The Top 10 Public Ineffectuals
‘Without Gore Vidal we would never have known that Nancy Reagan was a full colonel in the KGB’
The two most striking aspects of this exclusive online poll were a) the number of readers who tried to take part (very few) and b) the proportion of them (tiny wee) who proved sufficiently adept with the internet to get their votes through. Our poll was in many ways a victim of its own failure. It is notable that two of our top 10 — Steiner and Starkey — have surnames beginning with S, and two — Redwood and Vidal — have Christian names formed of four letters or fewer.
1. Germaine Greer. As the “Potty Professor” on the Chris Moyles Show on BBC Radio 1, Germaine Greer has done more than any other leading ineffectual to bring the cut-and-thrust of great ideas to a younger audience. Her talk on Greek drama, “Sophocles: Totally and Utterly Brill or What?” won the Gold Prize at the Sony Awards, and her two-minute item “From Michelangelo to Tracey Emin: A History of Western Art”, with a soundtrack by the Arctic Monkeys, was praised by thinkers as diverse as Lisa Appignanesi and Janet Street-Porter.
2. Christopher Hitchens. Time and again Christopher Hitchens has proved himself worthy of his place near the top of the league of leading public ineffectuals. “He has certainly taught me all I know about Iraq,” commented one delighted reader. “And that the present conflict in that benighted country is really all about the supply of cigarettes.”
3. Camille Paglia. The only entrant in our list to be a world record holder — 195 very long words in just under a minute, according to the Guinness Book of World Records — Camille Paglia is the author of a major literary biography, Shakespeare, Schmuckspear; an autobiography, But Enough About You; and many ineffectual critiques, including From Jane Austen to Britney Spears, in which she argues that Spears’s seminal “Hit Me Baby One More Time” is a major feminist work of art, and stands comparison with some of the raunchiest work of Austen and Eliot.
4. John Redwood. Voters have been immensely impressed by Redwood’s ineffectual attainments over the past two decades. Many complained that Redwood’s recent international concert tour of leading public halls had been largely overlooked by the British press. Yet it was an act of extreme ineffectual courage to appear each night on a public platform and to mouth the wrong words to each country’s national anthem, and all to a jaunty piano accompaniment.
5. Dr David Starkey. It is hard to think of another leading ineffectual who has done so much to bring history kicking and screaming into the 21st century. “Dr David has the knack of making even the most venerable historical subject seem like a contemporary TV celebrity,” enthused one reader. Whether writing about Sir Thomas More (“talk about a crusty old egghead!”) or Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn (“the Peter Andre and Jordan of their day”), Starkey has made history as readable as the day before yesterday’s Daily Star.
6 = Martin Amis and Terry Eagleton. The extraordinary success of their touring show, An Audience with Amis and Eagleton, brought the thrill of ineffectual debate to a whole new generation. In the first half of the programme, each one in turn sets out his personal abuse in a calm and logical manner; the second half is devoted largely to mud-wrestling.
8. Gore Vidal. It was Vidal who, back in 1967, wrote a pioneering work of politico-historical analysis in which he exposed President Lincoln as a clean-shaven man who always made a point of wearing a clip-on beard in public. And it was Vidal — the former best friend of every President from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush — who daringly revealed that, during his first term, Ronald Reagan fought and lost the Third World War without anyone suspecting. “For over half a century, Vidal has been America’s foremost public ineffectual,” writes one reader. “Without him, we would never have known that Nancy Reagan was a full colonel in the KGB, or that the all-powerful cardigan lobby — a shadowy group of powerful US leisurewear manufacturers — was behind the downfall of President Jimmy Carter.
9. George Steiner. In his recent publication My Unread Books (Faber), Professor Steiner unearthed at least a dozen of his own works that, for one reason or another, no one has quite got round to reading yet. In one of them, he devotes 600 pages to his discovery that the words for “mantelpiece” and “moribund” are the same in Swahili, and in another he relates his most recent sexual conquests in a dialect spoken only in a three-acre area of Upper Moldavia.
10. Richard Dawkins. Such was the force of Dawkins’s recent arguments for atheism that God emailed our pollsters to admit that even He was beginning to doubt His own existence. On the other hand, publishing insiders say that Dawkins’s new book puts forward the possibility of a previously overlooked omniscient deity. The Outside Chance: It Might Be Me is due out in October.