Sunday, December 15, 2013

That Person-of-the-Year Thing

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

OK, so one week I write a column lauding Pope Francis I and the very next week he gets named Time magazine’s Person of the Year. More than coincidence? Perhaps. But as much as I do admire this pope, I think Time made the wrong call.
It’s always been somewhat puzzling to me that the choice of Person of the Year is eagerly awaited by the media and often causes controversy. A lot of people seem to regard it as some sort of reward or honor.
This, despite the fact that every year Time stresses that the award goes to the person who “for better or for worse, has done the most to influence the events of the year,” not just one who’s been the nicest, most positive, or most beneficial to mankind.
(This still doesn't explain why Time said demented teen songstress Miley Cyrus was among its top contenders this year, but perhaps there are some things we aren't meant to know.)
Time’s been naming a Man of the Year since 1927, when aviator and Adolf Hitler apologist Charles Lindbergh got the nod. Hitler himself was named in 1938, which is probably why he felt cocky enough to invade Poland the next year.
Other luminaries achieving the status of Man (or Person) of the Year include Queen Elizabeth II, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
It was in 1999 that they started calling it Person of the Year. Sometimes, the Person of the Year isn't an actual person at all, like the years the magazine named “The Computer” (1982) or “The Endangered Earth” (1988).
Then there was the year Time copped out completely, put a mirrored panel on the cover and proclaimed that the Person of the Year was … wait for it … “You”! It was like something from some half-baked self-affirmation book, or maybe an Oprah episode.
You may have gathered from this that I think the whole POTY thing by Time is pretty lame, and you’d be right. Especially this year. I think the title should have gone to that prolific leaker of NSA secrets, Edward Snowden, who only made runner-up for POTY.
Whatever you may think about Snowden himself (and I for one don’t think anyone who flees to Russia is any kind of hero), there’s no denying the effect of his revelations about just how far American surveillance of people, even its own citizens, has gone.
People were also stunned to discover just how much of it is legal, such as the collection of so-called “metadata,” showing what numbers were called when and for how long.
The Supreme Court, as far back as 1979, ruled that that kind of data collection wasn’t even a search for Fourth Amendment purposes, because “we doubt that people in general entertain any actual expectation of privacy in the numbers they dial.”
No one thought much about that at the time, because hey, we were fighting crime, right?
But once the Supremes ruled gathering that kind of data wasn’t a search, it meant it was fair game for any purpose, anywhere.
Even when programs like the FBI’s Carnivore and DARPA’s Total Information Awareness (TIA) came to light in the early 2000s, only a few voices, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (and, it must be mentioned, your Humble Columnist), expressed any alarm at all, and they were regarded as crackpots at best.
At worst, they were told they were trying to subvert the Dear Leader George Dubbya’s Global War on Terror and that they wanted to bring on another 9/11.
It wasn’t until Snowden revealed the breadth of the net the NSA was casting (and until the election of a Democratic president terrified wingnuts into realizing that giving power to one president meant the next one kept it) that the general public started to wake up to the need to ask some hard questions about how much privacy we’re willing to give up, and how maybe we need to change the laws as they stand.
The words and deeds of Francis I may have an effect far beyond this year. I hope they do. In that case, I’ll enthusiastically endorse him for Person of the Decade, may even of the Century.

However, as much as I admire and respect His Holiness for, in Time’s words, “pulling the papacy out of the palace and into the streets,” it’s Snowden pulling NSA surveillance out of the shadows and into the light that’s “done the most to influence the events of the year.”