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The 50 people who matter today: 11-20

11-20 on our diverse list of individuals, couples and families changing the world, for good and ill.

11. Daniel Nocera

Gas man

In 2004, an epoch-making realisation dawned on the MIT chemist Daniel Nocera. He saw that the photosynthetic mechanisms that plants use to split water could be mimicked in such a way as to build a catalyst capable of making hydrogen fuel. In coming to understand how hydrogen ions could be harnessed to make hydrogen gas, Nocera had happened on a procedure that could conceivably transform the way energy is generated. It is no exaggeration to say that the prospects for genuinely renewable energy in coming decades depend on Nocera's ability to develop a catalyst that runs not on electricity, but on sunlight itself.

12. Angela Merkel


A champion of business, Angela Merkel is the first woman to lead Germany since it became a nation state in 1871. And as leader of Europe's largest economy and the world's biggest exporter, she carries huge weight on the international scene. Merkel stands as a bulwark to the Anglo-Saxon capitalist free market. She pushes for tighter international regulation on banks and led the crackdown on bank bonuses that recently cowed Gordon Brown. She is a solid supporter of the invasion of Afghanistan and her back-seat diplomacy has been crucial in brokering compromise between the UK and US. With a personal approval rating of over 60 per cent, Merkel is Europe's most popular leader and the justified proprietor of the Forbes title of "Most Powerful Woman in the World".

13. Bill and Melinda Gates

The softies

Microsoft brought the Gateses their fortune, but nowadays their global influence is felt through their eponymous foundation. It is the largest of its kind in the world, with an endowment worth some $35bn. The $800m that the couple give every year to health programmes tackling diseases such as polio and malaria is almost equal to the World Health Organisation's annual budget. Their philanthropy has attracted others to the cause - Warren Buffett gave roughly $30bn (nearly half his fortune) to the foundation in 2006. But it has also attracted criticism: some suggest that their donations undermine public health systems in developing countries.

14. Paul Kagame

Rwandan unifier

Over a period of 100 days beginning in April 1994, more than 900,000 people, mostly from the country's minority Tutsi group, were slaughtered in the small, landlocked Central-East African country of Rwanda in a state-driven assertion of Hutu supremacy that the rest of the world, turning away in fear and revulsion, did nothing to stop. The failure to intervene in Rwanda was an act of cowardice for which countries such as Britain (which has become the world's largest bilateral donor to Rwanda) and the US have been seeking to atone ever since. The killing was eventually stopped by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a guerrilla movement that invaded from bases outside the country. Its leader was the Tutsi politician-soldier Paul Kagame. A brilliant military tactician who fought alongside Yoweri Museveni when he toppled Uganda's Tito Okello in a coup in 1986, Kagame was born in October 1957 and grew up in a refugee camp in Uganda. His parents fled from Rwanda during one of the country's periodic and systematic purges of the Tutsi minority. (The Tutsi diaspora is spread across Africa, with large groupings in Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.)

To many, the tall, thin, ascetic Kagame is a hero. As president, he has abolished the divisive system of identity cards, introduced by the Belgian colonisers, who first politicised ethnicity in Rwanda and under whose governance each citizen had to carry proof of his or her ethnicity: Hutu, Tutsi or Twa. His minority-Tutsi regime has stabilised and modernised Rwanda, rebuilding the country from the trauma of genocide and the ravages of civil war. His hugely efficient military - arguably the best in Africa - helped to topple the despised Mobutu regime in the country that was then called Zaire.

But to his disparagers, of whom there are increasing numbers, absolute power has corrupted Kagame. He is a hardline authoritarian and war criminal. Rwanda's repeated incursions over the border into eastern Congo have been driven less by a desire to root out Hutu militias than by greed and expansionist ambition. The Rwandan Tutsi elite, it is said, has become rich on the mineral wealth looted from the war-ravaged eastern Congo: cassiterite, gold, coltan.

The war in Congo - Africa's World War, as it is called - has resulted in the death of as many as 5.5 million people; millions, too, have been displaced, and hundreds of thousands of women have been raped. At present it seems to be a war without end, under-reported, misunderstood and shamefully too often ignored by western powers.

Does Kagame have the power to bring peace to eastern Congo? It seems absurd that a country as small as Rwanda could control the fortunes of one as vast as the DRC. But so pervasive is Kagame's influence in the Great Lakes region, so disciplined is the Rwandan military, so determined is the ethnic Tutsi elite (rather like the Jews of Israel) never again to be victims of genocide, and so supportive is the anglophone world of Kagame (to the irritation of the French, who supported the Hutu majority) that this complex and determined politician has, more than any other leader in the region, the authority and opportunity to broker peace in what is one of the most tragic nations on earth.
Jason Cowley

15. David Einhorn

High roller

David Einhorn has had a profound effect on Wall Street. As founder of the hedge fund Greenlight Capital, he was one of the first to see gaps in Lehman Brothers' first-quarter earnings in May 2008. Short-selling Lehman shares, he realised a hefty profit. Last year, he publicly denounced Lehman's shortfall before the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Reserve, or even Lehman's investors did. His gambling prowess was better known on Vegas poker circuits until 2002, when he exposed fraudulent records in the mid-cap financial company Allied Capital. Critics claim he caused a crisis of confidence in the economy, but he has been hugely important in ushering an era of accountability on to Wall Street.

16. Harvey Levin

Gossip guy, Harvey Levin's website (the acro­nym stands for the "thirty-mile zone" around Hollywood), feeds on celebrity activity of the lowest order: Twitter fights, Starbucks encounters, stylist errors. But it has also scooped some of the biggest celebrity stories since it began in 2005 - this year's trophy was the death of Michael Jackson, and the site's pictures of Britney Spears's meltdown were seen around the globe. In doing so, it has contributed to the increasing redundancy of slow print media. Levin, a lawyer by training, is now a media star in his own right, but it's his network of moles around LA (in the hospital, some said, when Jackson died) that makes the site the most influential source of gossip in the world.

17. Grand Ayatollah Yousuf Sanei

Clerical errant

A rare liberal voice from within Iran's theocratic Establishment, Grand Ayatollah Yousuf Sanei is not afraid of going against the grain: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad plans to sue the senior reformist cleric for siding with pro-democracy protesters during June's contested elections. Sanei was already known, and well respected, for his progressive fatwas (condemning suicide bombing and nuclear weapons, and promoting women's rights), and holds one of the most senior clerical positions in Shia Islam. In a country so hostile to the west, a real chance of modernisation could only come from someone with his insider status.

18. Francis Collins

Gene genius

For 15 years, as the head of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins led the quest to unravel the human genome. A born-again Christian, he created the BioLogos Foundation to promote harmony between science and faith. In May, he resigned to explore other avenues; in July, Barack Obama nominated him as director of the National Institutes of Health.

19. Mo Ibrahim


He made his name and fortune from mobile phones, but Sudanese-born Mo Ibrahim has joined the ranks of global figureheads through his eponymous foundation. When Ibrahim set up his mobile phone company Celtel in 1998, there were two million phones in Africa. Seven years later, there were 100 million, opening up unprecedented business and communication. His foundation promotes good governance in Africa, awarding the largest financial prize in the world ($5m plus $200,000 a year for life) to an African leader every year.

20. Robert Iger

Cartoon hero

As the Walt Disney Company's CEO, Robert Iger is the head of the world's largest media conglomerate. Through entertainment phenomena such as Hannah Montana, he controls the deepest desires of the next generation; he also directs the TV news giant ABC and sports channel ESPN. In 2006, he acquired the digital animation studios Pixar, cemented a relationship with Apple's Steve Jobs and signed a $6bn merger with Marvel comics, adding more than 2,000 characters to Disney's repertoire.

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.


The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 


The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.


Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.


Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.


Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter