18 December 2021 |

Musings on Time’s Person of the Year

By Trung Phan

Why dafuq did they pick Hitler in 1938?

Yo, Trung here. Thanks for subscribing to SatPost.

Today, we’re talking about Time’s Person of the Year. And it’s a slight detour from pure meme-dom.

In a past life, I was a B- History Major who chose university courses based on one variable: did the class start after 1pm. Now, I get to share some history fun facts with you readers.

Thoughts on Time’s Person of the Year

On Monday, Elon Musk was named Time’s Person of the Year.

While Time Magazine is a shell of its former media self, the “Person of the Year” title still carries cultural cache.

The event kicked off 2 notable responses:

  • Hilarious: A lot of Twitter folk chirped Elon’s haircut (“damn, the Time cover isn’t very flattering”). To Elon’s credit, he has been leaning into the haircut joke for a few weeks now.

  • Predictable: Every single year, there is a subset of the internet that doesn’t like Time’s selection. And then they write some form of this sentence: “so what if [individual X] was named Time Person of the Year…so was Hitler.”

Let’s use this prompt to answer a few questions:

  • Why was Hitler named Time Person of the Year?

  • What do people that are selected have in common?

  • Can Musk be the “Person of the 21st Century”?

Why was Hitler named Time Person of the Year?

Officially, Hitler was chosen as “Man of the Year” in 1938 (Time didn’t change the title to “Person” until 1999**).

The big thing to understand: the magazine’s title is not an honor. It’s about impact (good or bad) on the world.

Here is the official line:

TIME’s choices for Person of the Year are often controversial. Editors are asked to choose the person or thing that had the greatest impact on the news, for good or ill — guidelines that leave them no choice but to select a newsworthy — not necessarily praiseworthy — cover subject.

Here are some other controversial selections: Joseph Stalin (1939 and 1942; related to WWII), Nikita Khrushchev (1957; for leading the Soviet Union to space with Sputnik, a year after crushing the Hungarian Revolution) Ayatollah Khomeini (1979; for leading the Iranian Revolution) and Vladimir Putin (2007; for his influence — often “not benign” — on global politics).

In 2001, Time selected New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as “Person of the Year”. In a reverse of the previous controversial selections, many people were wondering why — if Time wanted to stick to its selection criteria — the magazine didn’t pick Osama Bin Laden for masterminding the 9/11 attack.

**SIDE NOTE: Time renamed “Man of the Year” to “Person of the Year” in 1999. That was a long-time coming, as the first female winner was Wallis Simpson in 1936 (she was an American socialite who married King Edward VIII, forcing his abdication from the British monarchy).

What do people that are selected have in common?

The closest guarantee to achieving the Time “Person of the Year” title is to be the President of the United States.

Time started the selection process in 1927 and chose Charles Lindbergh, the first person to do a solo trans-Atlantic flight (also a noted fascist).

Since then, every US President — except Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Gerald Ford — has been selected at least once.

FDR holds the record with 3x selection (1932, 1934, 1941). In 1941, he was chosen for actions taken immediately after Pearl Harbour.

What’s slightly absurd is that before the December 7th attack, Time was on the cusp of selecting Dumbo — yes, as in the carton elephant — as “Mammal of the Year”.

Apparently, the Disney movie was insanely popular at the time but there was literally also a world war happening. Here’s how that selection would look in hindsight:

  • 1938: Adolf Hitler

  • 1939: Joseph Stalin

  • 1940: Winston Churchill

  • 1941: Dumbo

  • 1942: Joseph Stalin

Anyways, become President of the United States and you’re probably in.

Can Musk be “Person of the 21st Century”?

It’s obviously **way** to early to ask this question. But — for the sake of a dumb parlour game — let’s look at the previous century as a guide.

In 1999, Time picked Albert Einstein for “Person of the Century”.

The runner-ups were FDR and Gandhi (Churchill was selected as Man of the Half Century in 1950; Time recognized him as a singular force who stood up to Hitler and bought time for America to enter the war).

And here is Time’s “Person of the Century” explanation for Einstein:

In a century that will be remembered foremost for its science and technology . . . one person clearly stands out as both the greatest mind and paramount icon of our age.

Using that same template, we’d have to identify what the 21st century will be “foremost remembered” by.

Musk definitely has a lot of irons in the fire: climate (Tesla/Solar City), space (SpaceX), AI (Tesla/Neuralink) and memes (@elonmusk).

If in 50 years, we’re all driving Cybertrucks on Mars using electric impulses from our brains to steer the car and send each other Spongebob jokes, he’s def Time’s “Person of the Century” for the 21st century.

Here’s another question: “what does it even mean to be remembered?”

Below are the first 12 Time choices. We’ve discussed about half of them. But just from eye-balling it, how many can you identify?

Remember, these were the **most** newsworthy personalities for those respective years. Within a few generations, they’re completely forgotten by the majority of the world.

Being “remembered” is really out of a person’s hands (and not really something to strive for).

In comparing the lives of Churchill and Shakespeare — who were named the 2 greatest Englishmen ever by a BBC poll in 1999 — a University professor explains how long it took for the playwright to receive recognition:

Shakespeare did not acquire his greatest fame until the last twenty-five years of his life; it was only then and in the years immediately after his death that the tributes appeared. Throughout the following century Shakespeare was largely discredited and it was not until the closing years of the eighteenth century, almost 180 years after his death, that Shakespeare’s reputation was restored and his works began to enjoy the popularity they enjoy today. (bold mine)

All of this is a long way of saying that Time could have made a more memorable “Person of the Year” cover for Musk…like this gem I mocked up:

That’s it for this week.

Thanks for reading and I’ll be back with dumb memes in the next send!