Friday :: Dec 21, 2007

People and Newsmakers of the Year


by Turkana

There's something fundamentally silly about designating a person, or newsmaker, of the year. It's emblematic of our obsession with personality cults, still mesmerizing and mythologizing, while driving otherwise sane people into behaving like emotionally unbalanced teenagers. In the political arena, all one need do is observe the zombie-drone hypocrisy of fawning fans of various candidates, who see genius and saintliness in every move their candidate makes, and the most sinister machinations in almost identical moves made by their candidate's rivals.

Politics is a very dirty business, and no one who rises to become a credible candidate for the presidency is anywhere close to being untainted. Not even my choice, Chris Dodd. Not even the person I wish I could choose, Al Gore. But many of those who once plastered their walls with posters of movie stars and rock stars retain the adolescent need to believe that some single person embodies all that is just and right and beautiful in the world, and they will worship their newest idols with the same glassy-eyed, furtively fantasizing, monomania.

But politics and hormones aside, every year does see certain people emerge as newsmakers, some for valid reasons, and many for not. Time Magazine, Salon Online, and Nature Magazine have each chosen people or newsmakers of the year, and each has done well. Each has chosen a person, or people, who well-represent what is going either right or wrong in the world, and each has chosen people who encapsulate this particular moment in history. I have offered but brief introductions to their choices. It's worth reading the linked articles.

Time Magazine's Person of the Year

Time's introduction is soft and platitudinous:

Russia lives in history—and history lives in Russia. Throughout much of the 20th century, the Soviet Union cast an ominous shadow over the world. It was the U.S.'s dark twin. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia receded from the American consciousness as we became mired in our own polarized politics. And it lost its place in the great game of geopolitics, its significance dwarfed not just by the U.S. but also by the rising giants of China and India. That view was always naive. Russia is central to our world—and the new world that is being born. It is the largest country on earth; it shares a 2,600-mile (4,200 km) border with China; it has a significant and restive Islamic population; it has the world's largest stockpile of weapons of mass destruction and a lethal nuclear arsenal; it is the world's second largest oil producer after Saudi Arabia; and it is an indispensable player in whatever happens in the Middle East. For all these reasons, if Russia fails, all bets are off for the 21st century. And if Russia succeeds as a nation-state in the family of nations, it will owe much of that success to one man, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

But it's hard to argue with their choice. Putin's importance may prove to be not that he helped push Russia into the "family of nations," but that he crushed Russia's nascent democracy. In the past year, alone, he helped revive the Cold War by Spying on the Germans, , possibly waging cyberwar on Estonia, and undermining diplomatic relations with Britain by obstructing their investigation of the latest in a series of very suspicious murders. On the domestic front, he hand-picked his own successor, who then returned the favor by urging him to remain in power as prime minister, then rigged parliamentary elections, and is reportedly poised to walk away with a personal fortune of up to $40,000,000,000.

Salon's person of the year

Salon also makes a terrific choice, honoring two true American heroes. Staff Sgt. Yance T. Gray and Sgt. Omar L. Mora were two of seven active enlistees who published a letter in the New York Times, telling the truth, as they saw it, from Iraq. In their own words:

Viewed from Iraq at the tail end of a 15-month deployment, the political debate in Washington is indeed surreal. Counterinsurgency is, by definition, a competition between insurgents and counterinsurgents for the control and support of a population. To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is far-fetched. As responsible infantrymen and noncommissioned officers with the 82nd Airborne Division soon heading back home, we are skeptical of recent press coverage portraying the conflict as increasingly manageable and feel it has neglected the mounting civil, political and social unrest we see every day. (Obviously, these are our personal views and should not be seen as official within our chain of command.)

The claim that we are increasingly in control of the battlefields in Iraq is an assessment arrived at through a flawed, American-centered framework. Yes, we are militarily superior, but our successes are offset by failures elsewhere. What soldiers call the "battle space" remains the same, with changes only at the margins. It is crowded with actors who do not fit neatly into boxes: Sunni extremists, Al Qaeda terrorists, Shiite militiamen, criminals and armed tribes. This situation is made more complex by the questionable loyalties and Janus-faced role of the Iraqi police and Iraqi Army, which have been trained and armed at United States taxpayers' expense....

In a lawless environment where men with guns rule the streets, engaging in the banalities of life has become a death-defying act. Four years into our occupation, we have failed on every promise, while we have substituted Baath Party tyranny with a tyranny of Islamist, militia and criminal violence. When the primary preoccupation of average Iraqis is when and how they are likely to be killed, we can hardly feel smug as we hand out care packages. As an Iraqi man told us a few days ago with deep resignation, "We need security, not free food."

In the end, we need to recognize that our presence may have released Iraqis from the grip of a tyrant, but that it has also robbed them of their self-respect. They will soon realize that the best way to regain dignity is to call us what we are -- an army of occupation -- and force our withdrawal.

In recognizing their heroism, Salon writes:

The men did not write in a vacuum, or from the comfort of a Washington think tank. As they were preparing their essay, one of them, Staff Sgt. Jeremy A. Murphy, an Army Ranger, was shot in the head. He survived. Less than a month later, two others, Sgt. Omar Mora and Staff Sgt. Yance T. Gray, died in a vehicle rollover in western Baghdad. Still in their 20s, each left behind a wife and a young daughter.

It is, of course, impossible to note in a single article the stories of each of the 892 American men and women who died so far this year serving in Iraq, or of the 3,895 who have died since the war's inception or the 28,661 who have been wounded. But in the story of Mora and Gray, we are given a clear glimpse of what our soldiers died for. They did not just die for the mission, as prescribed to them by their superiors. "We need not talk about our morale," they wrote in the Times. "As committed soldiers, we will see this mission through."

They died in service to a country where even the soldier in the field has the right to question the judgment of the commander in chief. They died in service to the idea that political and military leaders must be held to account for their failures and challenged on their facts. A month after their article ran in the Times, the soldiers words echoed through the halls of Congress, when the war's Gen. David Petraeus and its chief diplomat, U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, came to testify. "Are we going to dismiss those seven NCOs? Are they ignorant?" asked Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican who opposes continuing the war, at one hearing. "They laid out a pretty different scenario, General, Ambassador, from what you're laying out today."...

Both men represented the best of America's democratic tradition, where even in wartime, enlisted soldiers have a right to their opinions. If there is a lesson in their memory, it may be that true patriots respectfully speak up when they see something going wrong. It cannot be unpatriotic to criticize the military. It shows no flagging of spirit to point to a new direction. And for this reason Omar Mora and Yance T. Gray are Salon's People of the Year.

Nature Magazine's Newsmaker of the Year

For their inaugural choice, Nature could not have done better. He is Indian engineer and economist Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

A newsmaker is not necessarily someone to celebrate. In previous years we might have chosen a figure of obloquy, such as Woo Suk Hwang, the disgraced stem-cell researcher. In future years, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a cloned human being, a misguided politician or even a bioterrorist could be selected; anyone might have a significant impact in the news and on science itself, and deserve some sort of singular analysis.

But the contribution of this year's winner to scientific affairs can be celebrated without reservation. Rajendra Pachauri's great strength is in building and organizing institutions in the fields he understands best — engineering and economics as they apply to issues of development. In that area he has enjoyed a success that reflects his calm, yet fiercely driven personality (see page 1150). Over two decades he has built TERI, the Delhi-based energy and resources institute that he runs, into an organization with offices around the world and several hundred staff. And in the past five years, he has chaired the great collaboration that is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)....

Pachauri's year has already featured his receipt, on behalf of the IPCC, of a share in the Nobel Peace Prize. It concludes with the moderately successful completion of the UN Convention on Climate Change talks in Bali earlier this month (see page 1136), when nations made some headway in determining the likely shape of an agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

Protecting the vulnerable from the threat of climate change is about changing what we all do, and that requires political action as well as changes in personal behaviour. Burying carbon underground and lighting our bedrooms with the power of the atomic nucleus or the tides are things that need to be arranged by governments, both directly — by making the economic costs of carbon emission fall on the processes that emit it — and indirectly, through basic research and spurs to technology development. The Bali meeting provided just a taste of the testing political discourse ahead. Behind that lies the hard reality of the personal costs of mitigating climate change, which will fall alike on those who bear them — whether willingly or unwillingly.

The IPCC Reports are available for download here


Turkana :: 2:56 PM :: Comments (4) :: Spotlight :: Digg It!