• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Time's "Person Of The Year"

December 2020


Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year”award has become, in the absence of the publication’s effort to produce anything like the incisive articles and thoughtful opinions for which, originally, it was widely loved, or to craft those elegant columns and delicious exposes by which, on a monthly basis, the intellect of its readership was completely dazzled, the one feature by which its fading relevance is still preserved.


To the great disappointment of those few, devout readers for whom the prestige of Time’s lofty name still retains some nostalgic meaning, and that frustrated audience to whom, despite the surfeit of other news outlets and media alternatives, its borrowed esteem continues to be catered, the magazine is no longer widely respected. In recent years, most noticeably in the past few months, the quality of its writing has diminished, as has the breadth of the views to which it permits expression. Its unwavering fixation on the vices of forty-fifth American President, and its unveiled contempt for those by whom he’s supported, has made it, and so many like it, petty, monomaniacal, redundant, captious, and stale. It’s predictable and unedifying, and, as such, undeserving of one’s time.


Its only source of freshness, the only place to which it can repair for an invigoration of life, is its “Person of the Year” award, to which we now turn.


This venerable prize, bestowed on an annual basis since its inauguration nearly a century ago, recognizes not the best person to whom, with innocent adulation, a team of editors—bound by the constraints of the calendar’s twelve months—can point, but merely the most influential. That influence might be benign, or it might not. To highlight this important point, Time twice “honored” Josef Stalin, architect of the Soviet Union’s murderous regime, and once Adolf Hitler, the very symbol of evil by whom six million Jews, and six million “others”, were systematically gathered and killed. More recently, it welcomed into its amoral pantheon our very own President Donald J. Trump, who’s often listed among the aforementioned two. Such a grouping together, astonishingly frequently heard, is the result rather of histrionics than of history, and of personal enmity than of reason.


But Time’s excuse for choosing the recently-defeated incumbent, upon whom, every month of its publication for the past four years, it’s unloaded nothing but its most heartfelt vituperation, acrimony, and scorn, was that he was, inarguably, the year’s most influential person—though doubtless not its best. Some would agree with its conclusion. Others, vociferously, would protest.


This year, upon Trump’s departure and the accession of a new regime, Time has chosen for its award the two people by whom, henceforth, the federal government will be headed: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Without belittling the massive success of their electoral performance, by which, in a surprisingly close contest, President Trump’s bid to retain his seat atop the Executive Branch has been frustrated and his ambitions slowed, it is a bewildering choice.


In examining the strangeness of the magazine’s decision, a scratch of the head is first provoked by its selection of Harris. As the successor to the role of the Vice President, a position from which, with the first sign of Biden’s senility or ineptitude, she’ll be only too eager to leap, Kamala Harris’ year has been uniquely underwhelming. She captured, if only briefly, the country’s attention when she declared her aim to run for the Democrat Party’s presidential nomination. Her efforts proved vain, her attraction ephemeral, and her enthusiasm sorely inadequate, as she was one of the first figures of any real prominence, in a staggeringly cluttered field, to exit the very race over which she was presumed to be the definitive leader. So desultory was her campaign, and unpalatable her person, that she abandoned the race before her own state of California could cast its vote.


It was only with the victory of her current boss, Joe Biden, that her political fortunes were revived. He chose her, not with some fidelity to the grand concept of merit, by which any serious job in this land ought to be conferred, but with a pliant fealty to the dictates of wokeness, to be his running mate. The qualifications overtly listed for the role of vice president were but two: that she be non-white, and that she be a female. By a mere accident of birth, and a cosmic convenience for which she mustn’t accept any credit, Harris just so happened to be both. That she was unabashedly rejected by her own party, from whose diversity of constituents, she succeeded in acquiring exiguous support, and that her wider appeal to the public-at-large, to whom, in a tight election season, she’d have to ingratiate herself, mattered little.


All that mattered, really was her sex and her skin, a combination of factors by which every American, regardless his color or her genitalia, should be deeply offended. This, after all, is supposed to be a land founded on the sturdy pillars of a meritocratic base, not a caste system atop which biology sits supreme, and our lordly “intersectionality” presides.


Almost as though an afterthought, Time thought it prudent that its prestigious award be shared. The “other-half” of the duo upon whom its award was conferred was the former vice president and longtime senator, Joe Biden. His candidacy for that same office for which Harris so feebly vied, into which he was ultimately elevated, was, at its outset, similarly inauspicious. He conducted himself poorly in debates, responded inarticulately to simple questions, raised paltry sums from spendthrift donors, and failed repeatedly to state with any degree of accuracy just where he was, at the moment, in this wide expanse of earth we call America.


His prospects seemed, at this early stage, to be as rachitic as his posture, a body valiantly fighting against the gravity of neigh eight decades. His likelihood of securing the nomination looked, at least from afar, as slight as his control over his temper and his tongue. In the initial states in which the primaries were held, he was roundly defeated. Bernie Sanders, bête noire of the neo-liberal establishment class, as well as the conservative right, demonstrated a popularity with which old, ideologically dusty candidates like Biden simply couldn’t compete. Sanders, for all intents and purposes, was the rousing frontrunner, the harbinger of the progress to come, while Biden, with a passive yawn, was the idle second-thought.


It wasn’t until the merciful arrival of South Carolina’s primary that his trajectory changed.

There, as it’s known, the esteemed, octogenarian representative James Clyburn is to be observed exercising his divine power of nominating kings. If it’s political success that these heads of state want, Clyburn’s the one before whom they must prostrate themselves in the chill of the snow. To borrow an image from the pages of history, by which the lagging confidence of every pious Christian is still enflamed, he’s like Pope Gregory VII to a groveling Henry IV. He, and he alone, was responsible for mobilizing a hesitant South to support Joe Biden, an occasionally racist old white man by whom only few Black Americans were genuinely excited. Could they be blamed?


Biden then proceeded to run the least interesting campaign in recent American history. From the basement of a Delaware mansion in which he was confined, he communicated to the public little of lasting import. Every day, he read from the illuminated script of a tireless teleprompter, a blurred but blatant screen into whose hazy reflection we all gazed, but weren’t intended to see. He fielded no meaningful questions by which the propriety of his positions, and the acuity of his mind, might be more thoroughly gauged. He simply uttered platitudes, misidentified the person (hint: his wife) by whom he was occasionally joined, mumbled through his pre-chewed messages, all while directing a wearied nation to fix its gaze and maintain its scrutiny on the tweets and tirades of a less-than-palatable President Trump.


If this were a year, unique in the annals of time, during which nothing especially remarkable happened, it might be understandable that the victor an American presidential election would win Time’s award for the “Person of the Year”. As it stands, however, this has been no such year. It hardly needs my telling, but this year has borne witness to two of modern science’s, and recent history’s, most noteworthy events: first, the escape of a deadly, novel virus born of a Wuhan Chinese lab, and, second, the Occidental remedy by which it’ll soon be quelled. We’ve seen, in less than one complete turn of the calendar, the triumph of Western science over an unknown, Asiatic pathogen by which so many innocents have been killed.

The fact that so complex a vaccine was not only conceived, but tested, refined, and distributed as quickly as it was, is an achievement before which every hat should be removed, and every gratitude placed. Every award, including that issued by Time, should be heaped upon it. Marveling at the speed with which it’s come into being, I can’t help but reflect on the original, doubtful efforts of the father of immunology and vaccination, the great Englishman, Edward Jenner.


There was one distressingly urgent question with which the ceaseless toils of Jenner’s professional life in medicine were consumed: how might a man alleviate his fellow creature of the scourge of smallpox, that terribly disfiguring blight by which so many youthful visages were scarred, to which so many of his poor countrymen so painfully succumbed? How might those nasty excrescences be softened, and those bursting pustules calmed? How might he tame a disease responsible for, by some estimates, nearly twenty-percent of his nation’s deaths?


It was a question by which, prior to the advent of Jenner’s ingenuity and daring, every other prominent scientist of his age was baffled. Only some of the afflicted peasants, among whom he set himself to live, intimated the remedy to an illness to which the best science still lacked a satisfying answer. Innocent of the scientific jargon in which Jenner’s colleagues were so eloquently versed, and without an ability to describe with sophistication the strange phenomenon to which they played audience, they recognized an incommunicable truth: those who came into contact with cowpox were often protected against the deadly human variant to which it was so similar: smallpox.


Through the course of many years, and with the examination of many victims, Jenner came to the belief that, once exposed to a strain of cowpox, one could be inoculated to smallpox. Eager to prove his hypothesis in the laboratory of the world, as opposed to the diagrams in his head in which every peculiarity and whim made sense, he applied his theory to a local boy, not yet ten years of age, upon whom all subsequent achievements in immunology hinged. To Jenner’s everlasting credit, he first intuited, and later solved this fundamental puzzle of the vaccine. The boy was protected from contracting smallpox, and Jenner was, forevermore and for all mankind, an absolute hero among his species.


The companies Pfizer and Moderna, upon whom our own return to normality hinges, solved a variant of the puzzle by which Jenner was so rudely confronted. Offspring of the English Jenner, these proudly American companies shared in his sedulous nature, and adopted his atypical genius, to do something so revolutionary, it was thought inconceivable in its own day. Yet, unlike their father, they achieved their task in less than a year, a timeframe unthinkably swift, if one pauses to consider the complexity of the job against which they were set.


Perhaps then, having reflected on the enormousness of “Big Pharma’s” astonishing feat, Time’s “Person of the Year” award wasn’t wrongly bestowed upon Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. The scientists by whom this great vaccine was made, toward whose salvific promise, a desperate world now turns, are deserving of a grander decoration, still. “Person of the Decade” might be too small. I propose, “Person of the Century”. Their achievement is thus deserving. Time’s inability to see this, I fear, is a disease of ideology for which not even Jenner himself could offer an adequate cure.

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