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Closing the Door

The Year That Was

We gathered writers and thinkers around the world and asked them to sift through the past year of revolutions, deaths, discoveries, and breakthroughs to answer: What was the most important event of 2011?

Roland Hicks, I Want Some Give, 2011. Courtesy the artist and Eleven, London.

Tom Scocca, Managing Editor of Deadspin, Slate Columnist, and Author of Beijing Welcomes You

In this chain-reaction year—disaster, war, revolution, and death chasing one another around the globe—the pepper-spray assault at Cal-Davis was nowhere near the biggest event. Instead, it was small enough to be intelligible. This was an American college campus where a thug cop, in doomsday black armor, hosed down a row of seated students with a chemical weapon. Unlike the raging NYPD commander who’d lunged to spray helpless protesters, UC Davis police Lt. John Pike was blandly methodical. Hurting and sickening people, trying to break them, was what he was there to do. This, clearly recorded on video, is how it’s done in our frightened, angry, muscled-up country, with Fox News applauding the liquid torture (“a food product, essentially”). The Occupy movement’s foes and its skeptical sympathizers kept asking: What were all these incoherent bands of protesters even opposing, specifically? Try this: What did Lt. Pike suppose he was defending?

Sohaib Athar, @ReallyVirtual, Who Inadvertently Live-Tweeted the bin Laden Raid

The importance of an event is, of course, subjective, so while the Occupy movement may be the most important event of the year for some, the Arab Spring would be more important for others. Sitting in the part of the world that is not directly involved with either, I think both events are equally important for the world due to the paradigm shifts that each has triggered in the masses’ thought process.

Ken Silverstein, Washington Editor for Harper’s Magazine

Nationally, the Obama administration’s complete cave to Wall Street and the steady conversion of the United States into an economic and political banana republic. Bush was bad enough but thanks to Obama’s failure, economic inequalities and the erosion of the middle class are now irreversible, at least for a long time to come.

Internationally, the Arab Spring for showing that people make their own history. Not entirely as they please, as someone once observed, and the final outcome(s) are still in doubt, but the uprisings were heroic and the global implications enormous.

The seams of this institution, which hasn’t fit for years, split a little further.

Jessanne Collins, Managing Editor of Mental Floss and Co-Editor of Finite + Flammable

Marriage, as in The Institution Of, is a story being revised right now. It’s a quieter movement than the ones on Wall Street and Tahrir Square, drawn out in lengthy judicial and legislative sessions, in conversations in living rooms, in excellent essays. The formal victories are small, and not unambiguous, but that’s why each one is important. When New York permitted gay marriage in June, the seams of this institution, which hasn’t fit for years, split a little further. Seam-ripping is tedious, it lacks the seductive glamour and simplicity of a fairytale. But it has to be done before we can stitch this mess into something new.

Joel Whitney, Editor-in-Chief of Guernica Magazine

While they may not yet have a common name, and their causes overlap but are hardly identical, the worldwide protests that began in December 2010 in Tunisia and swept through Egypt, the Middle East, Spain, Greece, the United Kingdom, every state in the U.S., then thousands of worldwide cities—these, collectively, are the single most important event of 2011. It was so significant that the year itself may be the only possible name for these people’s revolutions and protests. The same way we talk about 1968 or Sept. 11 or Feb. 15, 2003: perhaps just “2011.”

Marian Wang, Reporter for ProPublica

The Tunisian fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who finally had enough and set himself on fire after he was slapped by a local government inspector. Bouazizi’s act—one that cost him his life—galvanized protests across the country that ultimately deposed the country’s dictator and inspired continued revolution in the region. It’s a remarkable reminder to me, as a reporter, that we spend so much time watching activity at the top—the supposed movers and shakers who all too often waste so much time playing politics—when the act of an ordinary person can also write history in a big way.

Finally we are approaching a national, adult discussion of what “class” means in this country.

Natasha Vargas-Cooper, Author of Mad Men Unbuttoned

Income inequality. This is the first year in my lifetime where labor strife (Wisconsin, Ohio) and protesting the income gap (OWS) has made national news throughout the year. Media coverage on its own is no victory; indeed, it’s a daily part of the news cycle in other democracies, so in many ways we’re still behind the curve on this issue. However! Finally, right? Finally we are approaching a national, adult discussion of what “class” means in this country.

Joanne McNeil, Senior Editor at Rhizome

This question would be a lot easier to answer with just a bit of hindsight. I can say with a little more confidence that the release of the WikiLeaks cables was the most important event of 2010. But 2011, with so many dead dictators and a world trembling with promising uncertainty; it’s difficult to parse the importance of a single event. So I’m just going to pose this as a thought experiment—the most important event of 2011 as I might consider it at the end of 2012. So…the siege of Wukan, maybe?

TMN Editor Mike Deri Smith

Both while it was happening and with hindsight, the Japan earthquake and subsequent nuclear fears felt like the most important thing. Natural disasters deaths kill thousands every year, hundreds of thousands every decade, perhaps reducing the impact of each event and its news-worthiness, but that shouldn’t reduce the importance of each event. Perhaps the earthquake still seems the most important thing because it was so physical and easy to understand. We can travel the streets before and after the destruction through an amazing Google Street View project and get a sense of what took place. Protestors and rioters on the other hand are tough to parse for importance. The earthquake was the most important thing because so many people died, because it was so frightening, and because it was yet another reminder that we continue to allow disasters to kill too many people.

TMN Contributing Writer Giles Turnbull

The most important thing that happened in 2011 was the decision by the European Commission to build three super powerful lasers, paving the way for a fourth that could, and I’ll quote New Scientist here, “try to pull ‘virtual’ particules out of the vacuum of space-time.” Or to put it another way, we just started work on the Deep Thought of lasers, which will give birth to the Earth of lasers, which will let us fuck with space-time. That is what I call progress. I will be ordering my custom time machine yesterday.

Maria Popova, Editor of Brain Pickings

New York’s legalization of same-sex marriage—not only because, on June 24, New York became the largest state to do so, but also because, love it or hate it, New York’s nod carries a certain sociocultural cachet that might, just might, help move this basic human rights issue along from 1960 to 2012 already.

Kevin Nguyen, Editor of Bygone Bureau

Shortly after Steve Jobs died, Malcolm Gladwell reviewed the biography by Walter Isaacson. In typical Gladwellian fashion (read: idiotically contrarian), he posited that Jobs was not an inventor so much as he was a “tweaker” who ripped off ideas and whined when his ideas were stolen. Sure, there were digital music players before the iPod, but if you think that’s all the iPod is, as Gladwell clearly does, then you’ve misunderstood the genius of Jobs. His legacy isn’t just a handful of products, but a new way of thinking about technology.

Critics always talk of “Apple fanboys” taking their devices too seriously—how ridiculous that people might feel an emotional connection to an object! But we imbue the things we own with sentimental value all the time—not because of their technical features or how beautiful they are, but because of the personal experience we have with them. Jobs knew this better than anyone. He humanized technology and our relationship to it. Before the iPhone, people viewed their cell phones with the same affection one might show a toaster. The iPhone wasn’t an object that simply made calls, but the medium through which you communicated with friends and family. Which is good because the first one barely made calls—luckily Jobs was also a tweaker, iterating on his ideas until he believed they were perfect.

Jobs’s passing itself was an event that reminded us just how important our relationship to technology is. John Hodgman put it best when he tweeted: “Everything good I have done, I have done on a Mac.”

Jenna Wortham, New York Times Tech Reporter

Most important thing of the year: the retweet. 2011 was the year that retweeting became less about achieving value and followers and more of a new form of cultural and information currency—not unlike a viral version of the bit, self-propagating units of information. (Can you tell I’m knee-deep in James Gleick’s The Information?) We learned to self-select and spread the most important things we saw to others, creating a counterpoint to Twitter’s most-commonly referenced downside, narcissism, and turning it into a collectivist tool for creating a pulsing ecosystem of information bigger than each individually posted message. It’s not a perfect system—at times, it’s more like a game of telephone than a reliable source of information (RIP Lil’ Kim) but it nudged major news events like the Arab Spring, bin Laden’s death, the earthquake in Japan, Steve Jobs’s death, and recent legislation around Plan B into a much larger public consciousness and awareness (for better or for worse, aka #tigerblood, Casey Anthony, Hurricane Irene, etc.) than they would have achieved otherwise. Each of these events unfolded and grew to a groundswell on Twitter, proving that despite the sea-trivial minutia that we all flood Twitter with daily, we are getting better at scanning and picking out the most informational bits of information to transmit and relay and amplify to those we are connected to online. 2011 was also the year we had to start the process of learning how to be more critical and aware of how easily it is to be misunderstood or spread things that are not actually true because of the (mis)tweet.

It also feels important to note that Twitter didn’t invent the retweet—the shorthand was created by early users out of necessity to copy and paste messages without losing its original attribution—vernacular invented and adopted by a community that also shapes and defines that community, and makes it more accessible to others.

Honorable Mentions: Talk That Talk, GIFs of the awkward girl in pink who dances in “Friday,” Nicki Minaj, Matt Cutts’s TED Talk about breaking and forming new habits, the Horse E-Books Twitter account, the breakthrough of New York as a thriving tech hub, emoji, Reddit IAMA threads, Khan Academy/Codecademy and using the web to reinvent education, and Justin Bieber’s Instagram feed (srsly).

Matt Langer, Editor of Gifzette

So much has been said about how the Arab Spring readied America for the Occupy movement, and yet here at home, just days after Hosni Mubarak announced his resignation, there were already 100,000 people marching outside a sleepy Wisconsin state capitol to protest Gov. Walker’s dreadfully anti-labor budget bill. And those protests spread! Not just to Ohio and Indiana, where similar budget bills were on the table, but nationwide, from Los Angeles to New York City. Yet arguably the most important thing about the Wisconsin protests came when police and firefighters—who both enjoyed specific exemptions from Gov. Walker’s proposed collective bargaining restrictions—joined other state workers in protest, and in so doing neutered labor opponents’ ability to either deride the protesters as just a bunch of dirty hippies or else to trot out their tired old anti-teacher’s union talking points. Liberal and conservative darlings alike took to the streets to stand up for the American worker, and along the way did just as much as the events in Tahrir Square—if not more!—to engender a protest culture here at home and set the table for Occupy Wall Street.

Maria Bustillos, Author of Dorkismo and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman

In March, State Dept. honcho P.J. Crowley resigned after publicly condemning the treatment of Bradley Manning at Quantico prison. As an inside man, Crowley was able to make his parting shot count. His undeceived, eloquent demand that the U.S. live up to its own principles refuted the demonization of Manning, forced a much-needed reckoning of the Obama administration’s continued embrace of disastrous Bush-era military policies, and, most of all, illuminated a responsible path forward and out of this mess.

I can't think of a single life or death or turn of events more meaningful, more tragic, or more extraordinary.

Brad Listi, Founder of The Nervous Breakdown and the Author of Attention. Deficit. Disorder.

The most important event of the year happened on Jan. 4, when Mohamed Bouazizi died at the age of 26, in Tunisia. Bouazizi, an impoverished street vendor, sold fruit for a living. Cause of death: self-immolation.

Three weeks earlier, a government inspector had tried to confiscate Bouazizi’s apples. When Bouazizi resisted, he was slapped in the face and beaten. His electronic scale was taken. His business was destroyed. Efforts to retrieve his property at the local municipal building were unsuccessful; another beating. He then marched into the governor’s office and demanded an audience. No dice. He then drenched himself in paint thinner and lit himself on fire.

He would live in a coma for another 18 days, during which time his story spread rapidly throughout the country, and then the world, unleashing a wave of anger that led to full-blown revolution. The speed and power of it were stunning. Less than two weeks after Bouazizi’s death, the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali ended his 23-year reign and fled Tunisia in shame. Game over.

This was the dawn of the Arab Spring, and the seedling for countless acts of civil disobedience that have unfolded around the globe over the past year, including right here in the States. It started with a street vendor in a nowhere town in North Africa. I can’t think of a single life or death or turn of events more meaningful, more tragic, or more extraordinary.

Michelle Legro, Editor at Lapham’s Quarterly

The end of the shuttle program in 2011 marked the end of a long-waning desire to find other selves from other worlds, and the final sealing-in of our interests on earthy matters, on that infinity we created ourselves: the internet. Once upon a time, a google was a number bedazzled with zeros, whose awesomeness could only be understood in the void of space. Carl Sagan’s “billions and billions” are now something we measure in tweets, not in stars. Then again, Voyager passed through the veil of interstellar space this year, skirting the edge of the solar system, still armed with its golden record. At least someone was thinking ahead.

Teddy Wayne, Author of Kapitoil

The Arab Spring could be the biggest political shift abroad since the collapse of communism, with Occupy Wall Street trailing far behind but with a chance to make up some ground, and nuclear and natural disasters somewhere in between.

Rachel Rosenfelt, Editor-in-Chief of The New Inquiry

Time Magazine was onto something when it named “the protester” as the 2011 Person of the Year. Specifically, the riots in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, collectively known as Arab Spring, have reshaped international politics with all eyes on North Africa—and the revolution isn’t over yet.

Americans expressed their collective joy by going apeshit in the streets.

Matthew Newton, Editor of Annals of Americus

It turned out Osama bin Laden was in Pakistan, biding his time watching lo-fi porn on a TV/VCR combo and snuggling up under a warm blanket. (Is that a universal remote he’s holding?) He wasn’t relegated to life in a cave as so many experts believed, or curled up in a hole somewhere like another baddie the USA flushed out. Instead, the man who orchestrated the deaths of thousands of Americans on that Tuesday in September of 2001, was living like an American teenager in the pre-internet era—bored, disconnected, and exhausted from masturbating. Until he was shot dead and buried at sea, of course. At which point Americans expressed their collective joy by going apeshit in the streets.

TMN Editor Nozlee Samadzadeh

By “most important,” what I mean here is “most imminently dangerous”: 2011 was the year when linkbait—articles written exclusively to generate reader clicks, and thus ad revenue—became the standard by which media is produced and promoted instead of the realm of advertorials. It came in all guises, from Farhad Manjoo championing Amazon over independent booksellers at Slate just to make us all mad, to the Huffington Post publishing a photo slideshow of “7 OTHER PRODUCTS WITH A CARIBBEAN OR LATINO TWIST” to supplement a 600-word article about Dulce de Leche Cheerios in their Latino Voices vertical, from xoJane literally following a writer into the bathroom with a videocamera as she takes a pregnancy test, to any mention of Herman Cain, ever.

A friend defended her AOL/HuffPo editorship by saying that she can write whatever she wants and her employer will publish it…even though her work may not get promoted in their featured stories if it isn’t in line with their advertisers’ marketing goals. That is not an excuse! In 2012, let’s all vote with our mouses: No more clicking unless it’s real. Slideshows fade, but content is forever.

TMN Feature Editor Kate Ortega

For centuries, the book—hardcover, paperback, gilt-trimmed, deckled-edged, dog-eared, mint condition, or falling apart—has been the primary medium for dissemination of long-form writing. It was the easiest way to move large chunks of information from person to person, and hundreds if not thousands of them, copied thousands of times and distributed in bookstores, via mail order and from hand to hand, have changed the way society thinks about itself. This year, the Kindlenookipadereader seemed to take over, even on Brooklyn-bound subway trains. The act of reading has changed forever; will the underlying spirit remain?

Nic Rad, Artist

The most important event of 2011 had something to do with the Higgs boson particle, although I’m not sure what exactly the researchers found or didn’t find. Extensive Googling confirms a truer truth about the origin of the universe is probably going to emerge sometime in 2012. It’s great news! I may or may not have been waiting 13 billion years for this, give or take.

Roland Hicks, Rightwise King II, 2011. Courtesy the artist and Eleven, London.

Julie Klausner, Author of I Don’t Care About Your Band

A woman who weighs more than 120 pounds soaking wet was finally admitted into the “Women in Comedy” inner sanctum that we’ve been hearing so much about. When Melissa McCarthy hosted SNL it was almost as if it was OK for female comics, just like their male counterparts, to just be funny, not magazine-skinny, in order to succeed.

Fred Benenson, Kickstarter

Members of the Italian Wikipedia community took their site offline (wikipedia.it) in protest of a proposed wiretap law that would have prohibited the publication of wiretaps. The law hasn’t passed, and I think the strike deserves at least partial credit for that. English Wikipedia is now considering a similar strike in protest of SOPA. I think that’s pretty important.

Matthew Gallaway, Author of The Metropolis Case

The most important event in 2011 was the legislative passage of gay marriage in New York State. New York is politically and symbolically important, and will no doubt pave the way for other states to follow. (Personally, it means I’ve attended gay weddings in New York and have been fielding the same kind of annoying/endearing questions about when I’m going to marry my partner that are a rite of passage for so many straight folks.)

TMN Editor Liz Entman

This year NASA ended its shuttle program (our astronauts will carpool with the Russians) with very little fanfare, and launched the Mars Science Laboratory with none at all. Which is too bad, because it’s a pretty big deal. Its mission is to demonstrate that we can safely land something big the Martian surface, collect data about the climate and geology, and determine whether life ever existed there. It also represents big steps forward for a lot of different technologies, like telecommunications and robotics and electrical engineering, that will translate to technologies we use on Earth as well. So while mothballing the shuttle seems like a step back, remember this: Unless an addled billionaire builds his own rocket and manages to survive the trip, there will never be a manned mission to Mars without major exploratory missions like Curiosity’s. And also, it’s nice to see at least one government agency that doesn’t flinch at the word “science.”

TMN Contributing Writer Lauren Frey Daisley

Iran is most certainly acquiring technology capable of creating nuclear weapons; Ahmadinejad says he’s using it solely for civilian purposes. The possibility of a government we don’t trust possessing nuclear arms is disquieting enough that military engagement could easily seem inevitable. But our country’s defenses depend not only on our military might and global alliances. They also demand an ability to deescalate perilous tensions. The Iranians may be building a bomb, they may have no intention of doing so, or they may be waiting to see if we give them justification to make one. Safely handling this high stakes uncertainty requires supremely insightful diplomacy and unflinching fortitude.

Sheila McClear, Author of The Last of the Live Nude Girls

Winston Churchill called his depression the “Black Dog.” William Styron wrote about his own bout of despair in “Darkness Visible.” Yet mental illness is still taboo, especially in young women of dating age. And as Maria Diaz wrote in xoJane this year, lithium “is seen as the final frontier of brain meds.” (Try to explain your shaking hands, a side effect of the drug, to a date.) Yet it’s not at all that simple, and anyone who is brave enough to come out of the closet to help de-stigmatize mental illness—and a particularly stigmatized yet extremely helpful drug—deserves credit.

“For me, the parts of myself I have given up to lithium are not the parts that are worth saving,” wrote Diaz. Judging by the response in the comments, too many people have struggled with keeping their chronic illnes (or their medications) secret from friends and loved ones. In an internet full of pointless oversharing, this was something worth talking about. As a result, it made hundreds feel less alone.

TMN Contributing Writer Robert Birnbaum

Choosing the ultimate whatchamacallit of 2011 wasn’t difficult, though I was (very) briefly considering the U.S. exit from Iraq. As significant as that event is, it seems that life for 99 percent of the world seemed unaffected by the so-called withdrawal of U.S. forces (a somewhat disingenuous gesture as the U.S. still has one of its largest embassies in the world in Iraq). That gesture notwithstanding, the assassination of Osama bin Laden looms as 2011’s big thing—bye bye bogeyman. Tasteless celebrations in the streets, vindication for our professorial president, and purportedly the beheading and defanging of al Qaeda.

What’s next—ending the War on Drugs? Who knows? As the great Thomas “Fats” Waller opined, “One never know, do one?”

Seth Colter Walls, Freelance Culture Critic and Reporter for Slate, the Village Voice, and Others

At first I wanted to say something about how the ramp-up to the GOP caucus/primary voting (next month) was the least important thing of 2011—like the digitally projected ads for direct-to-DVD joints that are now the previews to the previews at the movies. I haven’t been a political reporter for the last three years, but I feel like a lot of casual observers could have saved donors, editors, and Twitter feeds a lot of time by suggesting that Cain would render himself extraneous at some point—though naturally, so might have almost every political reporter forced by laws of the linkbait economy to write about him for months on end. That this obviousness did not, in the end, matter all that much—or outright preclude Cain’s becoming “a thing” with all attendant “memes”—argues against exactly the snotty dismissal I had in mind.

And then I started recalling that the neverending (and also never really beginning in earnest, either) GOP Road to the Nomination was actually important, of course, in the way that permanent campaigns render governance impossible, due to the inflexibility that obtains when one is always on guard against observers potentially noticing that one’s thinking may have shifted over time. (The horror.) And so things like the essential bad faith inherent to the debt ceiling “debate” became much more lugubrious and time-sucking and dangerous than they needed to be. (Once again, this power seemed to reside in the obviousness of the evidence that was spiteful to rational discourse.)

Maybe it was the most important thing of the year, the political sclerosis that derived from three cable news channels needing to pay attention to however many Republicans as felt like pretending to be serious (in any sense of the word) candidates on this or that week. Because while Occupy Wall Street was of course important, not to mention heartening on various levels, it’s not at all clear that it can sustain its presence on teevee—and thus continue to accrue a certain impoverished form of public legitimacy that is currently rebounding to the likes of Newt Gingrich—for the next 11 months. And you know, Iowa’s next week.

So all that stuff’s really important after all, if only because it is seemingly leveraging its baseline power in radical new ways by alighting upon a form of public articulation so substanceless as to be functionally indestructible (up until the point when, say, someone’s decades of alleged shitty behavior toward women comes to half-light).

Hrag Vartanian, Editor of Hyperallergic

The Egyptian Revolution, because it made the world realize that the West was lagging behind the rest of the world. I don’t think Occupy Wall Street would have been possible without the Arab Spring. How ironic and unexpected is that?!

Conor Friedersdorf, Staff Writer at the Atlantic

Advances were made toward a malaria vaccine.

TMN Contributing Writer Michael Rottman

Amid more and more bad environmental news came this overlooked ray of sunshine: This past summer, the Obama administration created regulations that will force auto companies operating in the U.S. to double the gas mileage of cars and light trucks by 2025. Assuming this legislation isn’t overturned by the brute squad, the enormous impact on emissions and airborne toxins is obvious. Next stop, hybrid jets.

Suddenly, the eyes of the world were watching.

David Shapiro, Pitchfork Reviews Reviews

My vote for the most important event of the year is the arrest of ~700 Occupy Wall Street protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s hard to remember how drastic this was, but after this, pretty suddenly, the eyes of the world were watching. The unbelievably overblown police response made it known that what might have seemed like a gang of dilettantish college kids was perceived as a major threat to the political/economic order.

Jeff Sharlet, Author of Sweet Heaven When I Die and Founder of Occupy Writers

I’m pretty certain that the most important events of 2011 were the revolts and revolutions of the Arab Spring. They’re ongoing, so they may become the most important events of 2012, too. But I was at too great a distance to feel their importance—I only knew it—so my choice is the introduction of the human microphone at Zuccotti Park. Some people like to call it “the people’s mic,” but I’m wary of “people” preceded by an article. As I understand things, the human mic came into frequent usage after the Sept. 20 arrest of occupier Justin Wedes for the crime of using a megaphone. (Video here.) The full story—of the human mic’s roots in other movements, its introduction, development, and, yes, decline—has been told elsewhere. I’m nominating it for most important event because through it many people—myself included—experienced what felt like democracy for the first time. It wasn’t what I expected. It was clunky, goofy, brilliant, and ecstatic. It didn’t change the world, or the country, or even the city. But it might, depending on what we do with the memory.

TMN Editor Liz Entman

When Bank of America and other banks began to charge people to use their debit cards for purchases, customers objected strongly enough that not only did the banks rescind the fees, they refunded everyone they’d already charged. Meanwhile, Netflix’s much-derided disc-only Qwikster service—which would have opened the door to charging more for digital streaming, the real moneymaker—lasted less than a month, and its decision to eliminate separate profiles within single accounts lasted less than a week and a half. What makes these fumbles different from something like the 1985 New Coke gaffe is that banking and media are so ubiquitous that we have typically treated them more like utilities than businesses who have to compete for our dollars, and they have long treated its customers accordingly. No longer. Was it due to Occupy Wall Street? The dismal economy? Newly empowered and connected consumers? Probably all three.

TMN Editor Leah Finnegan

The Middle East was born anew this year. Pretty cool. The West, meanwhile, focused on Anthony Weiner’s crotch.

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