Person of the Year

Once again, TIME Magazine presents me with a great conundrum, and this year it's harder than most: the blogosphere is lobbying heavily for Malala Yousafzai as Person of the Year. Yousafzai is a brave, intelligent girl whom I admire more than I can say... but I don't think she should be Person of the Year.

This ought to win me friends.

Yousafzai, of course, is the 15-year-old Pakistani girl who openly wrote that, gee, girls are human too and deserve an education. While in Western culture some people still argue that we don't need no book-learnin', she defied a rigidly patriarchal Eastern culture to insist that she did not require a penis in order to read, and she was rewarded with a bullet to the head - which she survived.

Yes, she deserves accolades (and, one hopes, the opportunity for a college degree she desires). But that's not what Person of the Year is supposed to be about.

Person of the Year is supposed to recognize that person who has most changed the world in the past year. It is not an honor, or an acknowledgement of worthiness, as the magazine has stated many times; in multiple cases it has been the opposite. For every Charles Lindbergh and Mahatma Gandhi, there was an Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin (twice). It is often a president or a monarch, but not always an American one; the superpower is not all it's cracked up to be.

And then there's the weaselly choice: a group of people. That started in 1950 with "The American Fighting Man," during the kickoff to the Korean War, and again the soldiers in 2003. Also honored have been "American scientists," baby boomers, "Middle Americans," American women (that's a pretty vague category), "the peacemakers" (represented by Arafat, Rabin, Mandela and de Klerk), whistleblowers in corporate America circa 2002, good Samaritans like Bono and Bill Gates, the protesters of 2011 and even inanimate objects: The Computer (1982) and The Endangered Earth (1988).

The silliest? "You." Yes, you. You've been Person of the Year. In 2006, they honored personal content creators on the web, meaning, um, everybody. Congrats.

Person of the Year has changed much since it began in 1927. Every U.S. president ends up on the list at least once - F.D.R. three times. Some things have changed; it's more America-centric, with only Vladimir Putin as a non-U.S.-based Person since Pope John Paul II in 1994. Also, we now call it Person of the Year, as a 1999 acknowledgement that women are people too. I'm sure Yousafzai appreciates that.

But as I insist every year, the meaning behind the award has degraded much too far into another meaningless accolade when it goes for the safe, easy honors celebrating whoever America likes today. Gone is the spine TIME showed in 1979 when it named the Ayatollah Khomeini, and while Albert Einstein was undoubtedly one of the great influences of the 20th century, it would not repeat its previous bravery in naming Adolf Hitler. Can anyone argue that Hitler did not change the face of the previous century more than any single human being?

I canceled my subscription when TIME's spine totally disappeared in 2001. There was simply no argument which human being had completely changed the face of the world in that year: Osama bin Laden. Yes, the screaming would have been enormous. But it was the truth. Bin Laden changed the world, that year and for years to come.

Instead they cowed to admittedly enormous pressure and named Rudy Giuliani, then mayor of New York City. Giuliani was the feel-good choice, a camera-friendly mayor whose city had been dealt a horrific blow. No doubt he made a difference to New Yorkers. But he hardly changed the world. TIME cowed to a terrified and chaotic public that wanted a happy hero face who held no real controversy. Whether Giuliani was indeed a hero of 9/11, I leave to those who were there. But he was not Person of the Year.

And, sadly, neither is Malala Yousafzai. Her story has gone around the world and no doubt has inspired many... but to the vast majority, the response would be, "Malala who?" Her writing and the cowardly attempt to silence her has not yet changed the world. What a beautiful thing it would be if it did! But it has not happened.

So if not Yousafzai, then who? There are many contenders this year, and as usual, TIME is offering us the chance to vote. Some of them are certainly contenders for Person of America's Year, but it's hard to argue that Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert, Michael Phelps, Jay-Z or Michael Bloomberg had much influence beyond our borders. Obama is a safe choice; he won the election, after all. Hillary Clinton has been logging the frequent flyer miles. (Seriously, Psy? The musician who created gangnam style? Who nominates these lists?)

None of them make a very compelling case, not even "undocumented immigrants," whose very existence changed the conversation of the election. Again, that's pretty much a U.S.-centric issue. Likewise Sandra Fluke, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan and the Mars Rover (robot of the year?).

Who changed the world this year?

If I had to pick - and shockingly enough, they don't ask me - I would reluctantly go with the frontrunner: Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Democratically elected, the U.S.-educated engineer consolidated his power in the wake of the Arab Spring tumult, out-maneuvering the remnants of the Mubarak regime and guiding his country through the development of a constitution based on civil rights, or so it would seem. He is a Muslim and is not a puppet of the West, which makes people nervous. But he negotiated the cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, which won him no small amount of regard in the West. Another awful war averted by a peacemaker in the Middle East, or a future Castro in populist clothing? Time will tell.

Sadly, however, I doubt TIME has the guts to name a Muslim president of a country most Americans know only for triangular architecture and a history of unrest. If they must go with a feel-good candidate, Yousafzai is as good a choice as any - and certainly her cause is one worth celebrating.


  1. so far, Morsi is in the lead in the popular vote - but the editors make the final decision.


Post a Comment