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2017 Daily Maverick International Persons of the Year – The Silence Breakers

By J Brooks Spector 21 December 2017

For this year’s Daily Maverick pick of international persons of the year, there really was no other choice. J. BROOKS SPECTOR sets out the case for the silence breakers.

LYSISTRATA: But with regard to Athens, note I’m careful not to say any of these nasty things; Still, thought is free…. But if the women join us from Peloponnesus and Boeotia, then hand in hand we’ll rescue Greece.

CALONICE: How could we do such a big wise deed? We women who dwell quietly, adorning ourselves in a back-room with gowns of lucid gold and gawdy toilets of stately silk and dainty little slippers….

LYSISTRATA: These are the very armaments of the rescue. These crocus-gowns, this outlay of the best myrrh, slippers, cosmetics dusting beauty, and robes with rippling creases of light…

CALONICE: Yes, but how?…

– ‘Lysistrata’, by Aristophanes, 411 BCE

As we do each year, once again, we follow the tradition established by the then-new kid on the newsstand, Time magazine, 90 years ago, with their selection of aviator Charles Lindbergh as man of the year, following his solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean, from New York to Paris. His flight on 20-21 May 1927 had taken 33-and-a-half hours, and its significance for advances in aviation had thrust him to international fame. Time magazine had only come onto the newsstands four years earlier and this helped further boost its public reputation.

Since the selection of Lindbergh, the magazine has named the rich, the famous, the infamous, the leaders and massive butchers and plunderers as the world’s most significant newsmaker. It built on the idea that it was the significance of that person, not his or her goodness and virtue, that merited the selection. Originally specified as the man of the year, it is now an honour bestowed on both men and women, and even, on occasion, a machine, as with the selection of the personal computer, back in 1982.

With Daily Maverick’s own establishment in 2009, we have joined this tradition, but we have determined our selections should be distributed across several picks: an international person of the year, an African winner, as well as a South African one, in order to highlight the range of impact on our world and upon the continent in which we are rooted.

This year, for the international person of the year, the possible choices are, as often the case, wide-ranging – representing the astonishing, the powerful, the inspirational and the truly reprehensible. Almost every year, the selection by Time for this accolade (and all the other groups and publications that have also begun carrying out this kind of selection) has been a controversial one, especially when someone like Adolph Hitler, Nikita Khrushchev, Donald Trump (as president-elect) or Joseph Stalin has been picked. A seemingly easy pick, the acknowledgement of an incumbent US president such as Richard Nixon usually garners both strong praise and strident criticism as well.

This time around, among government and political figures, it would have been an easy, even safe choice to have named Donald Trump, in tandem with Kim Jong-un, as the “spoiled brats of the year” for their seemingly desperate efforts to bring the world closer to nuclear war than at any time since 1962. (Okay, maybe this is a new category for judging, but we kind of like the feel of it.) It is easy enough to imagine a conflict that begins with either a pre-emptive attack on North Korean nuclear/missile facilities or an effort to put the US/Japan/South Korea off balance with an attack on military forces and civilian areas in and around Seoul that eventually sucks in others and leads to death tolls in the hundreds of thousands in the first few days – and one can see where that choice could lead.

Still, Donald Trump could just as easily have been named as person of the year, all on his own. This would have taken into account his overturning of all the serving tables and the scattering of the political and economic crockery in the US and beyond, as he thrashes his way towards his so-called draining of the power elite swamp. This includes his push to end advances in medical coverage of citizens and to push for changes in US tax law that, among other progress, would bolster the inherited fortunes of ultra-rich remittance children. But then one must not forget his starkly transactional foreign policy sensibility that has set aside three generations of growing international consensus.

Not finished with his work, within the past 24 hours, in the wake of the defeat in the Alabama special senatorial election of the shambolic Republican candidate, Roy Moore, by Democratic candidate Doug Jones, Trump managed to cross yet another threshold with his vicious rants against New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, leading the usually starkly middle-of-the-road newspaper, USA Today, to offer a blistering editorial, “A president who’d all but call a senator a whore is unfit to clean toilets in Obama’s presidential library or to shine George W. Bush’s shoes”….

Given the ongoing Russia influence investigations by special prosecutor Robert Mueller III and several congressional committees, perhaps we could have named Trump – in tandem with the special prosecutor – as the latter circles ever closer to the tawdry secrets in the White House over that Russian interference in the 2016 election. Of course, if Mueller had already revealed a smoking gun or two by this date, he would have earned the yearly honour all by himself. But he hasn’t, or at least not yet.

Then there is a collection of other international leaders for whom a plausible, quite reasonable case could be made for naming one of them as person of the year. Right up there at the top would be Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, as well as Emmanuel Macron, the new French leader, or Angela Merkel of Germany. But not Theresa May. Sorry. May has, by contrast, demonstrated an extraordinary political gormlessness, fumbling a parliamentary election meant to bolster her majority and then subsequently has stumbled through the Brexit negotiations as well, continuing to dissipate British influence even further.

On the other hand, Vladimir Putin has demonstrated his continuing mastery of the game of international diplomacy as he and his government consolidated their impact on Middle East developments (and the preservation of Russian influence in Syria), as well as ongoing pressures on the “near-abroad” of Ukraine and other former Soviet spaces. But he may well have overreached with those Russian efforts to carry out a major campaign to influence the course of the 2016 election in the US (and apparently other elections in the West) and, via the continuing impact of that effort, actually preventing the closer relationship between the US and Russia that both Putin and Trump clearly had hoped for (albeit for very different purposes).

Meanwhile, Xi Jinping, building on his dominance of the recent once-in-five-years party congress, has now successfully imposed his complete will over the Chinese Communist Party, and the Chinese government, and state as a whole. He even succeeded in inserting elements of his political ideology into the party’s constitution, an honour previously achieved only for the words of Mao Zedong and – to a rather lesser degree – the ideas of Deng Xiaoping.

Moreover, Xi’s moves internationally have been setting out an ambitious agenda of initiatives and nascent institutions aimed at drawing nations across Asia, on the Indian Ocean littoral, and on to the Mediterranean basin into closer trade, transportation, and investment relations with China. Additionally there is China’s move on those long-disputed but strategically important islands in the South China Sea, and a continuing build-up towards the potential blue water navy. They, the Chinese, with Xi at the helm, are in it for the long haul. At a minimum, Xi’s impact will be crucial for more than a billion people in China, and with still more in other nations. Given all this, Xi Jinping would certainly be a safe choice. And a very reasonable one.

Then there is the recently elected French president, Emmanuel Macron. At a minimum, Macron could be selected on the basis of his successful outsider’s campaign to capture France’s imagination and its votes to take authority in Paris with his presumed mandate to begin carving away layers of bureaucratic red tape and dirigisme-style economic guidance. His victory has had the effect, furthermore, of giving western democracies some starch in holding back the depredations of far-right political parties through his defeat of his opponent, Marine Le Pen, in the 2017 election. What is less clear, however, is how much of his domestic agenda will be achieved into law, rather than simply advocated during a political campaign. Angela Merkel, just by virtue of surviving yet another election and continuing to lead Europe’s biggest economy and most powerful nation, also deserves consideration, but her leadership has been diminished by her inability – so far – to build a solid governing coalition.

One plausible choice would have been to name social media and the many millions of people globally who have made it, in its many always-evolving incarnations, the arbiter of political life and, increasingly, where people around the world find their news. Arguably, social media has suddenly become the preferred medium for carrying out political and marketing campaigns – first in the US, but almost surely spreading throughout the globe, wherever there is electricity and a bit of electronic connectivity.

One could also, thinking in US domestic political terms, give a nod towards political comedians such as Alec Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy for their wicked but insightful portrayals of a political elite gone insane. Baldwin’s version of Donald Trump and McCarthy’s mockery of the former White House spokesman, Sean Spicer, on TV’s Saturday Night Live and then on viral repetitions globally, have been, in their short, weekly vignettes, small miracles of a form of political discourse that reaches all the way back to Aristophanes in ancient Athens.

But the winner this year, ultimately, must be the growing legion of women who have blown the whistle, handed out those red cards, and forced what appears to have become a sudden sea change in private (and public) acceptance of sexual harassment, misogynistic misbehaviour, and just plain garden-variety porcine behaviour. In making this choice, we are happy to align ourselves with Time this year.

A key element of this development has been the way those bringing accusations against powerful men have made targeted use of the heft of social media, as well as old-style mass media, even though the campaign has had no controlling body or central organising committee. Beginning in Hollywood with the willingness of actress Ashley Judd, back in October this year, to revisit an especially tawdry moment in her life right at the beginning of her acting career, this campaign has now spread into many spheres of life, bringing this kind of behaviour out into the open, even if, in most cases, the time for filing criminal charges may have long expired.

As Time explained in this article and in this one in setting out their choice:

In 1997, just before Ashley Judd’s career took off, she was invited to a meeting with Harvey Weinstein, head of the star-making studio Miramax, at a Beverly Hills hotel. Astounded and offended by Weinstein’s attempt to coerce her into bed, Judd managed to escape. But instead of keeping quiet about the kind of encounter that could easily shame a woman into silence, she began spreading the word.

“ ‘I started talking about Harvey the minute that it happened,’ Judd says in an interview with TIME. ‘Literally, I exited that hotel room at the Peninsula Hotel in 1997 and came straight downstairs to the lobby, where my dad was waiting for me, because he happened to be in Los Angeles from Kentucky, visiting me on the set. And he could tell by my face – to use his words – that something devastating had happened to me. I told him. I told everyone.’

She recalls one screenwriter friend telling her that Weinstein’s behaviour was an open secret passed around on the whisper network that had been furrowing through Hollywood for years. It allowed for people to warn others to some degree, but there was no route to stop the abuse. ‘Were we supposed to call some fantasy attorney general of moviedom?’ Judd asks. ‘There wasn’t a place for us to report these experiences.’

Finally, in October – when Judd went on the record about Weinstein’s behaviour in the New York Times, the first star to do so – the world listened. (Weinstein said he ‘never laid a glove’ on Judd and denies having had non-consensual sex with other accusers.)”

This revelation of a very thinly concealed secret about the life and times of Harvey Weinstein has set off a quickly spreading bonfire that has already consumed the careers of a growing roster of powerful men as they continue to be outed for their behaviour. And just possibly, it has become the tipping point that will – going forward – enforce a larger, deeper change in behaviour (and thought) on the part of men in powerful, and even not so powerful, positions.

In the past several months, heretofore untouchable entertainment royalty such as Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey have fallen far. And quickly. As of the beginning of this month, Time recorded some 80 high-profile American men who have been publicly accused of some type of sexual impropriety – or worse. And in some cases, it is now the turn of women to replace these disgraced men. As Time noted,

“Robin Wright will become House of Cards top star, though only for the show’s shortened final season. Christiane Amanpour will replace Charlie Rose on PBS, but only on an interim basis.

More women may join their company soon. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported on Dec. 8 that Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith is the likeliest candidate to replace Franken in the Senate, while Maria Contreras-Sweet, who ran the Small Business Administration under President Barack Obama, has expressed interest in buying the Weinstein Company. The New York Post offered up a list of female candidates for Lauer’s gig.”

A commanding figure in television such as Matt Lauer, an A-list fixture on morning television for decades, has been an early casualty. But in addition, so too has been Charlie Rose. The latter had been the interviewer who had been a kind of manna from heaven for viewers who wanted to hear thoughtful, nuanced, in-depth interviews with the widest possible range of thinkers, writers, business leaders, and social activist do-ers. Rose had been a reliable fixture for decades, and now he is roadkill as well. And there has been an increasing list of other journalists and writers who have now been outed as well, such as the very highly regarded Ryan Lizza who had made it as a writer as well as a commentator on TV.

Now, several noteworthy politicians such as Democratic Senator Al Franken and Representative John Conyers have been forced to resign their powerful spots, following allegations or even photographs of their inappropriate behaviour. And at least one Republican congressman, Trent Franks, has been forced to go as a result of some well-founded allegations that he had asked some of his staffers to serve as a surrogate mother for his child. Oh yuck. And the House of Representatives’ Ethics Committee has announced it will investigate a third lawmaker, Texas Republican Blake Farenthold, who had used taxpayer dollars to pay an $84,000 (R1.1-million) sexual harassment settlement to a former aide, several years ago.

The one truly yuge kahuna who has not – at least not yet – been moved on because of some equally appalling behaviour is the president himself, even though at least a baker’s dozen of women have lodged accusations of sexual harassment against him. And, of course, he had been caught on video tape, some years back, boasting to another television host that he could do whatever he wanted to whatever woman he wished to hit on, because of his fame, status, and importance. While an impeachment still seems a long stretch, a growing number of Democratic senators are publicly pushing for it – and that USA Today editorial will not help lessen the heat.

In fact, in the special election for senator from the state of Alabama on Tuesday, 12 December between Roy Moore and Doug Jones, to fill the seat recently vacated when Jeff Sessions became Donald Trump’s attorney general, the race eventually was dominated by charges that Moore, a Christian fundamentalist evangelical, highly conservative, and putatively racist former judge (he had publicly indicated he preferred a nation that had not yet outlawed slavery, and his wife had tried to defend him by saying they had a Jewish lawyer, so there, any of you naysayers), had made sexual advances on teenagers and even, in one case, a young woman aged 14. To counter this reputational death ray, the Republicans attacked Jones as if he had been the most left-wing politician in the country, rather than a conservative blue dog Democrat with a stellar track record as a state prosecutor.

While sexual scandals have always dogged politicians, it seems there may be no going back from a place where a candidate’s behaviour in this realm can quickly become a key element in any political campaign. And that is a change from the days when Louisiana Governor Edmund Edwards could literally boast about his behaviour and expect voters to embrace him for the loveable scoundrel he was in that regard.

So far at least, this revolution in values has not touched everyone, everywhere, equally. One has yet to see the outing of leading politicians in Russia and China, let alone dozens of other nations. Moreover, this revolt against sexual harassment, misogyny or worse has barely touched the boardroom. Nevertheless, in this day and age, and given the impact and immediacy of the internet generally, as well as social media and print media attention, it may not be far off until we all hear much more about similar behaviour around the world – and witness growing pressures to relieve such men of their heretofore protected status.

And for those who did not immediately catch the reference to Aristophanes’ Lysistrata – the play concerned a sex strike by women to stop a war caused by men. The wives thus demonstrated their power when they had finally been pushed to the limits. In today’s world, the silence breakers against male aggression against women of today have suddenly been able to make their power felt through the media, even if they have not yet stamped out the behaviour they exposed.

For leading this charge, and in overturning decades of accepted wisdom that women must just take and take, and then take some more, the growing roster of silence breakers and all their kinswomen are selected as Daily Maverick’s 2017 persons of the year internationally. DM

Photo: A protester holds up a sign at a #MeToo rally in front of the Trump International Hotel at Columbus Circle in New York, New York, USA, 09 December 2017. EPA-EFE/PETER FOLEY

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