The No Person of the Year: The Citizen  

 

For all the good things about Americans, a sense of humor is not their strength. Irony is unknown and sarcasm is mistaken for an insult on their intelligence. “Computers will understand sarcasm before Americans do,” has said Geoffrey Hinton, an artificial intelligence scientist.

And that’s why we clarify here that this title is intended to be entirely sarcastic. We are making fun here of Time magazine’s habit of naming the person of the year. It is a cheap journalistic title that has neither the prestige prizes confer nor any of their rewards. Late writer Gore Vidal, whose passing notably impoverished the literary world of the United States, famously mocked Time founder Henry Luce for his conviction that China should be evangelized.

That Luce was born in China to a Presbyterian missionary and his wife was no excuse to justify the lunacy of his proposition, where so many other missionaries and prophets had failed. In his blind stubbornness, Luce fit the description that the H.L. Mencken had made of those good Samaritans that plagued the land at the time (and ours) during Prohibition, saying of those Americans that they came uninvited and forced their unsolicited ideas on others and expected gratitude afterwards.

Most people Time has picked are certainly well deserving personalities, but some are dreadful. In a darker and not so distant past, it was George W. Bush, who wreaked so much havoc on lots of innocent people and on his own country. As we know, Bush was a prime example of those characters Mencken described.

This year it was another one, soon to resume the disasters left unfinished by Bush, after eight years of brilliant intermission under Barack Obama, a once in a generation leader and probably among the most outstanding presidents in the history of the United States. Quite predictably, Time picked as its person of the year Donald Trump, a cause for much of the sense of malaise in the world. So mature is this 70-year-old president elect of the United States that he just tweeted: “Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do. Love!” Person of the year indeed.

We much regret to talk about this individual so often and we will not delve in the traits that make him unfit to sit at the table of any decent person, let alone be the president of any country, even if it is the United States.

Yet the blame is not on him. For much of this year, citizens of democracies made choices that will weigh heavily on the future course of their nations. Some were made during elections –notoriously, the U.S. ones. Yet Austria, too, flirted with a neo-Nazi candidate, and only at the last moment, in a second round, sanity prevailed. Poland and Hungary have also gone over to populists of the right. It can be put down to a delayed backlash to lessons unlearned during their long Communist dictatorships.

Still, these choices of leaders say a lot about the anxieties related to an economy that appears to have run amok, with robots taking over and with many uncertainties ahead.

That can be understandable. The mechanics of democracy that have been fine-tuned over millennia since the times of its inception in the Athenian polis and through so many catastrophes should withstand all of this. They are not, however, unbreakable. In fact, over the last century and the first two decades of this one, democracy has suffered blows. And the worst are inflicted by the very people that should benefit and dictate the terms of democratic politics: citizens.

One of the secrets of well-functioning democracies are the layers of mediation and indirect representation. In some cases they may result in catastrophes —both George W. Bush the first time (and with a little help from the Supreme Court) and Donald Trump won by a majority of electoral votes, even if they lost the popular vote by millions of ballots. Yet the intervention of several agencies in the democratic process guarantees a subtle yet powerful system of checks and balances. That’s why even the worst dimwit cannot do lasting damage to democracy in America.

So yes, citizens made some appalling choices at the ballot box in 2016. Yet perhaps the biggest harm to democracies this year did not come from poor choices of leaders. It came from referendums. The United Kingdom, to the shock of many Britons who voted for leaving the European Union as a “protest vote,” were shocked to find out that their individual ballot indeed counted towards that goal. Panicked, many of them tried to have their own vote recalled but it was too late. We have already discussed how a petty calculation —then prime minister David Cameron wanted to placate the “Eurosceptics” within his Conservative Party— caused the biggest disaster in British history since at least the Second World War.

This was done by the hand of perfectly free, uncoerced British citizens and their legitimately elected representatives. In vastly less consequential referendums, Italians voted in a referendum against constitutional reforms advocated by prime minister Matteo Renzi, who then quit in defeat. Unlike nostalgic Britons (especially those over 50 who voted for the so-called Brexit) who still cannot come to terms with the loss of empire, Italians chose for the safety of the status quo. And in Colombia, voters rejected by thin margin a peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas, denying – rightly, we believe – the rewards of reconciliation to terrorists.

Nonetheless, the problem here is one and the same. Referendums, or “direct democracy” is the worst kind of it. So much so, that it comes to undermine it. It is not a coincidence that referendums were the tool of choice of Mussolini and other dictators. This form of direct balloting lacks the instances of intermediation of lawmakers, the courts and all other government agencies that managing complex societies requires.

There is nothing easier for a demagogue or a populist than to whip up the emotions of the public – especially in times of economic turmoil – and turn it into a political force to crush rivals by way of referendums or other mechanisms of “direct democracy.” For referendums are the direct application of raw mob power. Back in 1930 Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset warned in The Revolt of the Masses against the dangers of collective whims exploited by demagogues. And the results are before us. That in all cases we named above citizens cast their ballots against the will of their national leaders only speaks to the little appeal these figures had: Cameron, Renzi and president of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos are rather dull politicians.

So we contend that the person of this disastrous year was the citizen. Moreover, we declare the citizen the “no person” of the year. The crowd is too anonymous to be singled out as a person. And the choices this year were dismal, so they should be preceded by the most eloquent negative: No. We believe politicians are not solely to blame for the disasters that befall the world. History should also hold accountable those citizens in democracies that cast votes that they and future generations may pay dearly.

Why Obama and Abe Revisit Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor

 

“As the prime minister of Japan, I offer my sincere and everlasting condolences to the souls of those who lost their lives here, as well as to the spirits of all the brave men and women whose lives were taken by a war that commenced in this very place.”

With these carefully chosen words, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe yesterday paid his homage to the fallen in Pearl Harbor in the attack by the Imperial Air Force of Japan in December 1941. The surprise air raid brought the United States to war against the Empire of the Rising Sun and into World War Two.

He was reciprocating the visit by that other master of politics, Barack Obama, who last May became the first U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, where his country dropped the first of only two atomic bombs ever used in a military conflict. The bomb over Hiroshima fell on August 6, 1945. Three days later, the U.S. struck Nagasaki (the mushroom cloud rising over the city after the bombing is pictured above).

Ever since, the deterrent of nuclear warfare has been based on the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, or M.A.D, as the acronyms aptly describe it. It’s the deadly logic of the irrational.

For the dewy eyed, it is not only morality that’s driving Abe and Obama to exchange flowers over the tragedies both nations inflicted on each other. That they did not apologize is beside the point, and not tremendously relevant in terms of political importance.

Foremost among their concerns is the ascendancy of China and its undisguised geopolitical ambitions. This is an unprecedented development in the history of an empire that has never sought to expand beyond what it considered its natural boundaries, marked by the Inner Mongolia to the north and by Tibet to the southwest. The other shared concern by the U.S. and Japan is North Korea, a communist dictatorship run by a madman armed with a nuclear arsenal, who rules over a starving population.

Indeed, Kim Jong Un has his match in the future tenant of the White House, both in his lunacy and his short fuse. Kim has “banned sarcasm” in his country – no joke – as the buffoon about to take over from Obama would too, if U.S. institutions allowed him to. But more importantly, both Kim and the tweeting charlatan are completely unpredictable.

Hence these closing remarks by Obama at Hiroshima should guide our moral compass in the challenging years ahead:

“The world was forever changed here, but today the children of this city will go through their day in peace. What a precious thing that is. It is worth protecting, and then extending to every child. That is a future we can choose, a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening.”

La leçon russe

The title means “the Russian lesson” in French, the language that was popular among the intelligentsia and the upper classes of pre-revolutionary Russia. By convention, too, the titles of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake score are in French.

On Monday evening, the Ballet of Moscow staged a flawless performance of the celebrated ballet at the Goldoni Theater of Venice. The uncomplicated plot of Swan Lake is probably based on a German folktale. On the shores of a secluded lake, Prince Siegfried falls in love with Odette, a maiden who is under the malign spell of a sorcerer that turns into a swan by day. She only regains human form at night. The curse can only be broken by the eternal love a man swears to her.

Yet the prince is fooled into proposing to Odile, an identical yet evil double of Odette. Now incarnated as a black swan, Odette decides to end her life by the banks of the lake. Horrified of his error, so does the Prince, to seek communion with his love in the afterlife.

Tchaikovsky composed the ballet in 1875-1876, at the height of an era that saw a magnificent Russian culture, arts and letters. It was a time of budding hope. Russia was only being held up by the sheer monumentality of introducing progress on a country twice the size of the United States and with pockets of backwardness that dated back to the dark centuries when the Duchy of Muscovy was run by Tatars.

Yet by the late 19th century, most Russian intellectuals were as forward-looking and progressive as their Western European peers. It is hard to recall that it was only a few decades before a century of horrors would begin, with the beginning of the First World War, the mother of most the bloodshed the world is still soaked in (if you doubt this assertion, go back to the roots of the conflicts raging in Syria and Iraq).

But it’s easy to forget all that when one watches the pas de deux and the other dances of Swan Lake. Take, for instance, the Danse espagnole, the Spanish dance: the rhythms and steps, the colors and movements of a Spain clearly influenced by eight centuries of Arab rule are summed up in this Russian reinterpretation of a German legend.

This universality, and the vast promises implicit in all that brings peoples together, only took decades to break down. A series of small missteps led down to the road of destruction. Like Prince Siegfried that was bewitched into betrothing the wrong woman, tragedies in History do include evil, the evil magician in Swan Lake. Yet evil can only provide the spark for larger events. Shortsightedness and hubris, and other minor flaws of character, can do the rest.

By the turn of the 20th century, Russia was ripe for revolution but it was not inevitable yet: a proud yet weak and shortsighted Tsar Nicholas II let personal animosities dictate policy. His conservative prime minister Pyotr Stolypin, regardless of his ideological convictions and his iron hand, had recognized the need for reforms. Stolypin was shot dead at the Kiev Opera House in 1911, where he was attending a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tale of Tsar Saltan.

Not so subtly, however, the Tsar had been undercutting his ambitious reforms that only sought to defuse the revolution that Stolypin saw coming. But why had the Tsar had begun to sour on his ideological kin and efficient head of government? A man in his right mind, Stolypin disliked profoundly Rasputin, the black-clad, monk-like figure that had cast a spell under on Tsarina Alexandra, on account of his alleged curative powers over the Tsarevich, the hemophiliac heir to the throne, whose disease had become the obsession of the empress.

By the time of the Russian Revolutions of 1917 – the Menshevik revolt that dethroned the Tsar and the ensuing Bolshevik coup d’Etat – politics in the Russian court had become an absurd plot of enmities and rivalries that wove into them as much of ideology as of rivalries or loyalties that in no small part were based on fondness for Rasputin or animosity against him.

Any of these characters could have been a “black swan”. As popularized in more recent times by writer Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable, a “black swan” is that highly unlikely event that could bring about disproportionately larger consequences. It comes from “rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno”: “a rare bird in the world very much like a black swan,” a Latin phrase that dates back to the 1st century AD.

Yet we have now known that black swans do indeed exist, both actually and metaphorically. At this particular  junction of developments in the world, with a combination of idiocy and lack of foresight – a certain president-elect that tweets his erratic rambles about a world he does not understand nor care to know a bit more about – we may very well find that catastrophe looms just around the corner. And happy endings only happen in fairy tales, and in Swan Lake happiness is only found in the afterlife.