Friday, December 29, 2006

Top Ten Cool Things of the Year (in the U.S.)

This wasn't such a great year. The situation in Iraq deteriorated even more, and yet OJ Simpson's absurd book seemed to generate more outrage among some--namely the over employed entertainment media. So, what was great about 2006? Not a whole lot. Doing my best to remember what on earth happened this year, I'll try to extract the few cool things that did happen, in no particular order:

1. Stephen Colbert at the Annual White House Correspondents Dinner: In May, Colbert helped draw attention to an event that usually serves as a bad inside joke for a few hundred people by humorously critcizing the president's famous ego. He mocked Bush's supposed steely resolve--"Events can change; this man's beliefs never will"--cutting it down to the publicity stunt it is:

I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers, and rubble, and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message: that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound—with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.

Not only was Colbert's bit itself hilarious, but it became a watershed media event. YouTube, 2006's ubiquitous website, proved especially useful in the days after the event, allowing people to access what really went down at the dinner rather than taking the mainstream media's word for it. Their word was often non-existent, because many outlets initially determined the event not newsworthy--including The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune--despite the ramifications of the event: one of the country's most clever comedians had pointedly skewered one of the most insulated of modern presidents, who was sitting just a few feet away. It should be no surprise then that the second target of Colbert's routine was the lackadaisical media--many in attendance at the dinner--who have so often failed to vigorously question George W. Bush about his agenda:

Over the last five years, you people were so good—over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. ... And then you write, 'Oh, they're just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.' First of all, that is a terrible metaphor. This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!

The event was remarkable for fusing politics and entertainment for constructive good, for being accessibile to a mass audience, and for serving as a jumping off point for debate about the usefulness of the media. The Colbert performance at the White House Correspondents' Dinner is perhaps the emblematic event of a year of consumer participation in newsmaking.

2. The Democratic Victory in the 2006 Congressional Elections: One can easily imagine the media narrative that would have persisted had the Republicans maintained control of Congress after the November 2006 elections: that Americans were satisfied with the direction of the War in Iraq despite visible reservations, that the economy wasn't bad enough to require a renewed focus on growing inequity--like the recent cuts in student aid and the failure to increase the minimum wage--and that, in general, Americans were satisfied with the Republican social agenda. A wisdom that had prevailed for years changed on November 7.

Up against a gerrymandered Congress, the Democrats still won big in the House. They also managed to eke out victory in the Senate, knocking out some formidable incumbents like George Allen of Virginia and Conrad Burns of Montana. Furthermore, they won with great help from the so-called "liberal bloggers," whose fundraising, organizing, and message generating did justice to the term netroots. The Democrats in 2006 were not the Democrats of 1996, who relied upon the contributions of moneyed coffers and directed most of their energies to retaining the presidency rather than making inroads in Congress.

The new Congress is focusing on a different course in Iraq--though it is still up to the intransigent President to assume one--and on economic issues that were ignored under one-party rule. Plus, the 2006 election was also a victory against apathy, with the number of voters up in the usually less participatory midterm elections. Especially encouraging: 24 percent of Americans 18-30 voted, the largest percentage in 20 years.

3. Harvard, then Princeton and UVA, End Early Decision: In September, Harvard and then Princeton and the University of Virginia moved to end the early admission option, deciding that it favored savvier applicants from more advantaged backgrounds. Although other top schools do not yet see the need to eliminate early decision, Harvard at least brought to attention the need for universities to be attentive to the disparate sophistication of prospective students with the college application process. Although some schools, like my Alma mater Northwestern, have made some reasonable points on why early decision still suits them, it is good for universities to publicly discuss institutional inequities. Hopefully, Harvard and its peers will figure out how better to assist both low income and middle class students with the costs of their education.

4. TV Programming Continues to Improve: Although there is still drek on television--there always will be--some TV programming continues to delight. While I think some of the critics favorite shows, particularly "Weeds" and "Scrubs" are overrated, "The Office," "The Colbert Report," "The Daily Show," and HBO programming continue to shine. "The Office" was rightfully awarded an Emmy for its fantastic ability to find humor in the mundane and for the genuine performances put forth by its cast. After a reportedly bumpy first year, "The Office" figured out how to adeptly adapt the British version to reflect the nature of the American workplace in year two. (Now, there is a French and German version of "The Office," showing that the workplace is a universal source of humor, though not necessarily the same humor). Office romances, career dissatisfaction, narrow-mindedness, and the American work ethic are depicted realistically and hilariously. To think, 10 years ago, the only good things going on network TV were "Frasier," "Friends" (meh) and "Seinfeld," and the sitcom (shudder) reigned supreme. Hopefully, the cool event of 2007 will be that cable companies lose their regional monopolies and prices decrease (I wish).

5. Some Bad People Went to Prison: This year, Jack Abramoff and Jeffrey Skilling, two men who enjoyed far too much power in the 1990s, were convicted to formidable prison terms. Abramoff was convicted of conspiracy to bribe a public official, defrauding a client, and tax evasion, and was sentenced to the minimum of 10-years, in anticipation that he will cooperate with investigations of other corruption cases. He and his lobbying firm contributed to the excess of Republican-controlled Washington. Abramoff was intimately involved with disgraced former majority leader Tom DeLay, who his lobbying firm treated to trips to the North Mariana Islands, and Abramoff himself secretly funded the trips of other Republican Representatives. Abramoff's corruption is too extensive to document here, but concurrent to his demise went the careers of a lot of disgraceful people, including DeLay, Randall "Duke" Cunningham, and Robert Ney.

Jeff Skilling, former CEO of the defunct Enron Corporation might be the person most single-handedly responsible for the California electricity crisis of 2000-2001, in which the state's recently deregulated electricty grid allowed for Enron employees to manipulate the energy markets in there, causing prices to spike and supply to be unevenly distributed. Too bad Skilling can't provide redress for all of the pension plans that were decimated by the Enron collapse as well as for the electricty bills and costs incurred by the state of California during the energy crisis.

6. Immigrant Rallies Across the Nation: Often defined by their demagogic opposition, tens of thousands of immigrants and those in favor of immigrant interests rallied across the nation in April, drawing attention to their contributions and advertising their presence to Congress, which was then considering immigration reform. For a group that fills mostly the least desirable jobs in the country, immigrants get a lot of flack, despite that the United States is a nation of immigrants. A typical complaint against illegal immigrants is that they use up public services, but wouldn't pushing for legalization and thereby getting them to pay into the system be a good way to prevent this? Of course, this would have to be accompanied by pay approximating a living wage...

7. FDA Approves HPV Vaccine and Plan B OTC: The current administration has not wholly succeeded in stymieing progress of its agencies. The FDA approved the Human papillomavirus vaccine and over the counter (OTC) Plan B contraception. Though religious zealots will probably tell you otherwise, there is never anything wrong with vaccinating against a sexually transmitted disease. The idea that it encourages unprotected sex or sex in general is like saying that a flu vaccine encourages not washing one's hands. The approval of Plan B also generated controversy, but it will make an unpleasant process easier to handle for many people.

8. An Inconvenient Truth Brings More Attention to Global Warming: In a year of erratic temperatures and a hostile climate, Al Gore used his influence and celebrity for good, bringing attention to the force behind climate fluctuations. It is amazing that the existence of global warming needs such a forceful defense, even though it is not in scientific dispute, but that is why Gore's contribution was so constructive. Though of course not as watchable as a movie like Casino Royale, Gore does an admirable job of meticulously deconstructing the arguments against global warming and detailing those for it. If parts of our country are submerged under water in the not too distant future, Al Gore can (somberly) say I told you so.

9. Google Buys YouTube: In an acquisition that didn't reek of evil, the search engine giant bought out the user-generated content giant. Not only does YouTube's searchable video content model seem commensurate with Google's model, but Google appears to be an encouraging parent corporation, managing to maintain the integrity and while innovating its other acquisitions, like this here software I'm using. (Meanwhile, the telecom market is consolidated by another dispiriting merger, as AT&T's absorption of Bell South Corp. is approved by the FCC).

10. Bob Woodward's State of Denial Released: The tipping point of popular opinion against George W. Bush must surely have been reached when Bob Woodward--establishment journalist and former Bush administration cheerleader--released State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III. Woodward's book seemed to cement the view that the War in Iraq was a mistake, and that its execution was poorly managed at best, providing an indictment of all of the key actors in the administration who consistently lied and misled over the years to save face.

This was a pretty difficult list to come up with, because this was a pretty difficult year, but I know I'm forgetting things. Please comment with any additional suggestions or any recommended subtractions.

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