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, 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, 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 it 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. 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 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 in things secular and therefore, no wonder, how blind they are in things spiritual.

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. Rom 1:20. The world, the universe and our own extraordinary being 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.

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.

“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.


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. Most people will soon be energy and food sufficient, thanks to technology, 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.

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. This BBC series shows us instead 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. 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.

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