The Five Best Stories of 2021
Should all the b***s*** be forgot, and never brought to mind...
Good morning! Thanks for bearing with me through yesterday’s slog of bad news. If you read through all that, you’ve earned the good news today. If not, you’re kinda skipping the vegetables and going straight for dessert, which is your choice.
Before we get started, many, many thanks to all of you who donated to our GoFundMe to help our Afghan friends. If you haven't had a chance yet, here’s the link again. Think of it as helping to create more good news.
Now, here are my 5 best/underreported stories from 2021.
1. The vaccines.
Obvious, right? These things are incredible. We shouldn’t let the difficulty with uptake distract us from how lucky we are. According to the WHO, more than 8.5 billion vaccine doses have been administered worldwide. That’s not enough, but if I’d told you in March 2020 that almost half of the world would be vaccinated by the end of 2021, you would have been shocked, and rightly so.
Of course, there are problems. There are anti-vaxxers, and the politicians and demagogues who insist on appeasing them for political reasons. The distribution of vaccines is uneven, and COVID is going to end up being a much different phenomenon in, say, Equatorial Guinea than in Denmark. The U.S. still probably isn’t doing enough to vaccinate the world.
It also seems that we’ve botched the messaging regarding the vaccines. Too much of the conversation seems to be about getting the shot for self-protection. We haven’t focused enough on the need healthy people at low risk to get the vaccine to protect people at high risk—people with autoimmune disorders, transplant recipients, the elderly, etc.
But unlike a bunch of the problems I highlighted yesterday, these problems are at least partially solvable because we’ve done a lot of good work already. These days, solvable problems count as good news.
2. The Georgia runoffs.
Imagine how much worse everything would be if the Republicans had won the Georgia Senate runoffs on January 5 of this year. Republicans would have taken a two-seat majority in the Senate. Which means they would have taken control of every committee. Mitch McConnell would have been the majority leader.
Hundreds of positions in the Biden administration might still be vacant as Republicans blocked any nominee without an active Fox News contract.
We might have had a government shutdown, as we did in 2013 when Republicans controlled one house of Congress with a Democratic administration.
Instead of the listless, fractious, and distracted Democratic leadership in the Senate, we might have had focused, energetic, and unscrupulous Republican-led “investigations” into everything from vaccine conspiracies (not to debunk them, mind you) to Hunter Biden’s laptop.
But we don’t. That’s nice.
3. The January 6 Committee
Interpreting this bit of good news requires setting our expectations: The committee will not “get” Trump. Nothing it produces will change the minds of an appreciable number of Trump voters. By itself, it can’t even do much to prevent the next coup.
But it can do—and appears to be doing—several important and salubrious things.
Slowly and frustratingly, but meticulously, it does appear that the committee is holding the ringleaders of the Capitol insurrection accountable. Sort of. Of course, it can’t haul them to the stocks to be pelted with rotten fruit like in the good old days, but the committee’s moves to hold Steve Bannon and Mark Meadows in contempt for ignoring its subpoenas—and the Justice Department’s honoring of those contempt citations—are a form of accountability. In many ways, they’re the first moves against the Trumpist authoritarian movement anyone has taken since November 3, 2020.
The January 6 Committee is also collecting a public record, which is a very valuable thing. We got really lucky that the coup didn’t work. The plotters are doubtless studying why. It’s good that the January 6 Committee is, too. If the insurrectionists are going to learn from their mistakes, so should the (small-d) democrats.
The committee might also choose to recommend legislation to Congress, especially reform of the Electoral Count Act and rules clarifying the legal status of popular votes vis-à-vis state legislatures. Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate the “Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives,” so if Congress passed a law mandating that state legislatures can’t ignore an election once it’s been conducted, they could prevent a lot of havoc in 2024.
4. A bad year for populists.
Yesterday I mentioned that 2021 was a good year for coups. But it was also a bad year for populists. The trend arguably started in Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, where the pro-European, anti-corruption candidate Maia Sandu won a surprise victory.
The release of the Pandora Papers by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists revealed some rather embarrassing secrets for several of Europe’s less responsible politicians. But here’s the kicker—it actually ended up forcing many of them from power!
The billionaire populist who revolutionized Czech politics, Andrej Babiš, lost his bid for reelection on October 8 and 9 after the Pandora Papers revealed that he used a series of secretive shell companies to buy luxury real estate in France. In neighboring Austria, the populist-leaning Sebastian Kurz abruptly announced that he was stepping down on October 9 after prosecutors raided his offices in a bribery probe.. . . Meanwhile, in Germany, the far right AfD party experienced disappointing results in September’s parliamentary elections, losing 11 of their 93 Bundestag seats.
Oh, and Victor Orbán’s future is looking shaky.
Good for Europe.
5. 2021 was basically peaceful.
Yeah, we have a lot of problems. Yeah, COVID was really bad. But our problems aren’t world-war bad and COVID isn’t Black-Death bad.
Yevgeny Simkin made this point in The Bulwark over Thanksgiving, and it’s worth repeating:
If you pause for a moment and consider what you experience in your day-to-day life—what you’re seeing outside your window—you may find that none of those things square with your actual reality. Your life is probably . . . “fine.”
Statistically speaking, I mean. Of course, you might have gotten laid off in 2021. Or spent the last year fighting cancer, or losing your mother to COVID, or some other terrible trial. And to everyone out there who had a bad 2021, you have my condolences and the right to say that things most certainly haven’t been fine. But for the rest of us? Things are fine.
Maybe they’re not as fabulous as we’d like. They’re not great. But they’re also not terrible and not nearly as awful as they could be—by a very large margin. Trust me, I say this having lived in Soviet Russia where things were worse by a VERY large margin—and even that was long after the invention of vaccines and antibiotics, prior to which things were worse by an even larger margin.
. . .
I’m not saying that the problems that you read about in the news aren’t real or important. They’re frequently real and when they are real they can be extremely important. The climate is changing, the autocrats are gaining power, and American democracy really is hanging in the balance while our elected officials are conducting whistling competitions next to every graveyard they can find.
But you and I don’t have day-to-day control over any of that. Here is what we can control: We can be kind, and considerate, and forgiving, and try to embrace every gift that the world offers us.
That’s it for me. Thanks for reading! Charlie will be back soon. Happy New Year, everybody!
Okay, you caught me. Technically this was in the waning days of 2020.
Really well done Benjamin. Both days but especially the recognition of reality in today's column. Happy New Year.
Thank you for this. I am bookmarking it for when I need a reminder!