A completely subjective list, of course. But what the hell… aren’t they all?
Going in to 2008, one could hardly open a magazine or flip a channel without hitting a media comparison to 1968. It was 40 years ago (a nice, round number), and it was a paradigm-shifting political year that looked familiar, with an open competition for the presidential nomination in both parties, all while a war was on overseas.
As it turned out, 2008 was a momentous year in its own right, arguably the most significant year in decades, and without question one we will all remember vividly. But it was not assassinations and riots that made its mark in the history books, unlike in 1968; it brought distinctive events all its own.
There’s not really a lot of room for debate over the two most significant news events of the year, and the annual AP survey of news editors corresponds with what almost all of us would surely conclude on our own, a point-counterpoint of encouraging and discouraging developments:
1) The presidential election of Barack Obama
I’ve already written quite a bit about this one, of course… but suffice it to say that it’s historic for the fact that he’ll be the first African-American president; it’s historic for the fact that he won with a (generally) upbeat, honorable, serious campaign; and it’s historic in that it marks a realignment back toward progressive politics after a generation of destructive radical conservatism, and after eight years of arguably the single worst president in American history. How Obama really performs in office of course remains to be seen, but what he’s accomplished so far this year stands on its own.
2) The worst economic meltdown in our lifetimes
Written more than a little about this, too, of course. It seems almost quaint now to recall that when I started this blog, back in mid-September—although we now know that we were already nine months into a recession—it was still possible to ask “how bad is the economy?” and wonder if it would still get worse. Within days, everything started to go to hell in a handbasket… in a way that seems to have created a destructive feedback loop, where every new development just exacerbates what came before. Homes foreclosing, jobs disappearing, businesses (and entire industries) collapsing, credit freezing, investments evaporating… we’ll remember this for a long time, no matter how much we might prefer to forget it.
After that, the choices grow more arguable. My assessment:
3) The presidential primaries
I’m listing this separately from the election result itself, since long before November 4th it was historic in its own right, by comparison with almost any other election cycle. Hard as it may be to remember, just a year ago Hillary Clinton was seen as the “inevitable” odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination. Instead we got a long, dramatic, hard-fought campaign that (despite some nastiness and technical disputes along the way) ultimately showed democracy at its best. It registered and turned out hordes of new voters, and engaged them in the process like never before, melding cutting-edge communications technology with old-fashioned grass-roots politics. (It also showed the mass media at its worst, getting things wrong and leaving egg on its face every step of the way, from the insistence that Hillary didn’t have a chance in New Hampshire, to the insistence that she did still have a chance in April and May, to ABC’s embarrassing Gibson/Stephanopoulos-hosted debate, among many, many other examples. New media rose to the challenge and put the old to shame, as perhaps exemplified best by Nate Silver’s extraordinary site FiveThirtyEight.com.)
4) The FISA controversy
Last winter, the Democratic Congress had one of its few decisive victories over the Bush administration when it rejected an overreaching FISA “reform” bill intended to expand warrantless wiretapping and grant retroactive immunity from lawsuits to telecom giants that had broken the law by feeding customers’ private information to the government. This happened only after months of debate that spread from the netroots to the population at large and then the halls of Congress itself, making a public controversy out of what would ordinarily have been railroaded right through. Much of the credit goes to indefatigable civil liberties blogger Glenn Greenwald, who stuck to the issue and spearheaded a coalition of strange bedfellows around it. Unfortunately, true to form, the Dem leadership managed to pull defeat from the jaws of victory just three months later, when Steny Hoyer (after lengthy secret negotiations with the White House) voluntarily offered up a barely revised version of the bill which, sadly, went on to become law.
5) The Bernard Madoff scandal
As if the economy weren’t already in bad enough shape, in recent weeks we learned that a seemingly credible, trustworthy investment advisor had been running a prestigious hedge fund as a Ponzi scheme, to the tune of an amazing $50 billion. On the one hand it proved that there’s nothing new under the sun, evoking as it did the recent revival of the century-old (yet achingly timely) play The Voysey Inheritance; on the other hand it twisted the knife of our current distress, driving home the point that there’s really no safe harbor for money right now, and worse yet, stripping the assets of a great many civic and charitable organizations that are (or were) doing worthy work in these perilous times.
6) The Iraqi shoe-toss at George W. Bush
This may seem like a minor incident compared to some of the other stories on this list, but I would argue that sometimes it takes a dramatic, visual moment like this one to encapsulate something that’s too much for words. In years to come, when the awful details of the Bush years and the Iraq war have faded from memory, this single act of righteous indignation will still linger in the public imagination as the defining image of Bush’s legacy.
7) Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s prosecution
This story put Illinois and Chicago in the spotlight in a way every bit as embarrassing as Obama’s victory was empowering. It showed at one stroke the tenacity of political corruption, the crucial importance of transparent politics and campaign finance reform, and (in constrast to the Bush administration’s sleazy efforts at politicizing the Justice Department) the real value of genuinely independent prosecutors like Patrick Fitzgerald.
Not all the worthwhile news stories of the year involved matters of politics and economics, though. In particular, certain developments in science and technology deserve our attention, although they may not have grabbed the headlines in quite the same way…
8) The launch of the Large Hadron Collider
CERN’s successful start-up of this massive particle accelerator was the culmination of years of work, and will almost certainly help answer pressing questions in both particle physics and cosmology. (We could have taken this step in the U.S., years earlier, had a short-sighted Congress not killed the Superconducting Supercollider project back in the early ’90s. In that respect there’s a tangential political connection here, too, actually; Obama’s appointment of serious scientists like, e.g., Nobel laureate and Secretary of Energy-designate Stephen Chu signals a return to respect for science in Washington after far too many years of neglect… which will be important not only for basic research like this, but also for long-overdue responses to global climate change.)
9) The Phoenix lander’s confirmation of water on Mars
This news, together with other recent discoveries about the atmospheres of extrasolar planets (which were themselves entirely hypothetical less than 20 years ago!), takes us a huge step closer to confirming the possibility of extraterrestrial life.
10) The successful demonstration of a self-replicating fabricating machine
Last but not least, the RepRap really sailed under the mass media radar, but it represents the first step down a path that will occupy the attention of all of us in years to come, as manufacturing increasingly becomes just as cheap, easy, and widely distributed as information has become since the advent of the Internet. The implications for our economy and social structure will be every bit as transformative.
Finally, there are also a few stories that almost made the list…
…including the launch of the iPhone “app store” (taking what had been a nifty phone/music player one huge step closer to the age of ubiquitous computing), and on a different note the Chinese earthquake, the Russia/Georgia border skirmish, and the Mumbai terrorist attack (all of which were dramatic and potentially destabilizing events that dominated headlines, at least briefly, but which IMHO will fade over time into the general background of violence, natural disasters, and all-around human suffering that unfortunately seems always to be with us).Tags: Blagojevich, Chicago, climate, Congress, economy, Election 2008, financial crisis, FISA, history, Illinois, international, iPhone, journalism, Madoff, media, Obama, Top 10 lists