Midway through 2006, on the morning of June 30, a thought crossed my mind as I stretched at the side of my bed and prepared to have my morning devotions:
If TIME magazine had to name the Person of the Year for 2006 today, who would it be?TIME's criteria for making this selection appears to be pretty simple. Who, they ask, is the person who most personifies the year and has had the largest impact on people's lives, for good or ill?
In a way, the very notion of a Person of the Year (called Man of the Year until a short time ago, reflecting, no doubt, our thankfully and belatedly progressing attitudes about the equality of the genders) is an anomaly, a vestige from the past. Much of the history of History as a discipline has been marked by the belief that great people make history and that the rest of the residents of the planet at any given time are also-rans.
Fortunately the ablest students and teachers of History understand that the "great people" usually reflect their times or are part of a cast of millions (now billions) who change the flow of the human story. Yet the prominent often do play special roles as our collective representatives or as catalysts of change.
So, who might be the representative or catalyst Time would choose as the Person of 2006 if the choice had to be made now? A few possibilities...
Warren Buffet: A $37-billion check to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is what you might call a major gift. Does he represent a renewed commitment to ongoing, and not sporadic, generosity?
Patrick J. Fitzgerald: The special prosecutor is uniformly regarded as a straight and fair shooter. His investigation of Washington corruption has yielded indictments bound to please and infuriate partisans on both sides of the political divide twixt Democrats and Republicans.
Al Gore: He appears to be riding a wave of increased public acceptance of the notion of global warming. Who knew that a Keynote presentation could become a widely-viewed movie?
Rick Warren: He continues to influence millions through The Purpose Driven Life and its collateral programs. He also joined other evangelicals in speaking out against global warming and leaders from other religious communities in condemning torture as a policy of the US government. Like him or not--and I really like him--he's a major influencer of people. Agree with him or not, he makes you think.
George W. Bush: While his approval ratings have sunk, he appears to be on something of a rebound rooted in his stay-the-course approach to Iraq. When it comes to the war, Americans appear to be saying, "We don't like his policies. But we can't come up with anything else." Neither can the Democrats, it seems.
Katie Couric: She's taking a chance worthy of a high-wire artist, moving from the Today Show, where she's enjoyed early-morning TV dominance for an unprecedented stretch, to go to the uncertainties of the CBS Evening News. Her mission is simple and daunting: To make one of the former flagships of network television relevant again and this at a network long mired in third place. Couric represents that second-wave of women professionals in the US, confident of their places in arenas once reserved for men, yet comfortable with and unapologetic for their feminity.
Gnarls Barkley: The Brit duo became the first to go to the top of the charts in their country even before their single hit the stores. They did it with downloads, surely a harbinger of the future.
Pope Benedict XVI: He confounded his critics by turning out to be, in his first year as pontiff, far more conciliatory and thoughtful than his previous stint as doctrine director for the Roman Church led them to believe he would be. However you evaluate what he said in Poland, the very fact that a former member of the Hitler Youth reached out to Jews there and condemned antisemitism in a country which is increasingly legitimizing the prejudice is big.
Who else would you consider?
[UPDATE: A few other names that have suggested themselves to me since first writing this post, include...
Two tyrannical tots: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, and Kim Jong Il, president of North Korea: In the years immediately before World War II, despotic strong men who hated democracy came to power in the Soviet Union, Germany, and Italy. In spite of the philosophical differences between Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini, each drew inspiration from the other, the brazenness of one dictator encouraging the next to new acts of butchery and aggression.
Something of a similar nature is happening with these two tots. The narcissistic Kim Jong Il had apparently accepted that he needed to deal with the international community and to keep his country's 1998 promise not to go near nuclear weaponry.
But then, Ahmadinejad, the one-time kidnapper of American embassy hostages, was elected president in Iran. Although many in his country view him as something of a sideshow freak, not unlike bygone Germans and Italians viewed Hitler and Mussolini, respectively, many Iranians, with their large educated middle class agree with their president that Iran should be able to develop peaceful nuclear energy.
That, in spite of what the international community sees evidenced, is what his country wants to do, says Ahmadinejad. And so, he tweaks the nose of the world, especially the US, temporizes, accuses, and raises a ruckus, the whole world paying attention to him and calling for talks from which he can hope for concessions.
The Iranian imbroglio has, in turn, roused Kim Jong Il's jealousy. It has also enlivened him to the possibility that he might be able to get more aid for his pervasively impoverished country, freeing him to spend more money on his military.
The two tyrannical tots have loomed over much of what has happened in 2006.
Two Rising Economic Giants: India and China: Of the two, the one most likely to become the next economic superpower is India. India is democratic, has a larger middle class, and, as anyone who has ever called for assistance with their computer or ISP knows, linked to the new technologies that will continue to be a vital force in the years ahead.
China, with its vast population is an economic force to be reckoned with, of course. But the despotism of the government and its contempt for human rights will likely hamper its development. Political freedom is always the precursor of lasting economic freedom.
Nonetheless, the two countries are making their presence felt globally. India is gaining strength in many ways. The US is paying increasing attention to the country, seeing India as a buffer against Chinese hegemonic designs.
China menaces the world, building an ever-burgeoning military with designs on dominating Asia and the Pacific basin. Western acquiescence, especially US acquiescence to China, on economics and human rights issues only emboldens the Chinese leadership, just as a complicit world once emboldened Adolf Hitler.
And it isn't simply governments that idly fail to deal toughly with the Chinese government which are at fault. American businesses, like Google and Yahoo, give aid and comfort to the oppression of the Chinese simply because they want access to the Chinese market.
The Chinese system of despotism is destined for the ash heap of history, to be sure. But the West must decide whether it wants to encourage imminent Chinese military aggression and continued totalitarianism by acting as the current regime's economic enabler or if it wants to contain the Chinese communists, denying them the things they need to cause the world heartache, pain, and death.
[Thanks to Ann Althouse for linking to this post.]
[Thanks to Adam Bonin of A List of Things Thrown Five Minutes Ago for linking to this post. He offers another candidate: Associate Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. I had thought of including Kennedy in my original list of nominees for candidates for Person of the Year. He seems to have taken on an increasingly critical role in the rulings of the Supreme Court, appearing to fill the role of swing voter, consensus builder, and proponent of evolution-rather-than-revolution if the Court's rulings. But being a non-lawyer, I wasn't certain if his contributions so far in 2006 have been significant enough to consider him as a nominee for Person-of-the-Half-Year.]