Today the news media culminates a week of looking backwards at the past 365 days, 52 weeks and 12 months. I write all three to suggest that time is an arbitrary measure. To be sure, the year, month and day are based on the natural movements of the earth, sun and moon. But it is arbitrary both to begin the year in the dead of winter instead of the beginning of spring or another time, and certainly arbitrary to imbue a significance into one measure of time compared to another. What is there about one trip around the Sun that makes it a natural time to look back or to use as an increment of meaning? Instead of years or decades, we may think of human lives and history in terms of stages (childhood, adolescence, adulthood, middle et. al.), which can be of variable length depending on the society and individual. There’s the long 19th century that some historians begin in 1789 and end in 1914, for example. On a smaller scale of time, the Internet has just about eradicated the idea of a daily cycle of events that is reviewed in the morning or afternoon by perusing the newspaper or watching the news.
News stories and cultural trends sometimes emerge for brief periods but often transcend years. For example, we could label 2013 the year of electronic spying, but I have a feeling that this issue will remain before the public’s eye for years to come. We could also call 2013 the year of the twerk, but it would probably be more accurate to call August the month of the twerk, except that Miley’s notorious hip thrusts took place on August 26, so the media twerking frenzy really occurred over the two weeks of late August and early September, AKA the “back to school season.” Of course, if you ask retailers, the back to school season doesn’t begin a week before Labor Day, but weeks earlier with the beginning of back to school promotions near the end of July.
I love looking at old lists of major events, movies, TV shows, music and trends from past years. We can see support for ending capital punishment grow, then ebb then grow again. We can see attitudes towards taxation, LGBT people, a woman’s right to control her own body and many other social and legal issues evolve. We can see the gradual increase in the rejection of science and truth by civic leaders, organized groups and media outlets, especially in attitudes and reporting on global warming, vaccinations and science education. These last few years we can see the ever-increasing rightward movement of the Republican party to the point that it is willing to sacrifice the well being of the country on the altar of cutting government spending programs and keeping taxes at an extraordinarily low rate for the wealthy and near wealthy.
Perusing these lists can help us identify long-term trends and news stories, but we also see how often our society has focused on the trivia like twerking and ignored the important. For example, the initial deployment of ARPANET was on no list of major news or trends of the year at the end of 1969, but history books will note it. ARPANET’s descendent, the Internet, has significantly widened the disconnect between what we think is important at the end of the year or at any given time and what becomes important as we gain a little perspective. Take for example, this year’s list of topics most tweeted about, linked to or the subject of articles: The Kardashians, Duck Dynasty, twerking and the birth of another royal leech will make all these lists. The trivial has overwhelmed the important in the short term.
This time of year also brings many predictions on what will happen in the coming year in politics, culture, entertainment, sports and fashion. Most of these predictions aim at being clever or snarky and all are tinged with the ideology of the predictor.
So let me wade briefly into this morass of lists and assertions with a few observations:
We are on much stronger ground if we use the last day of the year to take stock of the current situation: to evaluate where we stand at this current moment. What I see is a country polarized by a series of issues or philosophical stances: the 1% (or 5%) versus everyone else; those who believe in a diverse society versus those who want to impose their morality and mores on everyone; empiricists who trust the findings of research versus the ultra-religious, those who want to help the poor versus those who think the poor are responsible for their lack of resources; those who believe that government has a role to play in the economy versus those who believe that the free market unfettered by regulation always works best for society. On many of these issues, most people lean to the progressive side in what they believe, but by giving play to both sides the news media keeps the side with the minority views not only alive but dominant. Further muddling the water is racism and religion, which drive those whose economic interests would be better served by progressive policies into the arms of the free-marketeering plutocrats.
As to the past year, I want to optimistically propose that decades from now we will remember Edward Snowden as a hero and his revelations as one of the most important news events of the year and decade. The unnecessary blips that marred the rollout of the Affordable Care Act will be forgotten, just as the snafus that accompanied the first days of Medicare and Medicare Part D disappeared from our collective memory. Unfortunately the victims and refugees of Syria, South Sudan, Iraq and elsewhere will also be forgotten. So will the 1.3 million people who lost unemployment benefits and the 1.9 million additional people who will lose their benefits by June if Congress doesn’t reverse itself in 2014.
Instead of making predictions for 2014, I want to close with a few wishes for the new year: I wish that extended unemployment benefits would be reinstated. I wish that Congress would remove the cap on income that is assessed the Social Security tax, thereby ending any future funding problem for America’s only reliable retirement plan. I wish that Congress would end all subsidies for nuclear, gas, oil and ethanol production and put the money into wind and solar generation of electricity. I wish that we would raise the taxes on people with incomes of more than $200,000 enough to pay for our Iraqi and Afghanistan fiascos. I wish that the federal government would end its use of drones and its widespread spying on all Americans. I wish that a significant number of people would get rid of their cars and use mass transit. I wish that democratic government would be reinstalled in Egypt, there would be a peaceful overthrow of the Syrian regime and that Israel and the Palestinians would negotiate a lasting peace. But most of all, I wish that progressives flood the polls in November and vote out the right-wingers.
And to all my readers, I wish all a joyous and prosperous New Year.