us who love the legend are permitted to keep it pure, without the spectacle of half-baked reunion concerts and uninspired comeback recordings.  But I don't really buy that.  I think another 20 or 30 years' worth of Beatles music would have been just fine.

5.  Penicillin, and the End of Disease.  Hah, you weren't expecting this one, were you?  Something of actual value to humanity snuck into the Top Ten after all.  The next time your kid comes down with an ear infection, say a silent prayer of thanks to such unfamous people as Sir Alexander Fleming, Ernst Chain, and Howard Florey, as well as the other scientists of the early 20th century who dedicated themselves to the study and development of antibiotics.  If you haven't caught gangrene, scarlet fever, or gonorrhea lately, then you may not fully appreciate the magnitude of these advances.  Sure, it's still important to clean your toilets, but we're no longer risking death by using a public lavatory (most of the time, anyway).

Until AIDS came along, it might even have been almost realistic to speak of the End of Disease (i.e., infectious, deadly diseases) as a consequence of the advances in antibiotics and other medicines this century.  The chief problem was not finding cures as much as distributing known medicines and vaccines to those most in need, especially in the under developed world.  The challenge for the next century will be to accomplish the same miracles against HIV as have been achieved with so many of the scourges of previous centuries.  ("Hey, man, where were you last week?   Were you out sick?"  "Yeah, I had a bad case of AIDS.")

4.  Mahatma Mohandes Gandhi, and the End of Colonialism. What do you need to know about Gandhi to concur with his ranking here?  If you saw the 1982 movie, you know enough of the story: how his activist pacifism and spiritual leadership brought independence to India with a minimum of bloodshed, at a time when violence was engulfing nearly the entire world.  How he rose from simple lawyer to world leader, and never even wore underwear.  His philosophy of non-violence was the basic inspiration for Martin Luther King, #18 on this list, and his political resistance motivated #36, Mandela, among many others.  No other political or cultural figure can lay better claim to the title of The Conscience of the 20th Century. (I just made that up.)

We're celebrating a lot of Ends here, aren't we?  Oh, well, there was a lot of ugly crap hanging around in the 20th century that we needed to get rid of.  Besides, there's plenty of beginnings on this list, too.  Here is the difference between Colonialism and Imperialism: A colonialist conquers and rules distant lands (colonies), subjugating their people, exploiting their resources for the benefit of the mother country.  An imperialist creates an empire, by expanding into and annexing neighboring lands, eliminating borders and expanding its dominance outward.  By this definition, Imperialism is still with us, in Russia, China, and elsewhere, but it's fighting desparately to retain its hold.  Colonialism, however, effectively died when Britain's largest and oldest colony, India, was finally freed.  It took time, of course, for many of the world's remaining colonial vestiges to be cut loose -- in the Middle East, the Caribbean, and of course, Indochina -- but the essential pattern of the world map, which had endured for nearly five centuries, was permanently changed under the hand of a humble pacifist from India.  (There, I really do remember something from college.  I guess the drugs didn't get to all the brain cells after all.)

3.    Computers, and computer companies, and other computer stuff.  Sorry for over- generalizing, but this is the only way I can avoid putting Bill Gates on the list by himself.  He and Microsoft get tossed into one big bowl IBM, Apple, Steve Jobs, Intel, Hewlitt-Packard, the integrated circuit, the pocket calculator, and the mouse.  This is, of course, stupid.  But at least there's a precedent: about 15 years ago, Time Magazine made "The Computer" its "Man of the Year".  There was a time, I guess, when computers were sufficiently new and different that we could use that word in a generic manner.   Remember Capt. Kirk on the Enterprise: "Computer, give me an analysis of the atmosphere of that planet."  Who knew that, by 1999, there would be mini-computers in everything from washing machines to dolls to public toilets?  (And they're all going to crash in just a few short weeks, ha ha ha!)

I suspect that the word "computer" itself will begin to fall out of fashion sometime in the next decade or two.  The mystique is already dying.  Is anyone impressed any more with "computer" dating services or "computerized" grocery receipts?  It's sort of like "electric" -- who refers to an "electric light" any more?  The term meant something when there were still some lights around that weren't powered by electricity.  Our kids will use all manner of "computerized" appliances at home and at work, but they'll have a quaint, condescending chuckle when we try to explain to their kids about how "in my day, we just had one computer, and we had to turn it on and wait for it to warm up, and we used something called Windows to run something called Software . . ."

"But Grandpa, how did you ever meet Grandma if you didn't have a holographic, virtual reality dating service so you could try her out first?"

"Shut up, you little rascal."

2.   The Automobile, and all that goes with it.   Ah, the motor car.  Let us count the ways we love them.  Well, we've made both automobile manufacturers and oil companies the largest corporations in the world, by a pretty huge margin if you add them all together.  We've crammed our countryside full of roads, and our cities full of traffic jams and packed parking lots.  We've choked on stifling pollution and died in countless crashes.  In short, our way of life in the20th century is defined more by our dependence on automobile transportation than by anything else (except . . .?).  Half of us don't even know our next-door neighbors' names: we simply go to the car, drive to work, drive home, and go back in the house.  Heck, there are some of us who don't even know what the temperature is outdoors.  When you think about it, it's harder to imagine what life was like, or would be like, without cars than without computers or fast food or even movies and TV, isn't it?  Certainly anyone who's had a breakdown or dead engine lately can attest to that.

In honoring the auto, we must also include Mr. Henry Ford among the most prominent persons of the century.  No, he didn't invent the car, but he did essential perfect the processes of its manufacture, through the introduction of the assembly line.   This, of course, gave us some of the most boring and repetitive industrial jobs of the century, its most powerful labor unions, and ultimately a vast array of other mass-produced goods in countless other industries, upon which we also have come to depend. Automobiles also gave us the armrest cup holder and the automatic garage door opener.   So what more need be said?






Oh, wait, no.  IT'S . . .

1.   Television, and the mass media.  All right, all right, calm down.  That's enough cheering.  And you protesters in the back, put down those signs.  Don't make me take away your TV time . . .

There are fewer and fewer people these days, and almost none in America, whose entire view of the world hasn't been permanently shaped by the images and information that emanate from a little square picture tube.  From Captain Kangaroo, Sesami Street, and Teletubbies, through Ed Sullivan and Mannix and Seinfeld; from black-and-white consoles to color Trinitrons to HDTV; from broadcast to cable to satellite, by way of VCRs and DVD . . . face it, we humans have found our Nirvana, and it is indeed a vast wasteland.  But it is also the medium of our social interaction, our commerce, our political and current events awareness.  We have chosen to lock ourselves in our dwellings, venturing out only in locked, armored vehicles, and to observe the world we inhabit through electronic transmissions.  There is a Weather Channel.  There is an Animal Channel.   There are plenty of sex channels and shopping channels, and of course news, sports, fashion, entertainment, old shows, old movies, history, science fiction, kids, international: in effect, the entire world has found its way into our television sets over the past few decades. 

I know, I know, you're not one of these households that watches an average of 7 hours of TV per day.  You only watch public television and important news events -- oh, plus that one sitcom, and of course the weekend football games, and well, there is a really good movie on tonight . . .  Besides, if you really do only watch 15 minutes of TV per week (you alien), that just means that someone else is watching about 10 hours per day to keep up the average.

I've done an experiment a couple of times with classes that I've taught on the mass media (plural) and their impact on society.  The assignment is for students to try to spend an entire day without exposing themselves to any form of mass media.  No, that doesn't mean that they're to avoid dropping their pants in front of the TV; it means they are not to watch television, listen to the radio (or stereo), read magazines or newpapers, or even look at billboards.  Just one day, dawn to bedtime.  Most of them found it extremely difficult, if not downright impossible.  Try it yourself sometime.   Better yet, wait until your kids do something wrong, and try it on them as punishment.  See if they don't beg for a beating instead.

The point is -- well, the point is the obvious.  TV overtook radio in about 1952, overtook the movies by the mid-60s, and overtook the world by the 1980s.  The Internet has come along with visions of challenging TV's pre-eminence, and maybe it will be the dominant medium, and the dominant cultural influence of the next century.  On the other hand, the most bold predictions these days are that television programs will ultimately be delivered over the Internet.  The parasite will simply move to a new host, and continue its invasion of our planet.  Is there any escape?  Find out, in the next thrilling episode . . .


So there you have it.  Satisfied?  Or are you somehow left feeling empty, and longing for more?  Well, hey, I've got an idea.   This isn't just the end of the Century, it's the end of the whole Millennium.   So what better way to celebrate it than, you guessed it:

The Top 1000 Everything of the 2nd Millennium!

I figure we'll do 10 per month for the next 9-1/2 years.   What do you say?


Recent ramblings:             

The Top 100 Everything of the 20th Century (Pt.2) (9/8/99) The Top 100 Everything of the 20th Century (Pt.3) (9/22/99) The Top 100 Everything of the 20th Century (Pt.4) (10/22/99)
Here, now, is  the second installment in this List of Lists, the Inter-continental Awards Ceremony that has everyone buzzing (well, the flies in my room, anyway)... Well, the responses have started pouring in, from all corners and crevices, and well over 1% of them have been favorable... Milking this thing as far as I can, we today encounter the fourth, but alas not last, installment of this momentous List.  Attribute the recent delays in its publication to the various lawsuits being contested over the rankings.

(Click Elsewhen for the complete list)

  1999 David N. Townsend

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