Greatest Living American? Although Google suggests Colbert...
I’ve been thinking that the American who has done more to help the country in more ways might be Pete Seeger. He's a folk singing banjo player who once was investigated for “un-American activities”.
First, Pete wrote the song that powered the Civil Rights movement. Imagine a group of people outside a business or school or City Hall with signs asking or demanding a change or simple justice. By singing "We Shall Overcome" together (a song he either wrote or changed melodically to the version we know today), the people had a kind of unifying affirmation of their intended outcome. If they had marched in silence, that would’ve allowed the space for a hostile reaction to fill the soundlessness.
When Pete was called for questioning by a Congressional committee, I read that he did not invoke his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination but the 1st Amendment right of freedom of association (or maybe freedom of speech, I don't remember).
Pete Seeger was not allowed on any television network until 20 years later, when he was invited to perform on a TV variety show.
With the Vietnam War dragging on, mounting American deaths, financial cost, and uncertain goals, he sang a song about a group of soldiers training in the swamplands of Louisiana, where a headstrong platoon leader marches his troops into deeper and deeper water attempting to cross a river. When someone [in the song] questions whether continuing on is wise, the platoon leader questions his masculinity: "Don't be a Nervous Nellie."
The song was an obvious reference to the Vietnam War. I consider it pretty bold for a fellow who finally gets a chance to perform after 20 years of unofficial silencing. This little song of Pete's was like the Emperor's New Clothes, where someone speaks what everyone else is thinking but afraid to say.
I think this effectively ended the war, though on the surface it seemed to continue as if nothing happened. The public's uncertainty about how the war was progressing soon became outright skepticism and disillusionment with the official governmental portrayal of what was happening.
Pete also helped the environmental movement, though there were probably several people and events that led to increased public awareness of nature in the 60’s. "An Inconvenient Truth" suggests that the first whole picture of the earth taken from space when made public sparked our environmental awareness of how finite our planet really is, launching the environmental movement and first Earth Day.
Although the effect can't be measured, I think Pete might have also helped people understand that the environment was being damaged as a side-effect of maximized business profitability.
Pete Seeger lived in upstate New York for many years. With the invention of the steamboat, goods could be sent up and down the Hudson River on a predictable schedule, regardless of weather, wind or tide. Evidently, this caused a boom for industries and factories.
In 1962, Pete Seeger came across a book of illustrations of sailing vessels going up and down the Hudson River. To raise awareness of what the river had been like, he and some friends built a sailing ship, a sloop (a
two sails, front and back
a headsail and mainsail) called the Clearwater. I remember seeing pictures of it in Life Magazine.
The ship sailed up and down the river, increasing awareness of how polluted the water had become when treated as merely a means for increasing transportation for commerce. "Sailing Down My Golden River"
is not Pete's best song, but it does have a hauntingly whimsical nostalgic longing for natural beauty lost.
He also wrote or co-wrote "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"
, "If I Had a Hammer"
, and "Turn, Turn Turn"
. He and his group popularized songs from around the world, like "Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)"
So he infused the Civil Rights movement with its musical theme message, single-handedly stopped the Vietnam War (well, as a banjo player you’d have to say more precisely he used two hands), and was an early voice calling for protecting the environment.Another Worthy Nominee
Another possible individual who may have done more than any other living American to help the world might be William Gates, III.
Although his guidance has given the industrialized world a series of ongoing advancements in computer calculation (at higher and higher abstraction levels) paralleling the baseline increased potential of each successively denser and more complex microprocessor, I think his true worth will be seen in the individual lives (especially those many people without power to change harsh and dangerous living conditions) that are helped or protected by his medical and social philanthropic organization's programs.
I’m honored to be working for him, even as a lowly contracted worker hired to work on miscellaneous projects.Postscript
I saw a news feature on Earth Day last Sunday telling the story of the person who, probably more than anyone, started our environmental awareness.
The book “Silent Spring” written by Rachel Carson warned of the dangers of spraying pesticides everywhere. I never read it, but did see a TV documentary about it back in the days when there was an unquestioning faith-in-what-science-does-for-modern-life (brilliantly satirized in the style of mock public service science short films in “An Inconvenient Truth”).
It’s clear to me that this book started public awareness that we might be damaging the livability of our world by trusting in the wisdom of the advancements made by Science (really, the proponents are companies with vested interests that benefit financially in promoting use of certain products and technologies).
If you grow a garden with vegetables, leave off any insecticide spraying. The bugs won't bother a healthy plant as much as a sickly one. You can even pick off the bugs by hand or use plain water in a spray bottle to remove aphids (little tiny critters).
If you don't have a garden, visit a farmer's market when they start bringing in the local produce. Although it's not always true, unsprayed or organic produce is often tastier and might have more (variety of) nutrients.