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The 50 people who matter today: 41-50

41-50 on our diverse list of individuals, couples and families changing the world, for good and ill.

41. David Ray Griffin

Top truther

Conspiracy theories are everywhere, and they always have been. In recent years, one of the most pernicious global myths has been that the US government carried out, or at least colluded in, the 11 September 2001 attacks as a pretext for going to war. David Ray Griffin, a retired professor of religion, is the high priest of the "truther" movement. His books on the subject have lent a sheen of respectability that appeals to people at the highest levels of government - from Michael Meacher MP to Anthony "Van" Jones, who was recently forced to resign as Barack Obama's "green jobs" adviser after it emerged that he had signed a 9/11 truth petition in 2004.

42. Shahrukh Khan

Special K

For billions of people across Asia, Shahrukh Khan is the biggest star on earth. Since his film debut in 1992, King Khan has been the ruling monarch of Bollywood, the world's largest film industry. "I want people to scream and shout at me," he says. Which is lucky, as he is wildly popular in India, Pakistan and even Afghanistan, where his films were sold on the black market during Taliban rule. A Muslim hero in a Hindu nation, SRK, as he is affectionately known, is the symbol of a younger, confident, richer, globalised India.

43. Joaquín "Shorty" Guzmán

Cocaine knight

At a diminutive 5ft, Mexico's most wanted man is nicknamed "El Chapo" (Shorty). But don't let that fool you - as the top drug lord in a country that provides 90 per cent of all cocaine in the US, Guzmán is instrumental to the international drugs trade and the thousands of lives it claims each year. Head of the Sinaloa cartel, he escaped from prison in 2001 and has since eluded capture. His stake in the US drugs market has amassed him a fortune of $1bn, earning him a place on the Forbes rich list this year.

44. Hugo Chávez

Bolívar's boy

Since being elected president of Venezuela in 1998, Hugo Chávez, the standard-bearer of "21st-century socialism", has survived all attempts to unseat him and has vowed to continue leading the Bolivarian revolution until 2030. His victory earlier this year in a referendum to abolish term limits allows him to run for a third six-year term in 2013. The former army paratrooper's political philosophy, a fusion of Marxism, nationalism and Christian socialism, has inspired left-wing leaders across Latin America - and dismayed US politicians.

45. Peter Akinola

Unhappy clapper

As head of the Church of Nigeria, Akinola is one of the most controversial figures in the worldwide Anglican Communion. He campaigned in 2003 against the consecration of two gay men: Jeffrey John in Reading and Gene Robinson in New Hampshire. The Church of England backed down on John's appointment and a schism was avoided - just. In 2006, at Akinola's invitation, two disenchanted congregations in the US placed themselves under the authority of the Church of Nigeria. And last year's Lambeth Conference was boycotted by 250 traditionalists. Africa is the fastest-growing section of the Church, and Akinola's influence is sure to extend beyond his retirement in March 2010.

46. Anna Wintour

Atomic kitter

Her nickname, "Nuclear Wintour", says it all. The editor of American Vogue is the ultimate ice queen. Both films made about her - one fictional (The Devil Wears Prada) and the other a documentary (The September Issue) - depict her as a terrifying, dictator-like figure, able to shape fashion the world over, from the top designers to the high street chains. But fashion is never just fashion. Wintour's editorial eye will determine what we buy and what we see from one year to the next.

47. Jay-Z and Beyoncé

Pop idols

Beyoncé walks onstage in an explosion of lights and glitter and sequin leotards, and the 20,000-strong crowd bursts into a frenzy of excitement. When she sings "Ave Maria", the arena is hushed. But it's not simply her performance, or her charisma. The woman is a machine. She is somewhere beyond sweaty human reality. Her force and energy seem superhuman. There isn't a lapse, a misstep, not even a glimpse of uncertainty.

Beyoncé is a workaholic. Just as she conquers one thing, she seeks out another and beats that into submission, too. Destiny's Child seems an age ago, after "Crazy in Love", Dreamgirls and her Sasha Fierce incarnation. She has sold over 75 million records, spent more weeks at number one than any other female artist this decade and earned nearly $90m last year, making her the highest-paid entertainer under 30. She has also launched the inevitable fashion line, House of Deréon. She sang for the Obamas; she visits hospitals and rehabilitation centres; she encourages her fans to bring groceries to her US concerts to help feed America. Beyoncé is fast becoming a saint, with the power to convince millions of her cause.

As if Beyoncé weren't enough on her own, she became one half of arguably the most powerful showbiz couple in the world when she married Jay-Z in April 2008.

Jay-Z is a rapper by trade, but by founding Roc-A-Fella Records, running Def Jam and then starting Roc Nation, he has become a vastly influential music industry boss, launching the careers of Ne-Yo and Rihanna along the way. He, too, has a fashion label, Rocawear; and he owns the New Jersey Nets basketball team and invests in smart New York hotels. Together, Beyoncé and Jay-Z preside over an expanding empire. But it's about more than wealth, or power. They have a steeliness about them. They do not make mistakes. There is a feeling that they have somehow gone beyond the foibles of being human to a place where perfection is effortlessly within their control.
Sophie Elmhirst

48. Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir

Ice queen

Has Iceland ever made more headlines than in the past year? Still reeling from the banking collapse of last October, the country has started on the road to recovery with one giant step for womankind. In February, Sigurdardóttir - Iceland's only minister to have gained in popularity in 2008 - became not only the country's first female prime minister, but the world's first openly gay leader. After losing a bid to lead the Social Democrats in 1994, Saint Jóhanna (as Sigurdardóttir has been nicknamed) declared: "My time will come." That time is now.

49. Patricia Woertz

Grain goddess

As CEO of Archer Daniels Midlands (ADM), one of the largest food processors in the US, Patricia Woertz's influence in corn, wheat and soybean production extends across the world. She has been the driving force behind the conglomerate's switch from food to bio-energy, pushing ADM's investment in corn ethanol production and profiting from heavy government subsidies designed to "help the American farmer". ADM brandishes the slogan "Resourceful by Nature", yet it still ranks as the tenth worst polluter in the US.

50. Dan Brown

Conspiracy theorist

Love or hate him, Dan Brown is one of the bestselling authors of all time. The Da Vinci Code, a thriller about a conspiracy to conceal the marriage and modern-day descendants of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, has sold 80 million copies and been translated into 44 languages. Its success triggered a deluge of similar novels, guides to the theories, and books refuting its claims - not to mention a huge spike in tourism to the places it featured. His latest novel, The Lost Symbol, which focuses on freemasonry and the Founding Fathers, has smashed first-day sales records. Watch this space for a mass exodus of conspiracy tourists to Washington, DC.

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

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood