In the wealthy American society, we have the luxury and freedom to value strange things. So be it. Few indicators of what the society values are more telling than whom we mourn when they die. Recently, the deaths of singer Michael Jackson, the actor Patrick Swayze, and Sen. Ted Kennedy have captured much media attention.
Although not taking anything away from the entertainers Jackson and Swayze, their accomplishments did not alter U.S. or world history very much. The attention paid to Ted Kennedy’s death is more understandable. Given the label by the media of being the "most effective senator in history," because of the mountain of legislation he guided through Congress, he certainly had an impact on U.S. history – although whether or not it was positive depends on your political persuasion. My hunch, however, is that his death got so much media attention because he was the last political participant of the glamorous Kennedy generation that contained president John F. Kennedy and attorney general and presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy. In the American media, glamour wins out over substance, even when the person was substantive – as in Ted Kennedy’s case.
Throughout American history, the media has tended to glamourize entertainers, politicians, and, yes, warriors. Glamourized warriors have been elected president many times – for example, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower. Other conquering generals have achieved the American version of knighthood – for example, George Patton, "Stormin’ Norman" Schwarzkopf, and now David Petraeus.
In world history, we seem to most remember the great kings, emperors, and leaders who either slaughtered millions of people directly or started wars that resulted in the same – for example, Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte, Julius Caesar, and Alexander the Great.
Even our great heroes have blood on their hands. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, but he provoked the most horrendous war in U.S. history, which killed more than 600,000 Americans. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman beat back the heinous Nazi, Imperial Japanese, and Italian fascist regimes, but they killed 800,000 Germans and Japanese in massive bombing that was designed to terrorize civilians.
Even the Nobel Peace Prize has been handed out to some pretty belligerent characters – Teddy Roosevelt and Henry Kissinger. But occasionally the Nobel committee hits a home run. And perhaps we should spend some time mourning an obscure recipient of that prize who just died and who will receive far too little media attention. This man’s work was probably too complex, arcane, and unsexy to get him enough notice in the media – in life or death. But the effects of his work were earthshaking in human history. He saved more than a billion people’s lives. His name was Norman Borlaug. Who?
Borlaug was a plant scientist who started the "Green Revolution" by developing hybrid plants that could dramatically increase the yield of wheat and rice crops. These high-yield crops allowed poor countries – such as Mexico, India, and China – to feed their swelling populations, thus avoiding impending famine. As the Nobel Committee said when giving Borlaug the 1970 Peace Prize, "More than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world. We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace."
Borlaug, a humble man originally from Iowa, was not flashy, flamboyant, or outspoken. His passing does not receive the intense media attention of Michael Jackson’s or Ted Kennedy’s, but he had a much greater effect on the 20th century and human history than either of them. And his impact was overwhelmingly positive – not much of a media story, I guess.