Can we declare 2008 over a few weeks early, before even more of the world economy collapses? If we hit the fast-forward button, maybe we can skip the plague of locusts, the slaying of the first-born, and the rain of frogs. But before we mumble a premature Auld Lang's Sine, I have a suggestion. Every year Prospect magazine conducts a stock-take of the past twelve months, asking who - or what - we misunderstood. It should be part of everyone's New Year routine to ask: Who did we overrate in '08, and who didn't get their due? Here are my proposals:
Most overrated American politician: Sarah Palin. Has the right learned nothing from the Bush years? You betcha! Once again, they fawned over a know-nothing incompetent because she could sound like a Bible-lovin' Ordinary Joes while screwing them over on behalf of Corporate America. It turned out she thought Africa was one big country, believed global warming wasn't happening, and couldn't name a single Supreme Court judgment except Roe. vs Wade - but have her cheerleaders apologized? It ain't so, Joe. They still insist the only reason anyone would condemn this book-banning dimwit is snobbery and sexism. Chant with me now: Palin 2012! Palin 2012!
Most underrated American politician: John Edwards. In the Democratic primaries, this bouffant-centrist New Democrat announced he was sick of the corporate influence-buying he had watched for years in Washington. He exposed how both parties were serving the financial elite, not the people. His populist cry - and the swell of support it gathered - forced Obama and Clinton leftwards on a slew of issues, changing their agenda for government for the better. So he had an affair. So what? That would rule out Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy too. Grow up. It's the policies, not the penis, that counts.
Most overrated international event: The Beijing Olympics. Yes, it's true: a ruthless Communist police-state can put on a show. They can arrest protestors, clear out dissidents, and demand the entire society stop and serve their prestige project. But should the world praise them for it? The 2012 London Olympics should be messy and frequently halted by protestors. It's called democracy - and it's worth a thousand slick, soulless acts of athleticism.
The most underrated international event: Chinese fiction. The best form of travel is always into a novel. Go to Beijing and you can stare at the shiny neon exterior; pick up one of the extraordinary new wave of Chinese novelists and you peer into the country's minds. This year I have been traveling through the rising super-power by reading its fiction. Only there can you scent the shifting consciousness that the Communist Party is trying to suppress. In Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem you witness the dawn of Chinese environmentalism; in Ma Jian's Beijing Coma you hear democracy trying to wake.
Most overrated writer: James Wood. The New Yorker's literary critic has been fawned over all year as the heir to Lionel Trilling, and the last of the great critics. But for me, his writing is weirdly anemic. He is an extraordinarily brilliant critic of style and form - but he simply doesn't see the other components of great fiction. He seems to think novels exist in a hermetically sealed vacuum, insulated from politics and culture and the great tides of humanity (other than theology, the most sterile of all disciplines). Wood understands novels only in terms of how they relate to other novels. The genuinely great literary critics of the twentieth century - Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin - were nothing like this. They saw the novel as a dialogue with the society: they knew no novel stands apart from the world. To them, this Wood would seem defenestrated and sparse indeed.
Most underrated group: Plane Stupid. The news story of this year - of this millennium - is the great global melting we are triggering. Yet as the ice vanishes, we are becoming more frozen. We change our light-bulbs and look away - except for a few. There were jeers and sneers when these smart young eco-activists blockaded a runway at Stanstead Airport in Britain, but if our destruction of our own habitat doesn't warrant direct action, what does? If Plane Stupid doesn't try to slap the sleep-walker awake, who will?
Most overrated phenomenon: The surge in Iraq. The outbreak of cholera in Zimbabwe was (rightly) seen as a symbol of that country's collapse - but who noticed the outbreak of cholera across Iraq? The McCainiacs spent the year chorusing that The Surge Worked - but a study by the distinguished journal Environment and Planning found the truth. Between 2003 and 2007, Iraq was ripped by a massive program of ethnic cleansing. The mixed Sunni-Shia areas were destroyed. By the time the surge started, there was nobody left to purge: the country was by then carved into ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods. All the surge did was build vast concrete walls between the collapsing hoods, cementing the cleansing. That's success?
Most underrated phenomenon: Newspapers. Here's a weird paradox. If you include the Internet, more people are reading quality newspapers than ever before. Yet newspapers are - as the bankruptcy of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune shows - dying. We don't just want it all, we want it free. Does it matter? As good as some bloggers are, they don't have the army of foreign correspondents or in-depth investigative teams that are necessary to make sense of the world. If print newspapers - for all their manifest flaws and corporate biases - die, there will be an aching hole where newsgathering used to be. Newspapers: buy them or lose them.
And we can argue long into the New Year's Eve fireworks about the borderline cases. (Nominate your own below). Did we underestimate Gordon Brown, who seemed to find his feet by standing on Keynes' shoulders? Did we overestimate the eternal return of Peter Mandelson - a man fond of saying "I am seriously relaxed about people getting filthy rich"? Did we underestimate the American people, who rejected racism and Bushism so definitively? And can someone - anyone, please - tell me why I know so much about the divorce of Madonna and Guy Ritchie?
Farewell, 2008. Go now, before all get hit by a plague of boils.
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