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Fatwah / July 4, 2010


Notice to readers: We are scrapping the Great Living Americans nominating process due to your miserable failure, and hereby revoke your suggestion privileges. The eXiled has also initiated a review of our policies regarding the solicitation of reader input to make sure that a similar tragedy will never happen again. You people depress us.

In honor of Independence Day, I’d like to return to the topic of Great Americans, or the lack thereof. In an earlier article, I mentioned the Civil War era as a remarkable generator of Great Americans, including Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, William Tecumseh Sherman, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, and Ambrose Bierce. I noted that it’s much harder to come up with a list of Great Americans living today. (I nominated Muhammad Ali, Cesar Milan, and the Coen Brothers.)

I asked for nominees, and readers responded with the following:

Mark Ames
Roseanne Barr
Sonny Berger
Noam Chomsky
Robert Crumb
Jared Diamond
John Dolan
Bob Dylan
Dr. Paul Farmer
Morgan Freeman
Bill Gates
Alan Grayson
Matt Groening
Steve Jobs
Dean Kamen
Stephen King
Yasha Levine
Ian MacKaye
Bradley Manning
Terence McKenna
Michael Milken
Michael Moore
Ralph Nadar
Larry Page
Royal Robbins
Philip Roth
Michael Ruppert
Arnold Schwarzenegger
Matt Taibbi
Helen Thomas
Kip Thorne
Gore Vidal
John Waters
Bill Watterson
Alexander Zaitchik

These nominees made me realize I’d jumped the gun. Before we can even begin to nominate Great Americans, there’s some tedious spadework to do. We need to define “Great American.” In fact, we need to define “great.”

Apparently some people confuse “great” with “darn good” or “better than most” or “not un-promising” or “well-intentioned” or “just okay” or “blah” or “crap” or even “totally appalling.”

Some of our readers’ nominees have unfamiliar or vaguely familiar names you have to Google to figure out who they are. This is interesting, as it gets right to the point I was trying to make in the first place: either we’re producing a lot fewer great people in this country, or our great people don’t become famous anymore. Or a sickening combination of both.

Why should fame matter, you purists might ask? When I’ve stopped laughing, I demand to know, “Are we Americans or aren’t we?” In America, we don’t believe that “the tall poppy gets the chop,” like those perverse Brits. In America, the tall poppy is supposed to get rich and famous and admired for its height, or else we’re demanding to know why not.

Besides, it’s a short step from nominating somebody who has to be Googled, to saying, “Hey, you know who’s really great? My MOM. She’s truly a great American. Raised three children on her own while working full time at Sam’s Club…”

Believe me, I don’t dismiss your Mom’s achievements. It’s amazing the way people can shoulder heavy burdens and carry them over immense distances, day after day, year after year. Some say aliens must’ve built the Pyramids because humans couldn’t possibly have erected such noble piles of rock. But, nah, it was just a horde of slaves, dragging and hauling and hoisting, day after day, year after year…


That’s not what we’re talking about here, though: the crushing load regular people have to tote just to survive in the world. We don’t mean great in ability to endure common privation in obscurity. We’re talking about greatness in its huge, distracting, massy sense.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)—the greatest dictionary? I don’t know, but it’s the snobbiest, and has the longest definitions—“great,” in it’s many meanings and usages over the centuries, is fundamentally bound up in notions of size, bigness. Even in its earliest root meanings referring to grains, “great” referred to large, coarse grains, not fine little grains. “Great” went on to encompass meanings related to cumbersome, awkward bulk. A woman “great with child” was hugely pregnant, i.e. would probably knock over furniture in a small room.

“Great” definition #15 of the OED is edging toward what we want:

Of persons: extraordinary in ability, genius, or achievement…15b: In wider sense: eminent in mental or moral attainments or magnitude of achievement; of transcendent qualities in thought or action…

And we’re getting warmer still at #18 with “certain colloquial or trivial uses of the preceding senses” (colloquial and trivial—that’s us all over, Mr. OED, you Tory bastard):

Of surpassing excellence; hence, used as a (more or less) rapturous term of admiration: ‘Magnificent,’ ‘splendid,’ ‘grand,’ ‘immense.’ U.S. and colloq.

Jackpot! That “U.S. and colloquial” jab is perfect. The OED can’t hide its contempt for us and our “(more or less) rapturous” terms of admiration. It’s interesting, being insulted by one’s own dictionary.

But anyway, that’s what we’re getting at. There are many worthy people in the world, no doubt, but are they “magnificent” and “immense”? Does your nominee inspire rapture, just contemplating his or her awesomeness?

Would she, like Harriet Tubman, threaten to SHOOT you for being insufficiently great yourself in her presence? (Tubman famously pulled a gun on an escaping slave in her charge who was chickening out and trying to head down South again.)

Harriet Tubman

Your nominee, does he bestride the narrow world like a Colossus?

…and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves. (Julius Caesar, 1.2.135.)

You see what I mean? “Great” is a great word; let’s not dilute it.

Which reminds me, there’s one more mistake people make in defining greatness: they confuse “great” with “perfect” or “flawless.” They argue that Ulysses S. Grant shouldn’t be called great because governmental corruption flourished while he was president. They could also have noted that Grant was a failed farmer, a failed businessman, and would probably have been an all-around professional failure if he hadn’t joined the army and gotten into wars and turned out to be a military genius.

He also drank, frequently to the point of drunkenness, for those keeping score. And that was in the days when men drank hard and often, so you probably had to do some spectacular imbibing to cause remark.

But was he great? He was a TITAN. Lincoln admired him; Sherman loved him; Twain revered him. And they were all great themselves, so what does that make Grant? Great squared? Great cubed?


When Lincoln was urged to demote Grant for his “butchery” in epic combat against Lee’s forces, Lincoln said, “I can’t spare this man; he fights.”

When someone came oiling around General Sherman, trying to get him to say something derogatory about Grant, Sherman said, “It won’t do; it won’t do, Mr. _____. General Grant is a great general. I know him well. He stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk; and now, sir, we stand by each other always.”

And when Twain heard mockery of Grant’s grammatical lapses, he fired this off:

There is that about the sun which makes us forget his spots; and when we think of General Grant our pulses quicken and his grammar vanishes….What do we care for grammar when we think of the man that put together that thunderous phrase: ‘Unconditional and immediate surrender!’ And those others: ‘I propose to move immediately upon your works!’ ‘I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer!’

So over this 4th of July weekend, think again about Great Americans, and why there aren’t enough alive today to fill a small room, or even a large closet, and what we’d have to do to create some more.

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  • 1. jim  |  July 4th, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    Great Americans: Tim & Eric

    oh and John Dolan, Matt Groening, and Bill Watterson, from the list

  • 2. Victoria  |  July 4th, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    Rin Tin Tin

  • 3. jack kane  |  July 4th, 2010 at 10:10 pm

    I don’t think generals should qualify as ‘great men’. They are murderers and thugs. Nor should we revere businessmen – they are thieves and charlatans.

    Chomsky and Nader, though, are truly great.

    And I offer two more names for your list – Michael Parenti and Amy Goodman.

  • 4. subgenius  |  July 4th, 2010 at 10:13 pm

    Terence McKenna was a great American, but he died about 10 years ago…

  • 5. S  |  July 4th, 2010 at 10:28 pm

    I agree with everything you said except for the absolutely crazy inclusion of Cesar Milan in your list. Was that a joke or are you just some crazy Upper West Side dog lady?

  • 6. DERP  |  July 4th, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    Grant IS great but I prefer Sherman, if only for his ability to bring delicious tears from confederate degenerates. I mean, look at the guy:

    Sitting there with that, “I’m gonna kill me some rednecks” look on his face. Priceless. 😀

  • 7. Will  |  July 4th, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    I’d add Norman Finkelstein to the list.

  • 8. Omar  |  July 4th, 2010 at 11:03 pm

    I would add Cenk Uygur to the list.

  • 9. senorpogo  |  July 4th, 2010 at 11:14 pm

    I’d nominate Jack Johnson.

    Bones in the ground, the man survived attacks from both a 60’s hippy playwright and modern eternal bore Ken Burns.

    While alive, Jack Johnson pummelled white men for a living and screwed white women for fun.

    But this is how I know Jack Johnson was a great American and a guy the Exile would like – even after a solid century, the establishment is still trying to rewrite his history. They simplify it. Man thrived forty years before Jackie Robinson, but they make it a simple racial passion play. Lesson: racism is bad.

    Anyway – I nominate Jack Johnson.

  • 10. senorpogo  |  July 4th, 2010 at 11:30 pm

    just realized we were talking about living americans…

    and there’s nobody. nothing at all. wow.

  • 11. Zhu Bajie  |  July 4th, 2010 at 11:49 pm

    TR was a great blowhard, not a great american. His conquest of the Philippines turned the US into an evil empire.

  • 12. Zhu Bajie  |  July 4th, 2010 at 11:53 pm

    How about a list of the fattest Americans? That’s something you can measure!

  • 13. Tam  |  July 4th, 2010 at 11:58 pm

    Great : ‘Magnificent,’ ‘splendid,’ ‘grand,’ ‘immense.’ U.S. and colloq.

    This reinforces why I think Roseanne Barr should be high on that list.

    Actually, on that sort of definition, you could probably add John Goodman to the list too…

  • 14. Grimgrin  |  July 5th, 2010 at 2:33 am

    The last really great American I can think of? Great in the Grant/Lincoln sense of really changing the country?

    Richard Nixon.

    Seriously. Nothing in American politics today makes the slightest bit of sense unless you understand the Richard Nixon presidency.

    Great is not the same thing as Good.

  • 15. FatPig  |  July 5th, 2010 at 4:14 am

    What about Ron Paul? He’s a modern Jeremiah, in the good sense.

    Or Richard Stallman. He’s more John the Baptist.

  • 16. Ed  |  July 5th, 2010 at 4:58 am

    Please keep writing about this!  This is a fabulous way to frame the conversation about our national schooling system.  Like electricity in the home, plastic, the term adolesence, and the automobile, a national schooling system was basically unknown before 1900. And yet the women and men of the 19th century were intelligent–maybe not in book smarts or grammar (many more are literate than people assume), but they were intelligent.

    I have seen a stat (West, Education and the State) that 90% of 5-15 year-olds attended some schooling in 1821.  It was neither “free” nor compulsory.  It was also only 3-4 months long because children were needed for the ESSENTIAL FAMILY FUNCTIONS of, you know, planting and harvesting the crops and making a livlihood. They could just as easily leave school to learn a trade.

    (As an aside, would it be okay for me to take some unfolded laundry to school, fold it in class, and call it “school work?”)  

    That was the era of the Common School and one of “Father of American Public Education” Horace Mann’s original dreams was a school system that rich and poor could learn together and from one another. (Private schools sprang up immediately in response to Mann’s dream.) I don’t wish to denigrate Mann or anyone else who really wants to help.  As far as I’m aware, kids could leave the early Mass. school system if they could prove they could read, write, and do some arithmetic. This would be a competency-based system (I’m all for it), but it didn’t last. 

    West, who focuses his U.S. analysis on New York state, contends that the teachers and administrators lobbied for the collection of taxes.  Before that, they had to collect fees on their own based on attendance, after the fact. So it was difficult. Can you imagine teachers today going door to door collecting fees? They did it. Once taxes were levied, schools could only be paid based on attendance, just like today. But unless attendance is compulsory, there’s no way to ensure a steady stream of income.

    Again, I do not wish to denigrate professional teachers and people who care deeply. So many do.  If teachers could really innovate and weren’t beholden to “Standards,” then we might be able to see something.  And let me tell you about standards:  Shakespeare wrote for a general audience in Elizabethan England and a 19th century fifth grade American was expected to read Shakespeare. You don’t have to draw your own conclusions. We have become much more dumb in the last 100+ years. 

    Why? I think it’s all gone REALLY downhill since the advent of the assembly line and the influx of Ford, Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Morgan money and their minions.  They monopolized teacher training early on. Their foundations live on to exert disproportional influence on our children.  And it all makes sense if you can imagine those guys pondering the question of labor and what to do about it. I think the Robber Barons would have wet themselves if they could have turned their workers into docile, unquestioning automatons.  But that’s conspiracy talk and there are no conspiracies. That’s what the New York Times says, right?

    And it all makes me think how our lives are kind of like high school.  The drama club’s in LA. The geeks are in Silicon Valley. Student government is in DC.  However, much like high school, the seat of power of our student government–ostensibly, the people–is outside the actual institution.  But corporations are “the people” too and the most powerful can potentially live forever and can help frame the debate however they see fit.  Now, it’s not a question of HOW we should be educated, but what snacks are in the vending machines.

    I think we need to deschool–from the Robber Baron Way–and start really educating ourselves before things can get better.

  • 17. Ed  |  July 5th, 2010 at 5:02 am

    Sorry, I should have said 90% of kids attended some school in 1821, in the state of New York.

  • 18. Eric  |  July 5th, 2010 at 5:20 am

    I don’t know if it was deliberate or an oversight; but you omitted Larry Flynt from the list of submissions.
    If it was deliberate; name one person still breathing who has done more to fight for the first amendment than Mr. Flynt.
    …and its Sonny Barger, not Berger.

  • 19. STB  |  July 5th, 2010 at 6:26 am

    I’d have to nominate Dick Cheney.

    He’s evil but he’s undoubtedly great since he’s been dominating American foreign policy since the 1970s.

    Even now, after George Bush has proved an unmitigated failure, all Cheney does is have to send his daughter on the cable news shows to bark. And Obama says “Yassir Massah Cheney. Torture. Keep doing it. No problem sir.”

    We could have been living in a different world after the Cold War. But it’s Cheney’s world. The rest of us just live in it.

  • 20. STB  |  July 5th, 2010 at 6:27 am

    And if you took out the requirement to be American, there are two very obvious choices.

    1.) Rupert Murdorch: He dominates the American mind like no other man.

    2.) Osama Bin Laden. With one surgical stroke, he destroyed the American Constitution.

  • 21. factual stuff  |  July 5th, 2010 at 7:03 am

    I hope the US never has another “great man,” at least according to your definition. Politicians & generals are frauds and shitheads, and if Grant was president now he’d about as great as Dubya or Petraeus. Edward Abbey would be near the top of my list.

  • 22. andrew  |  July 5th, 2010 at 7:11 am

    grant was cool, but i too always preferred sherman. being from the south, it’s sherman’s name that’s more closely linked with terror than grant’s – plus, he was named “TECUMSEH”, which is a.. great.. name..

  • 23. Peter  |  July 5th, 2010 at 7:27 am

    I agree with Jones’ definition of greatness, but also think that if you’re sufficiently big, you can labor in obscurity for a long time and still be great. Think Philip K. Dick. A titan of prose just as Grant is a titan in general. But outside of scifi circles (a lot smaller back then), nobody cared, and even then most of them preferred Bradbury and Heinlein and other nobs. Now that he’s safely dead, the middlebrows have crowded around, canonizing him for the Library of America. Just look at the AV Club’s discussion of “A Scanner Darkly” that went on recently, if you want to see the hilarious results of hip young middlebrows trying to come to grips with the man.

    The problem with that is, people are wise to this trick, and promoting yourself as a phenomenon only a select few know about is a common tactic these days, see Ron Paul.

  • 24. Connors  |  July 5th, 2010 at 8:03 am

    Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky

  • 25. paul metcalf  |  July 5th, 2010 at 8:14 am

    everet peck for duckman.and duckman himself of course.

  • 26. President Brown  |  July 5th, 2010 at 8:20 am

    DNA guy Venter or whatever his name is. I read some dude is using a printer process to make human organs, that guy too.

    Steve Jobs, Bill Gates(and his pioneer buddies). The google guys. Probably Cisco people too. Bill Gross, Pimco.

    Michael Milken, sure. Throw in Warren Buffett/charlie Munger. Steve Wynn. Bloomberg?

    I hate to say Lady Gaga so I won’t. Tom Petty is still alive, I think, and a living link to Elvis (sort of). Russell Simmons, and Sean Combs. Those Motown women, Diana Ross and Donna summers, are they alive? KC of the sunshine band.

    Is Rev. Moon considered American? How about that EST guy? While on the subject of Religion, Rev Fred Phelps, and also Rev Hagee(I have reservations as he is no Frank Norris but we live in mediocre times). Those five Rabbis that meet at 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY 11213 and run the world, ‘nuf said.

    +Dick Cheney
    I have to say Carl Rove, and the neo-cons. I will be a wise guy and say Tony Blair.

    In retrospect I have to say Bill Clinton did the world a service holding the neo-cons, including his wife, at bay until being forced into the Serbian war. Bill I wish I could apologize to you. Bush the elder may also have keeped the crazies in line.

    BTW, Grant was a competent General. But that is about it and when the Chinese write American history he probably won’t make the list. Can you name any Chinese Generals, why should they be able to name any 1800s white boy Generals at all? US Generals that were ‘Great’: George Washington, Nathaniel Greene, Winfield Scott, William Walker, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Ike. MacArthur, maybe but mostly do to his time at West Point in reshaping the US military, and he fought Chinese which makes him relevant to Chinese.

  • 27. Marquelot  |  July 5th, 2010 at 8:48 am

    STB@ #20 You’re talking Dick Cheney again. Osama bin Laden died back in 2001, and it’s pretty assured Dick and the Mossad did 9/11. Hell, even the CIA admitted all that.

  • 28. cal  |  July 5th, 2010 at 9:39 am

    The answer is obvious,and no, I am not sucking up to the editor – Mark Ames. Ames combines his expensive Berkley educational wit with the real world experience of guest bartending at the original Hungry Duck. Grant never slept with a gaggle of Russian babushka prostitutes like Ames did and frankly, Grant was too whiskey dicked too have ever pulled that off. My vote goes to Mark Ames.

  • 29. Mark  |  July 5th, 2010 at 10:32 am

    I nominate Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, George Bush and Rupert Murdoch…..

    To be fair though, my definition of what it means to be “American” is pretty shitty, but it seems appropriate in this world.

  • 30. Another Degenerate Son of Privilege  |  July 5th, 2010 at 10:48 am

    Americans are no longer capable of being great.

    Our minds can not conceive it, our bodies can not bear it, our institutions will not tolerate it, our media shall not sanction it.

    Greatness was murdered in Memphis, April 4th, 1964.

    Yours in Ruthlessness & Ease,

  • 31. Shitter Island  |  July 5th, 2010 at 10:53 am

    James P. Cannon and Eugene Debs

  • 32. korman643  |  July 5th, 2010 at 11:18 am

    Kip Thorne IS great. Is not “darn good” or “just good”, or anything else. He’s the greatest living expert on the General Relativity, still probably the greatest scientific achievement EVER. And he’s a genius, no question asked.

    And you want a living, great American not on the list? Neil Armstrong. JG Ballard once wrote that in 1000 years Armstrong will be the only name of XX century people will ever remember, and (as usual) he was right. He stepped (maybe 100 years too soon, but who cares) right into the future of humanity, the only one we have. I’m old enough to remember July 1969, and believe me, I can spot an historical moment when I see on.

    (And still – weird a non-american should get sooooo worked out on finding names of great americans…)

  • 33. Anders  |  July 5th, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    Bobby Seale is still alive. Gore Vidal.

  • 34. The Dark Avenger  |  July 5th, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    Grant went out old-school, having to spend his dying days writing the memoirs that were his family’s financial security with the help of 19th Century Meth, cocaine in a water solution.

  • 35. ramona  |  July 5th, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    Paris Hilton !!!!

  • 36. General Foods  |  July 5th, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    Benjamin Netanyahu.

  • 37. gc  |  July 5th, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    Magnificent article.

    Would be more magnificent if Jones hadn’t preemptively undercut her point with her own nominations. However, it nevertheless occupies a very high level of magnificentness.

  • 38. FrankMcG  |  July 5th, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    Jesus. I didn’t think the dick-waving by proxy from the World Cup article could be topped, but here we are.

  • 39. FrankMcG  |  July 5th, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    and I’ll never get the love for Bill Waterson and Calvin & Hobbes. A horrible ADD kid who’s the poster child for ritalin and/or military school. It always struck me as appealing to the Donnie Darko “no one understands me” types who need a slap to the head.

    Everyone who’s not an emo whiner knows that Bloom County was the best comic strip ever made. Social and political satire that Garry Tradeau can only dream of.

  • 40. STB  |  July 5th, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    Interesting enough, that photo of Grant leaning against the post that everybody publishes was taken at Cold Harbor, Grant’s worst defeat.

    It was a real preview of WWI. And it so traumatized the Union Army that Grant wasn’t able to close Lee out at Petersburg for another year.

    I’m still sticking to my story about the “Representative Men” (to use the Emersonian phrase) of our age.

    Rupert Murdoch: The dominant manipulator of American ideology. Talk Radio, obviously, plays a role in every thing most conservatives think, so Limbaugh was a strong competitor. But Murdoch wins, since he controls the hip cynical world of Fox Entertainmetn (Simpson’s etc) and Fox News.

    Dick Cheney: The dominant political figure of the age. He’s far more dominant than Lincoln. Lincoln, at least, had real opponants like Jefferson Davis and Lee. But Cheney reigns unchallenged. If he asked Obama to shine his shoes on national TV, Obama would ask him what polish he wanted.

    Osama Bin Laden: Any number of American evangelicals could compete with him but in the end, Osama is the domiant religious figure of the age. From the fall of the Soviet Union to the fall of American liberty to the transformation of Islam into the dominant opposition force to American imperialism, Osama reigns supreme. Osama would also qualify as the military genius of the age. Poetic justice will have him reemerge in Afghanistan upon America’s withdrawl, firing a gun into the air and shouting “death to infidels”.

  • 41. Ozinator  |  July 5th, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    Garnt and Sherman were both pussies just like Patton…Big fuckin deal, they were never in much danger (lol at patton…died the way he deserved to and was probably screaming) as they possessed an overwhelming supply of troops and even if they had lost after sacrificing all their men, they’d have been fine.

    If we must include military Americans, I think the bravest and most noble examples would be Captain David Fagen and Captain John Riley.

  • 42. tim  |  July 5th, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    Tom Petty- jesus, give me a fucking break.
    Almost everyone on this list, apart from Noam Chomsky, and the ones that are on the list just to be pilloried, are people everyone except the nominator had to google to hear about them for the first time.

  • 43. Grimgrin  |  July 5th, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    And so at last we reach the truth.

    Not only is Ameica now incapable of producing great people, it must refute and reject the greatness it was once capable of. Only by destroying the examples of the past can the present be justified.

    So Grant becomes an alcoholic coward, Lincoln a tyrant, Twain a godless racist. We cannot allow any yardstick that would measure us and find ourselves wanting.

  • 44. Erik  |  July 5th, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    Living Great Americans:

    My criteria is that they did something in the past that others thought was evil or crazy and now everyone except for evil and crazy people know they were right all along.

    Physically and intellectually brave.

    Somewhat flawed, like all decent humans.

    Gore Vidal: Gay as in “Here, Queer and used to it” back when arrests and beating were doled out to anyone with a lisp who bought his own curtains. Noteable wit, commentator, author, and historian. His flaw is that he is a gossip (told how Jackie Beuviore lost her virginity in an elevator in the 1950s among other things).

    David Lynch: Writer, filmmaker, composer, sculptor, painter and something of a polymath. Changed the way television is made and viewed. Turned small towns into horror and scandal and took them away from Norman Rockwell and made television interesting again. Made movie scores important. Scraped and worked to get started in making Eraserhead. His flaw is he believes and advocates for Transcendental Meditation…which means David Lynch thinks men in drawstring pants can fly when they are in the lotus position.

    Dean Kamen: Unlike silicon valley dorks this guy actually tries to make life easier for those who need all the help they can get. His prosthetic limb program and development is amazing and touching to read about. His portable insulin pump and versatile wheelchairs made life easier for people who got a bad deal in life. He is like an Islambard Kingdom Brunel but on a personal scale. His flaw is that he wears the same ugly clothes everyday and he invented the Segway (but years from now those might be seen as him just being ahead of his time).

    Anyway…those are my nominations.

  • 45. M.E.S. Procured  |  July 5th, 2010 at 5:24 pm


    “”Tall poppies” is an important NZ idiom. It comes from a proverb of theirs, “The tall poppy gets the chop.” In other words, anyone who stands out, does too well, outdistances the herd, is evil. ”

    John Dolan wrote this, shortly after the 9/11 attacks.

    I like the expression, especially how it refers to poppies.

  • 46. Robert Hodge  |  July 5th, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    I’ll nominate Gary Webb.

  • 47. Ozinator  |  July 5th, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    Hello M.E.S.

    The supposed syndrome also exists in Australia and has been been bandied about (if not bastardized from original use) by the totalitarian Murdoch media to protect the cunts stealing from their should-be worshipers

  • 48. Alex  |  July 5th, 2010 at 8:17 pm


    You don’t get a pat on the back for uncovering a pen name. You get a smack on the head for not realizing it sooner, and then you shut up about it.

  • 49. RobertD  |  July 5th, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    Clearly, there is only one man who qualifies for the title of GREAT AMERICAN. He even has his own theme song explaining precisely why:

    “I am a real American, Fight for the rights of every man,
    I am a real American, fight for what’s right, fight for your life!

    When it comes crashing down, and it hurts inside,
    ya’ gotta take a stand, it don’t help to hide,
    Well, you hurt my friends, and you hurt my pride,
    I gotta be a man; I can’t let it slide,
    I am a real American, Fight for the rights of every man,
    I am a real American, fight for what’s right, fight for your life!

    I feel strong about right and wrong,
    And I don’t take trouble for very long,
    I got something deep inside of me, and courage is the thing that keeps us free,
    I am a real American, Fight for the rights of every man,
    I am a real American, fight for what’s right, fight for your life!

    Well you hurt my friends, and you hurt my pride,
    I gotta be a man; I can’t let it slide,
    I am a real American, Fight for the rights of every man,
    I am a real American, fight for what’s right, fight for your life!
    I am a real American, Fight for the rights of every man,
    I am a real American, fight for what’s right, fight for your life!”

    You all know it’s true.

  • 50. Magpie  |  July 5th, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    But… no Lee?

    Robert E Lee is this non-American’s favourite American, and not just because he killed so many of you. If there hadn’t been a Lee, there would have been no need for a Grant.

  • 51. mydick  |  July 5th, 2010 at 10:41 pm

    “Great” meaning “large” or “immense”, we use it in the pejorative sense!

  • 52. Druthers  |  July 6th, 2010 at 4:59 am

    20. STB
    ” 1.) Rupert Murdorch: He dominates the American mind like no other man.”

    I think it sould be correct to say that he dominates the American mindless like no other man.”

  • 53. Senator Sexton Hardcastle  |  July 6th, 2010 at 5:56 am

    What about Col. John Boyd? Great fighter pilot. Great military strategist. Pentagon gadfly and thorn in the side of literally hundreds of generals and admirals. Created the OODA loop. What’s not to like?

  • 54. Al  |  July 6th, 2010 at 6:32 am

    Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.


  • 55. matt  |  July 6th, 2010 at 7:37 am

    Cormack McCarthy?

  • 56. Flatulissimo  |  July 6th, 2010 at 9:03 am

    Fuck Grant, Sherman, and Lee.

    John. Fucking. Brown.

  • 57. Allen  |  July 6th, 2010 at 9:50 am

    A century allows not just for objectivity but ample room for romanticism as well. Would we have loved the “great Americans” of the 19th century as much if we lived among them?

    (Don’t get me wrong, I mean I hope so — guys who actually lived up to names like “Ulysses” and “Tecumseh”, or a guy who saw the American republic and said: people would remember me better if I took this thing and remade it in my own image, or the dude who decided to lead a one family holy war on slave owners. That certainly [I]seems[/I] pretty close to objectively awesome.)

    Anyway, I’ll nominate Gore Vidal and Matt Groening (by which I actually mean the Simpsons writing staff, especially before 2000.) If you combine them, you might get one version of what you think Twain was capable of/worth.

  • 58. Anders  |  July 6th, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    George Clinton, David Lynch and John Dolan.

  • 59. thomzas  |  July 6th, 2010 at 12:43 pm


    If I was Eileen, who has demonstrated she read through the comments on the last article, I would be fucking disappointed by the level of discussion here.

    I’m not even American, but I’m hacked off that the contributors seem to be “Loose Change” fans and others who seem incapable of actually digesting facts.

  • 60. W. Kiernan  |  July 6th, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    This has nothing, and I mean nothing, to do with “great men,” but I would like to bring your attention, especially Mark Ames’s attention, to the following mind-blowing quote from a New York Magazine article ( on everyone’s second favorite moderate editorialist, David Brooks (the fave, obviously, being T. Friedman):

    “…Whatever seeds of conservatism Chicago had planted, Europe brought into full bloom. He (Brooks) took a dozen trips to the Soviet Union, then Russia. In one dispatch for The American Spectator, he described a Moscow bar full of ‘beautiful and intelligent-looking’ young hookers: ‘[I]t illustrates the tremendous waste of human capital. These women should be selling real estate or running ad agencies.'”

  • 61. Zoner  |  July 6th, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    Jones is right, it’s all downhill from here. Also, it seems like so many of you don’t know the definition of “great”, “living”, or “American”.

  • 62. STB  |  July 6th, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    Why don’t we talk about the great Americans who would still be alive today if not for a succession of “lone nuts”?

    There are at least three I can think of.

    Martin Luther King
    Malcolm X
    John Lennon (not an American but)

    I’d be willing to debate RFK.

  • 63. President Brown  |  July 6th, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    Jerry Lee Lewis is still alive, go figure. Oprah. Too bad about Biggy, he should have been on the list. See lot’s of great Americans.

    Los Tigres del Norte?
    Cris Cyborg?

  • 64. gazzaj  |  July 6th, 2010 at 7:01 pm

    I second John Boyd – he literally wrote the book on dogfighting, designed the F16 from basic principles, laid the groundwork for the A10, and is probably the most influential military theorist since von Clausewitz. What makes his achievements “great” is that he had to fight every step of the way.

    Only problem is, he’s dead.

    This is hard, but there’s gotta be some living American scientists who deserve the title “Great” though.

    Maybe ours is just not a time for heroes – no defensive wars and our idols are entertainers rather than scientists. There’s not so much blatant injustice (in the West) and our brave explorers are robots.

  • 65. aleke  |  July 6th, 2010 at 7:42 pm

    Smedley Butler

  • 66. John T  |  July 6th, 2010 at 8:20 pm

    Not to the standards of Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, and Twain, but here are my choices for some of the greatest living Americans:

    Music: Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Tom Waits, Willie Nelson.

    Writers: Paul Theroux, Cormac McCarthy, Don Delilo, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Harold Bloom, Camille Paglia.

    TV/Movies: David Lynch, Errol Morris (Watch the Thin Blue Line again), Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, Paul Thomas Anderson, Ken Burns, Martin Scorcese, Larry David, Garry Shandling, David Milch, David Chase, David Simon.

    Politics: Barack Obama (c’mon, a black man is president of the USA), Dennis Kucinich, Howard Dean, Nancy Pelosi, Chas Freeman.

    Journalist-types: James Howard Kunstler, Frank Rich, Seymour Hersh, Chalmers Johnson, Roger Ebert.

  • 67. ruzz  |  July 6th, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    Physics/Astronomy is dominated by Hawking, Biology/Evolution by Dawkins, both Brits.

    When I try to think of a Great widely known scientist who is American all I can think of is the Myth Busters.

    More in general would be maybe Phelps.

    Checkmate Eileen, you win.

  • 68. Pascual Gorostieta  |  July 6th, 2010 at 10:31 pm

    Henry Rollins is a great American.

  • 69. Mark  |  July 6th, 2010 at 11:27 pm

    20. STB
    ” 1.) Rupert Murdorch: He dominates the American mind like no other man.”

    I think it sould be correct to say that he dominates the American mindless like no other man.”

    Aren’t the two one in the same?

  • 70. Kurt  |  July 7th, 2010 at 5:35 am

    Bret Easton Ellis is a pustule head.

  • 71. Lavrentij Lemko  |  July 7th, 2010 at 8:27 am

    I hereby nominate Joseph Fritzl as an honorary Great American.

  • 72. Lavrentij Lemko  |  July 7th, 2010 at 8:31 am

    What about …
    Robert Rubin
    Bernie Madoff
    Jack Abramoff
    Pat Robertson
    Ted Haggard
    Mark Sanford
    Jerry Springer (a national treasure)
    Little Richard
    David Brooks
    Neil Cavuto

  • 73. Rackham  |  July 7th, 2010 at 8:35 am

    Thomas Friedman. He has re-defined Ego size for all Americans. Also he has reached levels of bigotry and stupidity never seen before. Some great Americans love their neighbors; Friedman loves himself more. I respectfully submit for your consideration the creator of the “Friedman Unit”.

  • 74. Tyrone Slothrop  |  July 7th, 2010 at 8:48 am

    For living people?

    Thomas Pynchon.
    Noam Chomsky.
    Ralph Nader.
    Seymour Hersh (Amy Goodman, Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald are also in contention for greatness in journalism).

    John Coltrane would be definitely there were he alive.

  • 75. Bill Rush  |  July 7th, 2010 at 9:26 am

    That list has some of the most medicore jokers and fakers out there. Mark Ames, John Dolan, Robert Crumb,and Bill Gates are the only ones on that list that get my pass.

    I would also add Don Van Vliet, Brian Wilson, The Coen Brothers, Charles Portis and David Lynch among the great living American artists .

  • 76. korman643  |  July 7th, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Right now, the greatest living American is a Russian Jew, basically because he’s doing what the Americans of the old American myth were supposed to do – being geniuses and honest and idealistic

    He’s been turning down the Clay Prize since the last two years, but this time he turned it down for good – he basically said to the Clay Institute people to leave him alone. Them and their million dollar prize

    Just look at Perelman picture – he’s straight out Lovecraft “Haunter of the Dark”, the leader of the Starry Wisdom cult incarnate. And he solved the Poincare Conjecture. He REALLY did it, the closest thing to a complete understanding of higher dimensions humanity has ever been. Not any stupid new age, Rhonda Byrne based, pseudo-scientific nonsense. It’s the real mathematical deal. THE REAL FUCKING DEAL. This guy has at very least a faint, intuitive idea how the universe is shaped, something that will always elude us common mortals.

    And with all that, and while he’s jobless and living with his mother in a small apartment, he said “go fuck yourself” to people giving him one million $ and the choice to any academical position he wanted in the US. Maybe the two things are related – being a genius and refusing 1 million dollars. Don’t know about Perelman reasons, but I know this is something important. Something that could have made a great SF story, but this time is real.

    And its not an American story.

  • 77. Zhu Bajie  |  July 7th, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    “And with all that, and while he’s jobless and living with his mother in a small apartment, he said “go fuck yourself” to people giving him one million $….”

    So give the money to his mother.

  • 78. Zhu Bajie  |  July 7th, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    The US tends to import it’s greats (like Tesla or Einstein). So the greatest living American is probably some latino you’ve never heard of.

  • 79. Zhu Bajie  |  July 7th, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    For great dead Americans: Walt Whitman, freer from “mind forg’d manicles” than the average American yakking about Freedom;
    George Washington, for retiring after 8 years as president. He could’ve been supremo for life, like Chairman Mao, easily. If Mao had retired after 8 years, his reputation would be a lot better (as a student told me once).

  • 80. good ol' johnny  |  July 7th, 2010 at 3:51 pm

    This is a vote for Artie Lange.

  • 81. RecoverylessRecovery  |  July 7th, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    First off, allow me to clarify that the entire two continents of the WESTERN HEMISPHERE constitute “America”. Fidel Castro and Pele are both Americans, for example.

    I know, I know. You didn’t mean THOSE kind of ‘Americans’. You meant the self-centered, war criminal, swindling assholes that live right above Mexico and right below Canada.

    Insofar as THOSE creeps go, I’d say that the best ‘American’ ..would be the one that’s DEAD.

    Have a great day!

  • 82. tazio  |  July 7th, 2010 at 6:38 pm

    No wonder Eileen’s so goddamn disappointed, half the people you morons suggested aren’t even decent human beings, let alone Great Americans.

    Bob Dylan? Seriously? Are you stupid fucks pushing 70?

  • 83. Mad Nomad  |  July 7th, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    Not normally a big fan of, well, really any of the American stars, and certainly not that much into Lindsey Lohan, but her fingernail message stunt certainly showed potential. Hey, at least she’s (still) American and not (yet) dead…

    Colton Harris-Moore, the kid who is apparently on the run as the “barefoot bandit”, is impressive in a (somewhat) Bonnie and Clyde sort of way.

    Potential. Potential is what I’m talking about here…

  • 84. Wenjo  |  July 8th, 2010 at 8:37 am

    Whistleblowers, such as Sibel Edmonds, Daniel Ellsberg, Karen Kwiatowski.

    Great Americans who create, invent or discover add more to our nation and our world, with some risk of losing their investments and receiving some ridicule.

    But the whisleblowers risk everything to give us a chance to mitigate some of our mistakes at home and our evil abroad.

    We (Americans) would be a much better nation if we’d just cut out the bullshit.