Listening to the Christmas Day speech of King Charles, I wondered if he thinks he should’ve been Time’s Person of the Year, rather than Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Charles did finally make it to the throne, after persevering, the sort of thing you get points for over there, and he seems to like to sulk anyway. . Think of his beautiful snit about a leaky pen.
(There’s also Dominic West’s portrayal of Charles in this season’s “The Crown” as, pretty much, James Bond. Heady stuff for a lifelong wuss.)
I view Time’s Person of the Year, which was Man of the Year till 1999, not just as a one-item end-of-year list, but as the last stand of the Great Man theory of history. It had a decent run in the 19th century, sponsored by Thomas Carlyle — “The History of the world is but the Biography of great men” — but petered out, to be replaced by social or historical determinants of our fate, like class conflict and technology.
Marxism was a prime example of that approach to history. When I was in the U.K. just before Christmas (which may’ve got me obsessing about whatever Charles obsesses about), I talked with a veteran left-wing academic. He said Marxism is back after a period of retreat, but with a difference: it used to be suffused with optimism; now it’s riddled with despair.
It had the ring of truth, but really, who wants Marxist despair? The whole point of Marxism was to assure you that, despite the apparent dominance of wealth and inequality, History was on your side and justice would prevail.
And the Great Man/Person theory never quite vanished. It has a strong grip on us; its appeal is visceral. In the 20th century its avatar was Winston Churchill, almost universally acclaimed, even into the 2000s, when George W. Bush had a Churchill bust in his Oval Office and Barack Obama later took stick for removing it — despite the fact that Churchill was a lifelong racist and warmonger who only got one thing right in his long career. (Granted, that thing was fighting Hitler relentlessly.)
Overall though, neither approach seems helpful at the moment. TV and the internet have undermined the Great Person shtick; we know too much about these mighty individuals to think they have all the answers. And the failures of Marxism and socialism severely dented the authority of systemic or structural explanations and formulas as ways out of humanity’s calamities.
Have new approaches surfaced? I think so, at least as represented in pop culture. That would be the return of magical and supernatural thinking. If people can’t solve their own problems, maybe superhuman forces can. This may partly account for the appeal of superhero film franchises and Harry Potterish books. I may sound out of touch here. I have difficulty getting into this stuff, even in fiction. My socio-political imagination is still rooted in conflicts between human forces, with flawed leaders seeking a way to harness our better impulses.
I don’t think it’s hard to see how this magical-supernatural thinking refracts into religion-based politics in places like Iran, the U.S., Israel, etc. It’s not to my taste, but so what. Normally I’d say humanity can just futz around waiting for some new, better framework to show up as an explanatory path forward, except for one thing: for the first time ever, there’s a real time limit on survival for our species, due to climate change. So there’s a unique sense of urgency, if you want something else to resolve about this New Year’s.
A final thought. I’d like to nominate for “Not Person of the Year,” alongside Charles, Toronto Mayor John Tory, based on his addendum to his demand for funding from higher levels rather than raising property taxes: “I’m sorry to be asking for special treatment, but I don’t apologize for it.” Must remember that: I’m sorry but I don’t apologize. It’s brilliantly gutless, and deserving of recognition.
This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.