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Jewish World Review Jan. 3, 2000 /24 Teves, 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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The 'Tyrants' Century' --
TIME MAGAZINE is wrong about the Man of the Century. Albert Einstein was the prototypical genius of our time, yes. And his personal gentleness and modesty made him the most appealing symbol in history of the towering intellect. But by Time's criteria for Man of the Year (or decade or century), the test is not greatness alone, but rather influence on the course of history. And in this, Time has surely erred.

Walter Isaacson, Time's editor, explains the decision to choose Einstein on grounds that the 20th century will be recalled primarily for its advances in science and technology. Certainly those advances have been dazzling. Thanks to inventions from antibiotics to electrification, the average human life span has increased by 30 years, and per capita income has increased seven-fold. We can all chuckle, as Time does, about the "bone-headed prediction" made in 1899 by the U.S. Patent Office director Charles Duell: "Everything that can be invented has been invented." Time is not making Duell's error, it is making a different error -- overestimating the importance of scientific discovery and underestimating the climate which makes such discovery possible.

Scientific discovery is cumulative -- new discoveries rests upon what others have already done. Many major breakthroughs, like calculus and natural selection, were made simultaneously by two or more scientists working independently. This was not the case with Einstein. My late father, a physics professor, used to say that when Einstein first published "Special Relativity" in 1905, there were only a dozen or so humans alive who really understood it. But people rapidly assimilated the new knowledge -- because its time had come. Einstein himself gave credit for his discoveries to the giants who had preceded him.

But the wonders we enjoy, from air conditioning to the Internet, were not simply the contributions of science. They were possible only because a humane civilization existed to enable them.

The man who was most responsible for saving that civilization was Sir Winston Churchill. Churchill was so great that it is almost impossible to overstate his contribution. Alone among major statesmen during the 1930s, he was able to transcend the mood of his time (extreme war weariness -- totally understandable in the aftermath of World War I) and recognize the threat from Nazi Germany. If Churchill had never been born, it is possible, even likely, that Hitler would have won the Second World War and gone on to dominate most of the globe. Needless to say, if Hitler had succeeded, there would have been no Western world -- as we understand the term -- to permit developments like the discovery of DNA, or television, or computers. Without human rights, property rights and the rule of law, none of it would have possible.

But Churchill also recognized and held firm against the other great threat and menace of the 20th century -- communism. His fellow warrior against Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt, totally misread the Soviet danger (as did Einstein, by the way).

Time considered Churchill, but rejected him because he wanted to hang on to Britain's empire. They gave more serious consideration to Mohandas Ghandi. How very PC. But was Churchill wrong to resist the pell-mell rush to hand India over when the result was one of the worst massacres of the post-war world? (Some 1 million Hindus and Muslims were butchered by one another.) Watching the slaughter that would later claim him unfold, Ghandi said, "Such a happening is unparalleled in the history of the world and it makes me hang my head in shame."

That Ghandi was considered by Time repeats the same error as choosing Einstein. It fails to account for the context of his struggle. Only a nation like Great Britain or the United States (Martin Luther King was also considered) is susceptible to the moral example of protesters like Ghandi. Try that stuff with the Nazis or the Soviets and you could count your life in days.

Churchill is out of fashion today because he was an aristocrat, an elitist and an imperialist. Yet without him, the humane, rights-respecting, law-abiding civilization we take for granted would have been rubble -- rubble presided over by genocidal criminals.

Time long ago dubbed the 20th "the American century," but without Churchill it would have been the tyrants' century.

JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate