Time’s pick illustrates America’s paradox

With its pop graphics and tales of suburbia, Time magazine is the Andrew Lloyd Webber of journalism. The New York Times and The New Yorker will always outclass it in writing style and wisdom. But you can tell a lot about our culture by what our most-read newsmagazine thinks we want to read.

Time offered a particularly potent cultural litmus test with its 2006 Person of the Year: “you.” The issue rhapsodized: “The ‘Great Man’ theory of history … took a serious beating this year … [from] community and collaboration on a scale never seen before … the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace … the many wresting power from the few … not only [to] change the world, but also [to] change the way the world changes.”

Where was the person in the board room to say, “Wait, really?”

The choice is precision-calculated to elicit just the reactions on Time’s Reader Response Web site: “Awe shucks [sic], thank you,” and “George Bush, Tony Blair … Raul Castro and Hugo Chavez … Instead you chose me. That is so cool!!” Now that you mention it, reader, those picks don’t sound so bad — or Nancy Pelosi, the first female speaker of the house; or Al Gore and James Baker, the semi-political grand viziers; or Warren Buffet, who gave more money to charity than most people see in their lives.

Time’s choice reveals their lust to sell copies, as the magazine sits at ninth in the circulation rankings, behind Good Housekeeping (sixth) and TV Guide (third). But more significantly, Time’s pick is a small example of one of America’s largest, rawest contradictions.

The United States is the only country founded neither on a national community, like France’s “fraternite,” or China’s Confucian ideal of country-as-family, nor on a national project like Japan’s modernizing drive or Israel’s longing to gather the Jews to their historical homeland. Rather, at the risk of paradox, America was founded upon national individualism.

What bonds all Americans together is the shared knowledge that each American is valuable by himself. Benjamin Franklin championed the pluck and derring-do of inventing and achieving. Ralph Waldo Emerson developed a “self-reliance” of the mind and the spirit. Foundational thinkers like these crafted the fundamental American creed: The moments of holiest potential for one’s own peace, and for a virtuous contribution to society, lie not in the clanging spectacles of the crowd, but in the music and determination of the still, small voice of the self.

The contradiction: At the same time, “self-reliance” offers a blank check for self-infatuation. Nineteenth-century robber barons gleefully built “self-reliant” worker-crushing monopolies. The youth of the 1960s pined for a new, redemptive society; but that casting-off of rules was as hedonistic as altruistic — sociopolitics as “how it affects me.” That self-love foreshadowed the unbridled greed of the ’80s. Even when not malignant, self-reliance can lead simply to feeling too pleased with oneself, tuning out a broader community’s yearnings.

Time simperingly places YouTube, MySpace and Wikipedia with the civic virtue of “self-reliance,” rather than its dark underside. One wonders if Time’s editors have ever actually visited the Web sites they hold so dear. These sites’ designers may even have envisioned the public cultural centers that Time believes it has found. But between the creators’ intentions and Time’s rosy misperceptions lies the inane reality of how people use these Web sites, sending them spiraling toward the lowest common denominator of tomfoolery.

Imagine Emerson at a computer in heaven. He stumbles through MySpace’s garden of pictures, profiles and personal details (e.g., favorite music, what car one drives, relationship history), which, if one knew the person, one would already know, and if one did not know the person, one would hardly care to. Then, Emerson slogs through the mediocre style of an ambiguously true article on Wikipedia, where mistakes, bias and even inside jokes linger until becoming the time-sucking fodder of Wikipedia’s “Mediation Committee,” “Arbitration Committee” or even “Mediation Cabal.” Finally, Emerson takes in one of YouTube’s classics, such as a recent absurd cartoon about “Charlie the Unicorn,” whose quest to Candy Mountain ends with his kidney being filched. (I adore “Charlie the Unicorn,” but it’s more Martin Lawrence than Martin Luther.) One pictures Emerson saying, “This isn’t what I meant.”

Americans would not like to hear that. We like being told that every one of us is special, that our MySpaces are fascinating, that our YouTube videos offer a longed-for window into America’s mind, that our opinions are the kingmakers of truth (hence Wikipedia, and shame on verified encyclopedias for locking “the people” out) — that whatever we feel like doing is the most interesting thing going on in society, and any attempt to tell our country’s story otherwise is dishonest and elitist.

Franklin and Emerson liberated the personal voice when it had been long suppressed. Now, we are in the opposite situation. Time ought to challenge readers to consider which person of the year most influenced world affairs. But that involves considering world affairs, which is hard, and suggests that there is something greater than, well, “you.”

Noah Lawrence is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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