Eight Big Things

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By Jonathan Kay: Published in The National Post, December 30, 2008.

In December’s final days, the self-reflective question I ask is this: Laid end to end, would my weekly offerings provide an intelligent synopsis of the year that was?

As in most years, my travails disappoint. Too often, I directed my aim at tiny, annoying targets of opportunity that happened to scurry across my journalistic field of vision — Heather Mallick, anti-Israeli public-service unions, radical student groups — while ignoring the big-game trends rising up against the horizon.

So here, as a form of 11th-hour journalistic penance, is a look at the eight truly important truths to have crystallized in 2008. Some I discussed in my columns. Most I didn’t. All, I am quite certain, will prove of greater significance than my already stale-dated fulminations against labour organizers and CBC columnists.

1. America is no longer racist. Not on balance, anyway. Racial doom-sayers assured us that Barack Obama’s large lead in the polls would evaporate as soon as Americans actually got to the voting booth in November, 2008, and unleashed their inner Klanster. It never happened: In fact, Obama won bigger than expected. The America of Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, Condoleezza Rice and the country’s first black president-elect is a place where being born African-American is incidental to one’s ambitions.

2. Not everyone deserves to own a home. The dream of universal home ownership is part of America’s opportunity cult — and, to a lesser extent, our own. But it turns out that a significant percentage of the population is too ignorant (or gullible, or reckless, or dumb) to understand how a variable-rate mortgage works, or to figure out how much house they can afford, or to resist the sales pitches of mortgage brokers and real estate agents. This year taught us that this tranche of the population is better off renting. Getting evicted from rental housing is rough business — but at least it won’t cause the world economy to melt down.

3. The conventional (non-cybernetic) cinema is on its way out. This is not an arts column. But when a major artistic medium becomes obsolete, the phenomenon deserves to be treated as a historical watershed. Future students of cinema will, I believe, date the death of live-actor blockbusters to the first 10 minutes of the breathtaking 2008 film Wall-E, a segment focused entirely on the putterings of a mute janitor robot inhabiting an abandoned future-Earth wasteland. If a single computer-generated character can produce this much entertainment, it is hard to see why we need Tom Cruise and Jennifer Aniston.

4. China is a brutal dictatorship and no one cares. No one. Not even you. And certainly not the media, which fawned in unison at the technical wizardry and epic pageantry on display at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Yes, one or two correspondents did pen critical columns when they couldn’t get their favourite porn sites to load at Chinese Internet cafés. But aside from Tibetans and Falun Gong practitioners, everyone seemed more focused on celebrating China’s giant “coming out party.” (The coming of 2009, one hopes, means never having to hear that tired phrase again.)

5. Russia is a brutal dictatorship and Russians themselves don’t care. As you read this, Russian textbooks and school courses are being altered to whitewash Joseph Stalin, a man whose crimes are comparable in scale to those of Adolf Hitler. The regime itself, run by Vladimir Putin and his handpicked prime minister, is sailing friendship armadas to Cuba and Venezuela, and allegedly selling state-of-the-art weaponry to Iran. Worse, from the point of view of ordinary Russian citizens, lawmakers recently announced plans to broadly criminalize criticism of the government as a form of treason. Aside from a few fearless liberals, most Russians are simply shrugging it off. They tried the democracy thing. It didn’t take.

6. We say we care about human life, but we don’t. At least, not when the lives in question are being lived in eastern Congo, Darfur and Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. In all of these places, the vaunted “responsibility to protect” hasn’t resulted in the deployment of a single NATO helicopter gunship or commando battalion. Nor did anyone in the West show much interest in what was arguably the most under-reported story of 2008: an authoritative study showing that Thabo Mbeki’s philistine AIDS policy in South Africa caused an estimated 35,000 babies to die for lack of a single-dose medication called Nevirapine. Another 330,000 older South Africans died early because Mbeki’s policies denied them access to anti-retroviral drugs. Total person-years lost due to a single man’s reliance on crackpot AIDS theories he read about on the Internet: 3.8 million.

7. Wall Street’s rocket scientists couldn’t build a paper airplane. Earlier in 2008, analysts at Goldman Sachs predicted oil soon would cost US$200 a barrel. Now, they tell us their target price is US$35. The bottom line: Some of the best paid people in the history of humanity have no clue — about this, and much else besides. Regarding their ability to predict our collective financial future, the only difference between these people and a pack of monkeys with a Magic 8 Ball is the body hair. This isn’t just the end of Wall Street as we know it — it’s the end of the financial whiz kid as an icon of intellectual and professional competence. Last month, my father-in-law withdrew every penny from his professionally managed bank-run investor account, having decided he’d handle the buying and selling himself. I expect millions of others will do likewise in coming months. Why let a monkey do a man’s job?

8. Let me end on the good news: Canadians care passionately about their country. The stereotype says that we are unpatriotic and politically apathetic. Perhaps this is true when the stakes are low, and the choices assembled in front of us are different shades of grey. But let someone try to hijack the result of an election — even one in which we were not particularly interested — and Canadians let their fury be known: In my decade at the National Post, I have never seen Web site traffic and letters to the editor surge the way they did in November, when Stéphane Dion launched his desperate gambit to become prime minister with active separatist support.

Michael Ignatieff, a man who will likely earn his own bullet point on the 2009 version of this list, should take note.

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