Nothing too big, exciting, scandalous, ironic or wacky,
May 10, 2001 2:49 AM   Subscribe

Nothing too big, exciting, scandalous, ironic or wacky, but in this article, several famous people who might be considered "American Achievers" are listed:

"The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; Michael Jordan; Jonas Salk; Steven Spielberg; Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart, the home fashion guru; Dorothy Hamill, the ice skater; Frederick W. Smith, the founder of Federal Express; and Steven Case, chairman of AOL Time Warner."

My question is: what criteria did the reporter, Elaine Sciolino, use to determine which famous people get an explanation and which don't? I know all of those names, except for Smith. My guess as to why more aren't defined is because it would sound crass to define some of the more impressive careers in just five words: "Jonas Salk, creator of the polio vaccine" or "The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., slain civil rights leader."
posted by Mo Nickels (11 comments total)

Jonas Salk? Never heard of him (I'm in the UK). No-reg link here
posted by andrew cooke at 3:44 AM on May 10, 2001

It's just a matter of who they expect people to recognize without further explanation. You don't say "George Washington, first president of the United States" to a lot of Americans because most Americans (used to) know who he was and would find an explanation unnecessary and insulting. The New York Times expects most of its readership (and especially those who are reading about the Smithsonian) to know who Salk was.
posted by pracowity at 4:25 AM on May 10, 2001

We want to focus on current living people who are very much 21st century to inspire young people be the best they can be."

Except for Dr. King, of course.
posted by xiffix at 6:03 AM on May 10, 2001

Addressing your question, perhaps it was Ms. Reynolds herself who provided the blurbs after some of the possible honorees and not others (since the list was based on an interview with her).

<off topic>
In this case, the gift will allow Ms. Reynolds to apply her own definition of achievement by giving her a substantial say in determining who will be honored in the exhibition.

I don't mean to hijack the thread, Mo, but I find this the most interesting part of the article (knowing your own focus on how things are written in addition to what is written). I understand that when you pay the piper, you get to call the tune; however, in the case of donations to a public institution such as the Smithsonian, I am troubled by the amount of weight one person's opinion is given in choosing who is worthy of honor.
</off topic>
posted by Avogadro at 6:56 AM on May 10, 2001

Salk is dead, too.
posted by jpoulos at 7:07 AM on May 10, 2001

The article mentions Mr. Case's affiliation twice, so lax editing is probably the culprit. It would have been verbose to include mini-bios of all the names mentioned.

I hope the Smithsonian builds the new exhibit out of foamcore for $1.98 and pockets the rest.

And I saw Salk in a Walmart last week. He's alive, I tell ya.
posted by xiffix at 7:25 AM on May 10, 2001

One person's opinion: yep, it bothers me too. And it bothers me that it has all those strings attached. That's not a gift, that's a contractual relationship.

What bothers me even more is the obvious choices of some of those achievers, all pre-approved and uncontroversial and rather, well, generic. It bothers me that several of them are dead and that there seems to be no function in the donation for nurturing new talent on an active level, but instead, it's 38 million dollars devoted to confirming glory and honor on admittedly deserving people. There's no utility in that. Role models, schmole models. It bothers me that an arbitrary number, 100, was chosen, like a best-of-the-century movie list, as if we can neatly fit our perfect people into a formatted scorecard so you can see how you measure up. It's a canon in the making: safe, trustworthy role models to look upon.

We'll see what the rest of the list looks like when it's released. I hope it proves me wrong.

And anyway, I always distrust publicity-seeking donors. Right away you've got to question motives...
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:26 AM on May 10, 2001

"The Brazen Backslapping Gallery"

Whatever, the Smithsonian sold out years ago.
posted by holgate at 7:40 AM on May 10, 2001

I'm sure this exhibit will inspire a lot of young Americans to stay in school and pursue their dream through a college education underwritten by...
posted by xiffix at 8:07 AM on May 10, 2001

There's just so much to hate about this:
  • The glorification of "achievement" as some abstract ideal of getting things done regardless of whether those things are valuable to do (Dorothy Hamill, Martha Stewart).
  • The implicit acceptance of the twin American myths of "self-promotion pays off" and "big is good."
  • The celebrity-cultiness of it all (judges include George Lucas and Mike Wallace—why them and not any ten dozen random others? Murray Gell-Mann and Rosemary Clooney? Steve Ballmer and Kevin Costner? Helen Chenoweth and David Sedaris? Pete Rose and Ann Richards? Hey, this is fun1)
  • The idea that this will all be enshrined under the pseudo-official imprimatur of the Smithsonian and use up space, energy and attention that could have been devoted to something real.

(Dead people exempt here.)
posted by rodii at 8:56 AM on May 10, 2001

To answer the original question (!), this is roughly akin to which cities are tagged with their state names. It's a "style" issue, usually handled by rewrite. The UPI Stylebook (which outlasted it's agency, amusingly enough) actually has a list of the 30 or 40 cities considered "well known enough" to be used without a state appended.

Not sure, as you note, though, what would be considered the canonical list of well-known people. It's pretty much arbitrary, I think.
posted by baylink at 10:50 AM on May 10, 2001

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