The 20th-century Icon

Rarely can it be so clearly demonstrated that people, and even whole societies, cannot see what is plainly in front of their eyes.  

Not only is this a theological truth, illustrated by the atheism believed by intelligent people, as well as by the effect of distraction practised by parents on crying children, but the current BBC2 series Icons is yet another example of this common phenomenon.

The aim of this BBC series is to discover whom British television viewers, misidentified as ‘the public’, consider “the most important and influential person of the 20th century”, according to the description on the BBC iPlayer.

An academic research tool compiled lists from the prominence of individuals on the internet, which were sent to academic experts to assess against key criteria – legacy, achievement, impact, influence, contribution to their field, and public profile. Expert panels then debated these lists to determine four individual icons shortlisted for each of seven categories.

Each category had an advocate who presented the four icons in one programme, with two programmes each week.

Each week’s winners will be announced on the BBC1 The One Show and then there will be a grand finale of these winners to determine the greatest icon of the 20th century. The One Show participants on 8/1/2019 discussed what was meant by ‘an icon’. It was manifest that in reality, the public will vote according to its own understanding of icon – probably celebrity or influence upon oneself rather than global influence – and it assumes that the public (aka television audience) has an ability to assess global influence. Voters are more likely to rely upon their own personal preferences rather than a judicious balanced assessment of enduring impact on human society in and beyond the 20th century.

In addition, the concept of on-going influence questions the categories themselves. In their time, celebrities such as The Beatles and Elvis Presley, mentioned by Sanjeev Bhaskar on 8/1/2019 as ‘omitted’, were influential but how will this be a lasting global influence? The first two programmes in the first week of the series have been very interesting, but the series is flawed by the range of seven categories and the choice of four persons to be considered in each category.

On the principle that the protection of human life and protecting one’s family and society are of paramount importance, the principal categories are surely political leadership followed by medicine. One category was leadership but medicine featured nowhere except by the inclusion of one pharmaceutical chemist Tu YouYou, whose selection I can trace only to political correctness.

Yet the 20th century was the century of the greatest medical advances in human history. One hundred years ago we had no antibiotics nor vaccines, which have changed human wellbeing out of all proportion to some of the categories in this series. During The One Show programme, the absence of Alexander Fleming’s name was noted. The advances in Medical Science last century have had a profound and lasting impact upon human life and society. Tuberculosis has been one of the world’s greatest killers and Gerhard Domagk was fundamental to its eventual cure, working in conditions as dangerous as Tu YouYou. Domagk developed the first drug to successfully treat bacterial infections long before Alexander Fleming’s serendipitous discovery of penicillin, possibly actually discovered by one of his assistants. The popular account can be found in The Greatest Story Never Told. The development of vaccines helped to conquer childhood diseases and childhood mortality fell. The march against malaria, smallpox and other global scourges shows that medicine, the endeavour to improve human health and wellbeing, was worthy of a category of its own. If this was missed by the internet search algorithm, it is probably because so many medical professionals are unsung heroes without a media bandwagon to sing their praises. However, what does this tell us about this panel of experts and 21st-century expertise?

The protection of life and limb is of utmost importance and under political leadership there is little dispute that the UK would be speaking German if it was not for Winston Churchill and the world would be a very different place without him and his leadership in World War II. Franklin D. Roosevelt is a worthy consideration but Nelson Mandela was voted ahead of both of them. There is no doubt about Mandela’s celebrity status and if leaders would follow his ability to forgive and lead by example, the world would be a better place, but he drew upon the legacy of other 20th-century icons such as Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy, who drew upon the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

So who should it be – the 20th century’s greatest icon?

As the aim is to discover the person with the greatest impact upon the human race in the 20th century, with a lasting impact for succeeding generations, the panel of experts has overlooked the one person who made so many of the other achievements of the 20th century possible – Scotsman John Logie Baird – the inventor of the television.

Let me repeat my opening paragraph. “Rarely can it be so clearly demonstrated that people, and even whole societies, cannot see what is plainly in front of their eyes.”

The invention of the television has impacted the whole world and is the most significant invention of the 20th century. Without it, some of the sports personalities, entertainers and artists nominated by the panel of experts would hardly be known.

It is astonishing that John Logie Baird’s name did not feature in this series. He was placed 44th in the 2002 BBC television series 100 Greatest Britons, so 1. was he considered and rejected by our panel of experts or 2. was he overlooked altogether? Neither option is satisfactory.

The One Show on 8/1/2019 did not mention him although Clare Balding mentioned the omission of Tim Berners-Lee, the computer scientist who invented the World Wide Web. One cannot but accept the tremendous and lasting impact of the internet, but it draws upon two inventions – television in the 20th century and the telephone in the 19th century by Scots-born Alexander Graham Bell. The telephone has connected people all over the world and is one of the most significant inventions in human history, finding its next impact through the internet.

These series are very useful and welcome, but they demonstrate that without a cheerleader ‘the public’ are unlikely to make a correct assessment. History is full of reassessing former heroes and discovering unsung heroes.

The purpose of this blogpost is first to record the place that John Logie Baird deserves to occupy in such ‘competitions’ but also to demonstrate how blind people can be to what is in front of their eyes – the television or computer screen. If they can be distracted by cheerleaders so easily and if they are so blind in secular things, is it any wonder how blind they are in spiritual things?

The apostle Paul, the number of whose biographies is second only to the Lord Jesus Christ, wrote to the church in Rome that the eternal power of God is clearly seen in His Creation so that rational men are without excuse. The world, the universe and our own extraordinary personal being each bear witness to the glory of God as our Creator, so that atheists close their eyes and are wilfully blind to it 2Pe 3:5 and are without excuse Rom 1:20.

The greatest icon of human history is, of course, the Lord Jesus Christ, concerning Whom there have been more biographies written than any other person in human history. However, His name is more likely to be used as a swear word in western ‘civilised’ society, demonstrating its assessment of His true meaning and worth. He has made the greatest impact on human society in the past 2000 years, an impact for good, of incalculable worth. The opinion of ‘the public’ needs to be better informed beyond the partial and prejudicial opinions of cheerleaders. Christians are meant to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, but there are few examples of this in our day.

It is worth recalling that for many people an ‘icon’ is an object of worship. Celebrities might be role models and worthy of honour, but they are not objects of worship.

“Jesus said, ‘For judgment I am come into this world, that they who do not see might see; and that they who see might be made blind.’
And some of the Pharisees which were with Him heard these words, and said unto Him, ‘Are we blind also?’
Jesus said to them, If you were blind, you should have no sin: but now you say, We see; therefore your sin remains” John 9:39-41.

Jesus Christ is the touchstone by which the whole world will be judged Lk 2:34.

“Jesus said to them, Did you never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes?” Mat 21:42.

Bible quoations


14 Jan 2019: tonight the third category on scientists mentioned some medical achievements in passing, tangentially mentioning Alexander Fleming, polio and other diseases. The advocate Chris Packman correctly mentioned technology as one of the great scientific achievements of the century. Second to medicine, technology has improved the standard of living of much of the human race in the 20th century. Thankfully, bankers, economists and lawyers have not featured among any of the icons. Thanks to technology, most people will soon be energy and food sufficient but the world is in desperate need of banking and legal reform – possibly the 21st-century icons will address these areas of life to the betterment of humanity. If anyone should reform banking so that the proceeds of banking go back to the government who authorised the right to profit from creating money – Positive Money – they would be a worthy contender for the acclaim of being the icon of the 21st century. Better still, if someone should reform the legal system so that there is practical and equal access to justice they would have greater justification to the accolade.

15 Jan 2019: tonight the advocate introduced the fourth category by arguing that an entertainer was the greatest category of icons, basing it on her own involvement in entertainment but primarily on the ability of ordinary people becoming for the first time global stars and inspiring others to think likewise, failing to observe that this was only possible for entertainers in the 20th century through the medium of television and in the 21st century through the internet. She did mention that cinema had done this for her first icon Charlie Chaplin.  However, this shows that ‘global star’ means, in her eyes, in one’s own lifetime. This was accomplished through the scientific technology that she places below entertainers. This BBC series is about “achievement, impact and legacy”, in order to show that “a single person has the power to change the world”. 16th-century Martin Luther’s impact was ‘global’ in his lifetime, but only through the technology of the printing press, Charlie Chaplin’s through cinema and more recent personalities’ impact through the television and now the internet. The concept of impact and legacy extending beyond the 20th century has so far not been often addressed in this series and sometimes even overlooked. It is true that “one man can change the world”, and Scotland’s Man of the Millennium, 16th-century John Knox, has a legacy not only in Scotland but around the world in the biblical Presbyterianism that revolutionised the government not only of the church but of the societies wherever it came. Instead, this BBC series shows us how some people assess legacy. The advocate for entertainers said of David Bowie, “50 years ago he had a vision for the pan-sexual world we are moving towards today”, and concluded: “The true icons of the 20th century are the entertainers. Every one of them [the four profiled] has transformed himself and in doing so transformed us.” This is the issue – is it change for the better or for the worse? Change is not necessarily progress. David Bowie used lateral thinking to re-invent himself, thereby interesting and surprising those who did not realise what he was doing. Like the pied piper he used music, and the public platform it afforded him, to draw his devotees towards the destination he wanted, delighting those who agreed with this direction. Voting for this is similar to voting for a political party, a particular religion, philosophy or worldview – not an icon. The social change in the 20th century has not been for the better, and it is technology which is improving society rather than the secular, social, immoral mores current in our day.

16/1/2019: the BBC One Show summarised this week’s Icons of entertainers as: Charlie Chaplin, the world’s first superstar; Billie Holiday, whose singular voice spoke to America’s deepest wounds; Marilyn Munro, the sex symbol who took on Holywood; and David Bowie, the master of re-invention who changed the world.  This catefory was won by Bowie, testimony to the personal taste of the current BBC audience, and it will be interesting to see what fifty years will make of this legacy and this assessment.  The Icons category of scientists was summaried as: Tu Youyou, the women who tested her own drugs to save millions; Alan Turing, the persecuted genius who launched the computer age; Albert Einstein, the awe-inspiring physicist who redefined the Universe; and Marie Curie, the visionary chemist who revolutionised medicine.  This was won by Alan Turing, which is an acceptable choice because although Einstein’s contribution was astonishing, significant and long-lasting, it was nevertheless the insightful application of pure physics and mathematics at a theoretical and intellectual level, applied by other people, while Turing’s contribution was an astonishing mathematical mind being applied to solve a practical problem of immense worth at a critical time in a necessarily short period of time during WWII, whose legacy in developing a functioning computer will last for millennia.  It would be disappointing if the decision to favour Turing over Einstein was influenced by social factors but he is a worthy winner of this category of four, although I have explained above that all four scientists in this category easily outstrip the four entertainers.

29 Jan 2019: today’s category of Icons, artists & writers, was introduced by Lily Cole their advocate: “Great art is the face of free thinking. It articulates, punctuates and guides the human experience like nothing else.” The 20th century brought change at such a pace that society could barely keep up. The people that made sense of it all were the artists – wildly creative, often troubled characters who defined our world for us. “Artists reflect what is happening in the world from politics, the cultures and human experience and they are also the vanguards of change, inspiring society to move towards new horizons.”

She concluded her advocacy by summarising them thus: Pablo Picasso, who overturned centuries of artistic convention; Virginia Woolf, experimental writer and feminist; Alfred Hitchcock, the movie mastermind; and Andy Warhol, who turned consumerism into an artform.  This innocuous summary belies the fact that this category has the same shortcomings I have mentioned about the entertainers above.  Further, some of this selection were indeed ‘wildly creative, often troubled characters’, but this was not the reason why I could not vote for any of them but because as ‘vanguards of change’ they changed society in the wrong direction, a direction not determined by them nor likely to last.  As an aside, those who extol Hitchcock’s expertise with suspense and fear to manipulate the mood of his audience have no justifiable complaint with preachers repeating the Lord Jesus Christ’s warning sinners to flee from the wrath to come.

30 Jan 2019: The One Show revealed the winner of the final category was Pablo Picasso.  Of the choice available, I agree that he is the best choice; he certainly portrayed the fragmented state of 20th-century society.  The seven finalists are here, but what a poor choice for ‘Icon of the 20th century’. The winner of the finalists will be announced live next Tuesday at 9 p.m.  Of those available, my sentiment would opt for Dr Martin Luther King Jr, but probably Alan Turing has the most lasting effect according to the rules of the competition.  However, what a lamentable choice from which to choose.  We have the competition organisers, the panel of ‘experts’ and the bias of internet algorithms to thank for this inadequate selection.  It is comparable to classical scholars considering the objects of their study to be the greatest who ever lived, such as Herodotus, the father of history, or Ovid the greatest poet, ignoring the more ancient history of the Bible and its magnificent poetry, simply because these classical scholars do not know the Bible.

5 Feb 2019: These Icons were described on The One Show tonight as “some of the most remarkable and inspirational figures of our time”, indicating yet again the lack of clarity what is actually being determined, which is meant to be “the greatest person of the 20th century”. They were listed as: Alan Turing, the persecuted genius who launched the computer age; Ernest Shackleton, the sea captain who risked his own life to save his men; David Bowie, the master of invention who changed the world; Pablo Picasso, who overturned centuries of artistic convention; Nelson Mandela, the former prisoner who became a president; Martin Luther King, the civil rights leader who had a dream; and Muhammad Ali, who put his principles before professional glory. They were then described as the Magnificent Seven in a different order, Nelson Mandela, Ernest Shackleton, Alan Turing, David Bowie, Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali and Pablo Picasso.

Nick Robinson chatted with two of the advocates gathered at the Indigo at The O2 , London, for the Entertainers and Artists, who emphasized yet again the social changes introduced by Bowie and Picasso. Certainly, the 20th century saw huge social changes and many of these were for the worse. Nick summarised the vote properly as determining ‘the icon of the 20th century’ but it was evident that this was not being understood as “the greatest person of the 20th century”.

In the studio Matt Baker summarised it as ‘Who could we not have done without?’ and Alan Turing was the general consensus, but one guest described the choice as ‘the person that resonates with you the most’, showing that voters are unlikely to determine “the greatest person of the 20th century”.

Alex Jones then analysed it from the political correctness viewpoint – ‘no women, no Scot’ – but why should political correctness come into it? It reminds us of Jordan Peterson’s point that equality of opportunity is aspirational and laudable but equality of outcome is impossible, a point articulated earlier by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Truly, the most influential Scot of the 20th century had been completely overlooked because John Logie Baird had no cheerleader.

Final voting online and by phone did not open till the Icons programme at 9 p.m. on BBC2 tonight. It was introduced as people voting for ‘their favourite icon’, feelings being hardly the basis of voting for the greatest person of the 20th century.

The first discussion noted that none of the twelve female Icons made the final. Clare Balding commented: “you can’t be an icon unless you are allowed to have the limelight”, showing yet again that even an advocate interpreted this competition in terms of celebrity. There is truth in her comment if one interprets icon in celebrity terms, but one also needs to have a cheerleader to promote one’s cause.

Each icon’s story was repeated briefly, the order being Alan Turing, Ernest Shackleton, David Bowie, Pablo Picasso, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali. This order persisted through this final programme, when indicating how to vote for each of them, in the final summary and advocacy, presumably not to confuse voters. For Turing, the advocate pricked consciences with shame and guilt at his treatment. We were told that scientists will save us and that his legacy lives on in our smartphones. In spite of the audience being asked to hold aloft their smartphones, their screens gleaning all over the arena, no notice nor mention was made of the television screen shining so prominently out from these phones. Truly, technological progress is keeping our society afloat in spite of the social regression caused by secular morality, but science will not save us.

Shackleton was promoted as we are all explorers. Bowie was promoted for showing us that ‘it is okay to be different’. Picasso changed the way we see the world. “Before and after Picasso” had the unspoken allusion to B.C. and A.D. He was promoted as the pioneer of change in the 20th century.

Mandela’s ideas were not unique but he was unique in his lack of bitterness. His advocate Trevor McDonald tied his legacy to justice for Stephen Lawrence, which seemed to me to be an inappropriate appeal to the black vote in the UK television audience, but his summary was better: it showed that “one inspirational person can be a catalyst for real change.”

Martin Luther King gave “what would become one of the most celebrated speeches in history.” His commitment to non-violent protest was joined by his advocate to populist issues in what appeared to be an appeal to a UK television audience. His views were encapsulated in his statement “injustice anywhere was a threat to justice everywhere”.

Muhammad Ali, “the greatest” with a personality and eloquence to match, could “dance like a butterfly and sting like a bee” was promoted for using sport, the global language of the 20th century, to promote religious and ‘racial’ freedom, his advocate concluding with another appeal to local UK issues.

The list of icons was repeated for a final time in the same order for final voting online and by telephone during the programme. The vote then closed and while the votes were counted and finalised, a short discussion took place with some in the audience, beginning with Tanni Grey-Thompson who chose Dr Martin Luther King, then a boxer chose Muhammad Ali, and Stephen Lawrence’s mother spoke about Mandela’s influence in promoting the Stephen Lawrence case.

The winner

After a montage of events through the latter half of the 20th century – WWII, the creation of the United Nations and the NHS, the Beatles, the Space Programme and Moon landing, the Peace movement, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Middle East Peace process and the International Space Station – the winner was voted to be Alan Turing. The television cameras went immediately to Peter Tatchell in the audience, unjustifiably suggesting that homosexuality played its role in the decision.

I did not vote in the final as I was at a more interesting meeting at the time, but I have already indicated that I don’t think the entertainers and artists should be there. Of Nelson Mandela, Ernest Shackleton, Alan Turing, Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali, Alan Turing would have had my vote on the principles of the programme, Martin Luther King would have had my vote on ‘the person that resonates with you’ and Nelson Mandela as the person whose iconic leadership made a significant difference. But Winston Churchill should have won this category, and Mandela’s legacy would never have attained its iconic height without F. W. de Klerk’s Christian ability to read Mandela’s character, integrity, intellect and charm, to trust him with the future leadership of South Africa and to release him from prison. Shackleton’s leadership is inspirational and worthy of great admiration, but it is hardly iconic in the sense of the aim of this programme.

This was a very interesting series of programmes but it failed in its aim because of lack of specificity and originating parameters. It was an exercise demonstrating how unable people are to frame a question and stick to it. No wonder people have debated for two years what the Brexit Referendum actually means. It indicates how inadequate British education has become.

Alan Turing deserved to emerge as the leader of this pack, but the invention of the computer for which he is justifiably remembered and honoured has its practical application in the 20th and all subsequent centuries thanks to the television invented by Scotsman John Logie Baird – the 20th century’s greatest icon in terms of this BBC competition.


15 Jul 2019: the Bank of England announced that its new £50 note will carry Alan Turing’s portrait as “the father of computer science and artificial intelligence”.

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