By FRANK RICH
TIME’S choice for 2006 Person of the Year — “You” — was a bountiful gift of mirth to America, second only to the championship Donald Trump-Rosie O’Donnell bout as a comic kickoff to the holiday season. The magazine’s cover stunt, a computer screen of Mylar reflecting the reader’s own image, was so hokey that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert merely had to display it on camera to score laughs. The magazine’s disingenuous rationale for bestowing its yearly honor on its readers was like a big wet kiss from a distant relative who creeps you out.
According to Time, “You” deserve to be Person of the Year because you — “yes, you,” as the cover puts it — “control the Information Age” and spend a lot of time watching YouTube and blogging instead of, well, reading dead-tree media like Time. The pronouncements ginned up to inflate this theme include the observation that “Thomas Paine was in effect the first blogger” (which presumably makes the Old Testament in effect the first Facebook). The desperation of Time to appear relevant and hip — “fantastically cutting-edge and New Media,” as Nora Ephron put it in a hilarious essay for The Huffington Post — was embarrassing in its nakedness.
And sad. This editorial pratfall struck me, once a proud Time staff member, as a sign that my journalistic alma mater might go the way of the old Life. Like Time today, Life in the late 1960s was a middle-of-the-road publishing fixture sent into an identity crisis by the cultural revolution that coincided with a calamitous war. The fabled weekly finally shut down in 1972, the year Rolling Stone celebrated its fifth anniversary.
Let’s hope publishing history doesn’t repeat itself. So in Time’s defense, let me say that the more I reflected on its 2006 Person of the Year — or perhaps the more that Mylar cover reflected back at me — the more I realized that the magazine wasn’t as out of touch as it first seemed. Time made the right choice, albeit for the wrong reasons.
As our country sinks deeper into a quagmire — and even a conclusive Election Day repudiation of the war proves powerless to stop it — we the people, and that includes, yes, you, will seek out any escape hatch we can find. In the Iraq era, the dropout nostrums of choice are not the drugs and drug culture of Vietnam but the equally masturbatory and narcissistic (if less psychedelic) pastimes of the Internet. Why not spend hour upon hour passionately venting in the blogosphere, as Time suggests, about our “state of mind or the state of the nation or the steak-frites at the new bistro down the street”? Or an afternoon surfing from video to video on YouTube, where short-attention-span fluff is infinite? It’s more fun than the nightly news, which, as Laura Bush reminded us this month, has been criminally lax in unearthing all those “good things that are happening” in Baghdad.
As of Friday morning, “Britney Spears Nude on Beach” had been viewed 1,041,776 times by YouTube’s visitors. The count for YouTube video clips tagged with “Iraq” was 22,783. Not that there is anything wrong with that. But compulsive blogging and free soft-core porn are not, as Time would have it, indications of how much you, I and that glassy-eyed teenage boy hiding in his bedroom are in control of the Information Age. They are indicators instead of how eager we are to flee from brutal real-world information that makes us depressed and angry. This was the year Americans escaped as often as they could into their private pleasure pods. So the Person of 2006 was indeed you — yes, you.
Unless it was Borat. The often uproarious farce that took its name from that hopelessly dense and bigoted fictional TV correspondent from Kazakhstan was the year’s most revealing hit movie. It was escapism incarnate, and we couldn’t eat it up fast enough. “Borat” also encapsulated the rising xenophobia that feeds American fantasies of the ultimate national escape: fencing off our borders from the world. If its loutish title character hadn’t been invented by Sacha Baron Cohen for us to ridicule and feel morally superior to, then Lou Dobbs would have done it for him.
The second most revealing movie hit of this escapist year was “Casino Royale.” Though technically an updating of the old Bond franchise — it is, nominally at least, set in the present — its screenplay actually hewed closely to the original Ian Fleming novel of 1953. The film merely changed the villain from a lethal Soviet operative to a terrorist financier, thereby recasting the confusing, hydra-headed threat of Al Qaeda and its ilk as a manageable, easily identifiable enemy that 007 could vanquish as decisively as the ham-fisted Iron Curtain Commies. Better still, Daniel Craig’s James Bond smites the terrorists in two hours plus change, not the 24 hours it takes Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer. There could be no happier fairy tale for a country looking in the eye of defeat.
“Christ, I miss the cold war,” M, Bond’s boss at British intelligence, says early on in “Casino Royale.” M — the reassuring Judi Dench — speaks for the entire audience. Nostalgia for the cold war, which America won unambiguously, was visible everywhere this year as we lost a war that has divided the country. In Florida, there was a joyous countdown to Fidel Castro’s imminent demise. At NASA, there was a new plan to return to the moon. Throughout the news media, there was a Hannibal Lecterish pleasure in the excruciating physical decline of Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB spy murdered by poison. As the CNN anchor John Roberts put it rather gleefully, “For many of us, headlines out of London seemed like a James Bond movie or a distant echo of the cold war.” Heaven knows those headlines were easier to take than those coming out of the hot war — or, for that matter, out of London itself when terrorists struck there 18 months ago. It’s no surprise that “Casino Royale” sold way more tickets than “World Trade Center” and “United 93” combined.
The most revealing index of our lust for escapism this year cannot be found at YouTube or the multiplex, however, but in the sideshow villains who distracted us from main news events in the Middle East: James Frey, Mel Gibson, Michael Richards and Judith Regan. It was a thrill beyond schadenfreude to watch them be soundly thrashed and humiliated for their sins.
FAR be it for me to defend any of them; Mr. Gibson once threatened to have my “intestines on a stick” after I raised the notion that the author of “The Passion of the Christ” might be an anti-Semite. But our over-the-top pleasure in their comeuppance still seems like escapist fare. It may be satisfying to see “Apocalypto” fade fast after its opening weekend or watch Ms. Regan lose her job after enriching O. J. Simpson for a sleazy book project. Yet something is out of whack when these relatively minor miscreants are publicly stoned and the architects of a needless catastrophe that has cost thousands of American and Iraqi lives escape scot-free. On the same day that Ms. Regan was canned, the fired Donald Rumsfeld was given a 19-gun salute and showered with presidential praise in a farewell ceremony at the Pentagon.
For that matter, Ms. Regan’s worst offenses can’t compare even with those of her former lover, Bernard Kerik, the Giuliani-era New York City police commissioner who was appointed by President Bush in 2003 to train Iraqi’s police. Mr. Kerik promised to stay “as long as it takes to get the job done,” then fled months later without explanation and without the job even started. Today the Iraqi police he failed to train are not only useless but are also routinely engaged in sectarian violence, including torture, helping to ensure that Iraq is more dangerous for everyone than ever, American troops included.
Mr. Kerik has never been held accountable for that failure, only for less lethal and unrelated graft in New York. Paul Bremer, whose early decisions as our Iraqi viceroy all but guaranteed our defeat, received the highest civilian award from the president. So did both George Tenet, who presided over the “slam dunk” intelligence that sped us to war, and Gen. Tommy Franks, who let Osama bin Laden get away. Even now, no generals have been fired for their failures in Iraq; the only one to lose his job was the former Army chief of staff, Eric Shinseki, who antagonized Mr. Rumsfeld before the war by correctly warning that hundreds of thousands of American troops would be needed to secure Iraq. But never mind. That’s ancient history. We can avoid confronting these morally grotesque skeletons in our closet as long as we can distract ourselves with Michael Richards’s meltdown.
Besides, it’s time for the home front to party. Whatever else is to be said about Time’s Mylar cover, it’s news you can literally use: it is just a paper shredder away from being recycled as the most glittering of New Year’s Eve confetti.