Time to retire Person of the Year

Whatever it might once have been, Person of the Year is now a tedious self-referential gimmick

Time magazine.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock, TIME)

On Thursday it was announced that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris would be joining Gandhi, Queen Elizabeth, "The Hungarian freedom fighter," "American women," and Hitler as Time Persons of the Year. I have not seen whether the president-elect has formally acknowledged the award, but I can only imagine that he will be thrilled to be in such good company. (His immediate White House predecessor has insisted that he was going to receive the nod for an unprecedented second year in a row in 2017 but refused to grant the magazine an interview.)

I guess we should be glad that they didn't pick the virus. I can see that cover in my head: the menacing-looking zoomed-in particle looming over an all-black backdrop, with giant red letters declaring: "PERSON OF THE YEAR: SARS-COV-2." I wonder who would conduct the interview?

One is tempted to say that the whole idea of Person of the Year started going downhill when Time began to deviate from the seemingly unbreakable formula of selecting actual persons in favor of inanimate objects, like The Computer (1982) or The Earth (1992), or such vaguely defined groups as "American Scientists" (1960) "The Protester" (2011), and "You" (2002). But really the conceit has always been a strange one. For one thing it has never been clear exactly what it means to be a Person of the Year. What are the qualities that unite communist dictators, aviation pioneers, presidents, diplomats, civil rights leaders, and popes with Wallis Simpson? Is it, on balance, a good thing to be Person of the Year? If not, why do they occasionally make feel-good humanitarian selections like "Ebola Fighters" (2014)?

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I realize that by asking these questions I am falling into the trap set for me. Whatever it might once have been, Person of the Year is now a tedious self-referential gimmick that exists for the sole purpose of getting people to care about Time. (What a shame that the editors of Newsweek did not invent some equally beloved annual or semi-annual competition — "Salad Topping of the Decade" — during the Coolidge administration.)

It is also dated. The kind of unified public culture that Time once spoke to, and, indeed helped to create, is now as remote as antenna television, if not scripted radio drama. Cable news, the internet, and perhaps especially, social media have magnified certain public personalities to the point that their significance does not need to be explained or even alluded to, obviating the need for pseudo consensus-defining statements (did you know that Donald Trump was kind of a big deal in 2016?). But they have also destroyed the homogenous assumptions that once made such declarations plausible. There is no consensus American public sagely nodding along at the interesting point about the state of our national life made by the magazine's editors when they choose Greta Thunberg (remember her?) as Person of the Year in 2019. Instead there are only adolescent liberals screaming "Slay Kween!" and right-wing Facebook uncles responding with unprintable nouns and adjectives; in between, an indifferent mass of people who have never heard of her might wonder why a hysterical Swedish teenager should be taken seriously as a political commentator, much less designated as the year's most interesting or important personality.

Which is why Time is faced with the same trap. Do they pick the person everyone is talking about more than anyone else — more often that not, the current president — or select someone out of left field. When it's an obvious choice like Biden, it's boring. When it's a bizarre one like Thunberg or "The Guardians" (not an obscure '60s psychedelic band but an ad-hoc grouping of journalists from 2018), it's inscrutable. It would almost be better just to pick "Time Magazine's Person of the Year" as Person of the Year, complete with an obituary, and complete the circle of self-regarding mummery.

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