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by William H. Benson

November 10, 2011

     Last Monday the British Museum published in the United States its book The History of the World in 100 Objects. Over a four-year stretch a hundred curators at the London museum selected a hundred objects from their expansive collection, objects they believed were representative of the world’s history.

     Number one is an odd one—the mummified body of Hornedjitef, an Egyptian priest, which was placed in an inner and outer coffin in preparation for his travel to the next world. Two and three make more sense: an Olduvai stone chopping tool from Tanzania, the oldest artifact in the collection, and an Olduvai hand axe. Five is a Clovis spear point, “the first evidence of human activity in North America,” and was used for hunting large game, such as mammoths, to the point of extinction.

     Six was a bird-shaped pestle found in New Guinea and was dated to as far back as 6000 B.C. The museum’s director, Neil MacGregor, wrote, “The history of our most modern cereals and vegetables begin around 10,000 years ago. It was a time of newly domesticated animals, powerful gods, dangerous weather, and better food.”     

     Number ninety-five is a defaced penny. The suffragettes of the early twentieth century, those women who campaigned for the right to vote, would stamp a multitude of pennies with the words: “VOTES FOR WOMEN.” Ninety-eight is the “thrones of weapons,” a chair composed of assault rifles and ammunition. Ninety-nine is a plastic credit card, and the final one is a solar panel and lamp. 

     Eight hours in the bright sun will yield one hundred hours of lamplight, enough to light a single room. Today 1.6 billion people live without access to electricity, and this device “allows people to study, work, and socialize outside daylight hours, vastly improving the quality of many lives.”

     Others have pointed out that although objects are of crucial importance in the history of the world, so are individuals, and so are authors.

     In 1978 a writer named Michael Hart ranked the 100 most influential persons in history, according to his own criteria. Into the number one slot, he placed the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, “because he was the only man in history who was supremely successful on both the religious and secular levels.”

     Into the number two position, he put Isaac Newton, quoting Voltaire who said of Newton, “It is to him who masters our minds by the force of truth, and not to those who enslave them by violence, that we owe our reverence.” Three, four, five, and six were founders of the world’s other primary religions: Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, and St. Paul.

     William Shakespeare is down the list a ways to number thirty-six. Hart argues, “I have ranked Shakespeare this low because of my belief that literary and artistic figures have had comparatively little influence on human history.” Huh? Really? I would disagree. Writers have always influenced those in positions of power and will continue to do so. Shakespeare ranks first among the world’s writers, which is where Daniel S. Burt ranked him in his book The Literary 100.

     Last week the movie Anonymous was released, and it supports the fallacious and oft-pandered idea that Shakespeare did not write his plays but that the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, did. People who subscribe to this argument are called anti-Stratfordians. In my ranking of the 100 worst ideas of all time, I would put this idea in the top twenty, for the evidence is overwhelming that Shakespeare wrote the plays bearing his name.

     At the top of that same list, I would place, in order, Naziism, Communism, war, slavery, and racial segregation. Further down, I would put the idea that the American nation is washed up, soon to be relegated to the dust-bin of history. To that I say, “Never bet against the American people, their economy, their ingenuity, or their will to triumph over the worst difficulties.”

     Bad ideas continually surface. Stephen Marche wrote last week in The New York Times: Our politeness has actually led us to believe that everybody deserves a say. The problem is that not everybody does deserve a say. Just because an opinion exists does not mean that the opinion is worthy of respect. Some people deserve to be marginalized and excluded.”

     As for the 100 best ideas of all time, I would place in the top ten the following: the domestication of plants and animals, self-government, written laws, the concept that humans possess rights and equality under law, the transmission of knowledge through written books, and the construction of libraries and museums.