TIME Person of the Year 2012: Neil DeGrasse Tyson is One of Several Top Finalists


A time of year that I have never paid attention to before has been brought to my attention this year. TIME Magazine is in final deliberations over who their person of the year will be. The idea of the “person” of the year rivals the idea of People’s list of sexiest people or Rolling Stone’s top 100 songs of all time. (Like a Rolling Stone one more time!) It is a time to reflect on who we paid attention to over the course of the year, for better or for worse, and then put them on a cover for reference years down the road in a debate over dinner or at the train station. “So-and-so was once TIME’s person of the year.” But, kidding aside, TIME takes a role that is more important than I am letting on.

We learn so much from notable people, much more than the masses show. One person is a story and a picture of something; many people are billions of different stories blurred together. This year, TIME’s humble task is in danger of falling, as it has in the past, to stories that are not people. The person of the year should tell the story of one person to educate everyone. As worthy as "Mother Earth" is of recognition, she is much too big to tell any sort of concise story.

Choosing one person as the face of a year is a daunting process which includes equal parts humility (on our part) and indulgence in our obsession with headline-grabbers. TIME has been going through this process for years. Despite the overlycommercial and self-promoting process of choosing their person of the year, the magazine makes an interesting point of who we are as a species to look up to individual stories that shape us personally. What do we have to gain for recognizing a face that sums up a year?

A genuine fear of mine is that the world has been reduced to lists. It is the go-to method for blogging and articles. People like lists. But a list is very bleak. It says what is what in ten bullet points or less. Though the internet has become list central, TIME is the list master, and their “person” of the year is at the top. While I make light of the idea of a “person” of the year, it is undeniable that people notice who the person is. and it is nice to have our collective consciousness rewarded. It is nice to be reassured that we were not imagining a person being a big deal, and the magazine's award is substantial proof that they were a big deal.

This year’s final candidates, after careful plucking from a hefty list of notables that somehow did not include my man Neil DeGrasse Tyson, a man who I would argue is one of the only people capable of exciting a generation enough to change the world with nothing but pure optimism as gas. The finalists did include “New Media” (which won in 2006, thanks to Facebook and Twitter's roles in the Arab Spring), "Mother Earth" (or Gaia to you Captain Planet-heads out there), "Women" and the only two actual singular people, Barack Obama and Malala Yousafzai.

To help TIME decide, a fairly random panel including Bryan Cranston, Newt Gingrich, and Matt Lauer among others was brought together to sit down with the editor. They offered such profound wisdom as Gingrich’s “I guess I’m going with Padma” response to Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi’s support of Malala Yousafzai. (For you Breaking Bad fans, Cranston went with “New Media.”)

All panels aside, a life like Malala Yousafzai's is important to acknowledge. Malala Yousafzai is an educational and women’s right activist from the town of Mingora in the Swat District of Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The Swat Valley is an area where the Taliban has at times banned women from attending school. Malala was shot in the head and neck by Taliban gunmen on her way home from school on October 12, 2012. She was only 14 years old. Currently, she is in rehabilitation at a hospital in the UK. The Taliban is still calling for her death.

Malala has done remarkable things in her short life so far. She has been an educational activist since 2009 when she was only 11 years old. She was given a pseudonym by the BBC and under it, she blogged an account of her life under Taliban rule. She was the subject of a New York Times documentary that summer.

This is a life worth reflecting on and learning from.

She is a person, while largely absent from everyday headlines, who embodies what nominating a person of the year should be all about. Her story is one that is not simply about attention or popularity. It is a portrait of a life that could largely go unnoticed if not for good journalism. The human condition is so diverse, and it is stories such as Malala’s that put a face and personality to the true turmoil that engulfs many parts of the world. It puts in perspective the true nature of human beings. We all want happiness, and we are here for no other reason but to help each other find that quality in life.

This is a story that scrapes away some of the shit that covers our windows to the truth and for a moment we all glimpse the quality. Her story is one that is filled with both enlightenment and urgency. It teaches and it is a reminder of the universal human condition and the levels of inequality that exist for some.

While Obama certainly had a great campaign this past election, while Mother Earth is finally seeing some places such as California and Denmark working hard to keep her healthy, and while women deserve to be noted for having to continue to fight battles this year that should have been long over, TIME's focus should be on the story of one person. The person of the year is one story that has the power to change the perception of many, to put a face a passing name in the news. Malala Yousafzai's story is one that has the power to make people look inward and move forward together overlooking the petty differences that have polarized the last election year.

I leave you with this quote from one of Malala’s classmates, "Every girl in Swat is Malala. We will educate ourselves. We will win. They can't defeat us." Here’s to moving forward and hoping TIME makes their selection wisely. In the end, I guess I’m siding with Newt on this one.