“Trolling” is a 21st-century verb, but it’s not an exclusively 21st-century concept, and for proof one need look no further than TIME magazine’s perennially “controversial” Person of the Year list. This year’s nomination list is out, and ooooh, it’s controversial!
It is also, with the exception of Black Lives Matter activists, a parade of personalities whose impact on the world this year ranges from complicated to catastrophic: Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, German chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian president Vladimir Putin, transgender LA Republican Caitlyn Jenner, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, and, inevitably, Donald Trump, the man currently advocating for special magic Muslim detectors to be installed at our border crossings.
It’s at pretty much this time every year that someone emerges and points out that the award isn’t a popularity contest — strictly, its remit is the selecting the person who “for better or for worse… has done the most to influence the events of the year.” If this was in fact the case, it’d be an interesting, if largely arbitrary exercise — but in reality, the criteria seem to change every year, meaning that the person who comes up with the award is either the most provocative or the least provocative choice, depending on the prevailing political climate. In this respect, the selection of Adolf Hitler as 1938’s Man of the Year makes sense, while selecting Rudy Giuliani over Osama Bin Laden in 2001 makes absolutely no sense at all — except that had TIME actually had the courage to go through with the logical selection, the entire editorial board would probably have had to go into witness protection.
The criterion doesn’t specify “world affairs,” which is no doubt why the roll call of historical winners is dominated by Americans. At times, these selections have been entirely merited, and at others they’ve seemed hopelessly jingoistic (“The American fighting man” in 1950, General William Westmoreland in 1965, Olympics organizer Peter Ueberroth in 1984, and “The American soldier” in 2003) or simply blinkered (Ted Turner in 1991, Ken Starr as co-winner with Bill Clinton in 1998). And, of course, the idea of a single Man of the Year means egregious omissions — it’s hard to argue against George Marshall (of Marshall Plan fame) in 1947, but you could also make a case for Jawaharal Nehru or Mohammed Ali Jinnah (or even Louis Mountbatten), given that the partition of India affected more people than the Marshall Plan ever did.
You can argue that the whole concept is fatally flawed, which of course it is. It buys into the “Great Man” narrative of history (the designation wasn’t even changed to Person of the Year until 1999), the idea that our lives are shaped by the deeds and decisions of individual men who stand head and shoulders above the rest of us. Sometimes this is true, I guess — to continue with the theme of Indian independence, it’s hard to believe that the partition of the country would have played out quite the way it did had others been in the shoes of Nehru, Jinnah, Mountbatten, or, of course, Mahatma Gandhi (Man of the Year in 1930).
More often than not, though, it’s nonsense. Take the selection of Ben Bernanke in 2009, for instance, presumably on the basis that, “for better or for worse,” he was the chairman of the Federal Reserve during the global financial crisis of the previous two years. But the GFC cannot be reduced to the actions of one man, any more than, say, Gavrilo Princip (surely a shoo-in for the 1914 award, had TIME been handing it out back then) can be held responsible for the First World War. His actions catalyzed the beginning of the war, sure, but only because Europe had been sitting on a powder keg for years. That fact is attributable to a whole web of sociopolitical factors, none of which have anything to do with Princip (beyond the fact that they produced him and his beliefs).
So it goes with Bernanke. It’s a pleasant narrative to think that one man’s successes or failures can have a definitive impact on the course of history, but when President Obama praised Bernanke in 2009 for “approach[ing] a financial system on the verge of collapse with calm and wisdom, with bold action and out-of-the-box thinking that has helped put the brakes on our economic free fall,” he was missing the point — whether or not you think Bernanke did a good job of throwing water on a raging bonfire, to attribute the crisis and/or its resolution to him alone is to completely ignore the wider historical context. In this respect, the Man of the Year during the GFC was probably the cabal of magical thinkers at the University of Chicago who were responsible for planting the seeds of the Reagan-era policies that eventually found fruition 25 years later, or perhaps whatever clown first came up with the idea to issue subprime mortgages.
But really, it’s impossible to unravel — there are so many variables, so many contributing factors, that the most significant events of any given year can’t be reduced to a simple narrative involving a single person. (And so it’s always gone with history.) In recent years, TIME seems to have recognized that. Its selections have always appeared to be aimed at stimulating debate, to put it nicely, but since the 1990s, they’ve become increasingly eccentric. Some years they have been safe in that they represent the obvious choice, or someone who not enough people have heard of to argue about (Barack Obama in 2008 is an example of the former, AIDS researcher David Ho in 1996 of the latter). And some years they’re the equivalent of standing on a rickety soapbox and shouting, “Look at me!” — the most prominent being the notorious mirror cover of 2006, because the person of the year was… you! Or something.
Even last year’s selection of “The Ebola fighters” seems questionable. Ebola was and remains a terrifying disease, and those who put themselves in harm’s way to fight the spread of the disease deserve all the adulation and admiration that come their way, but if we’re talking about medicine, the award should probably have gone to the developers of the RTS,S malaria vaccine, which was submitted for licensing in the same year. If we’re going by TIME‘s traditional rubric, a potential malaria vaccine trumps those who confronted a terrifying but relatively rare disease, right?
The point is that the whole concept is a) flawed and b) essentially useless, serving only to give people something to argue about, year after year. And here we are! Of this year’s nominees, the one who satisfies TIME‘s criteria best is probably Merkel, given the far-ranging economic ramifications of her continuing hard line on Greece’s economic travails, but she won’t “win.” No, it’ll be Donald fucking Trump, because he sells magazines, and because he’s spent decades convincing people he’s more important than he is. What a time to be alive.