It is no longer fashionable merely to call 2011 a watershed year in modern history – so much was already clear within a few weeks of Mohammed Bouazizi’s fateful self-immolation before the year even began. Well-mannered people are much more likely to go for comparisons: with its revolutionary movements, economic foibles, and political realignments, is 2011 most like 1989, 1968, or 1848? Elaborating on a recent tradition, Google produced a short video of the year’s most popular searches, folding scenes of the Jasmine Revolution and bin Laden press conference into three minutes of operatic schmaltz.
I have nothing special to contribute in the way of grand unifying theories of 2011 or all-encompassing year-in-reviews. For that, I refer you to Time and Foreign Policy’s signature annual features. Instead, I’ll speak as a humble world editor and share five things (I could be cute and come up with eleven) that I learned about the world in 2011, ranging from common fallacies about the Arab Spring to the shape of the human evolutionary family tree.
‘Arab Spring’ is a dangerous catch-all.
In the year’s most dramatic development in international politics and civil society, civil unrest brought down the monarchical republican leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya – with odds all but certain that Yemen’s and Syria’s are soon to follow. For reasons historical, chronological, and sentimental, it has become universally normal to group these genuinely moving developments together as the ‘Arab Spring’.
Culturally significant as it might be, this generalized label whitewashes the structural differences among the authoritarian regimes that fell, the movements that brought them down, and the reconstruction efforts that will have to be undertaken. As the heat-of-the-moment Wilsonians of a few months ago have come to realize, Tunisia’s history of socially progressive reform, Egypt’s bustling but double-edged civil society, and Libya’s tribal factionalism all present different prospects for stable adjustment and democratization. American, European, and Israeli policymakers will have to tread carefully between their inner Wilson and Kissinger – and must steer clear of the perils of generalizing.
The incentives for Israeli-Palestinian peace are fading fast.
In 2011, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process went nowhere, as most analysts on all sides of the issue had expected. It was not, of course, for lack of rhetorical effort – Obama’s May 19th State Department address reaffirmed official American sympathy for a mainstream solution, Netanyahu continued to call for a resumption of negotiations without preconditions, and Abbas took matters into his own hands with a unilateral push for UN recognition of a Palestinian state.
Unfortunately, these all came as hollow advances – interpreted more often as insults to the process than as constructive steps toward peace. This says less about the personal motives of the American, Israeli, and Palestinian executives than about the political incentives they face which make seeking peace downright impossible.
As congressional Republicans lurch farther into messianic fantasies about Israel and misguided attempts to lure Jewish voters with an “Israel, right or wrong” platform, the Obama administration risks being painted as weak, anti-Israel, or anti-Semitic at signs of willingness to honestly broker Israeli-Palestinian peace. Emboldened by developments in the United States, Binyamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners have declared the peace process anathema, threatening the politically-conscious prime minister with abandonment and abdication if he doesn’t toe the line. And fearful of his West Bank electorate, whose democratic welcome he has overstayed by half a decade, Mahmoud Abbas has decided to rabble-rouse at the UN rather than take the ‘weakling’ route of Salam Fayyad, who has quietly built the infrastructure of Palestinian statehood and pushed for economic cooperation with Israel from his non-aligned, unelected position.
Republicans really don’t like Mitt Romney.
As it stands on December 28th, Mitt Romney seems to be on track to the Republican nomination – in line with the Republican tradition of nominating well-behaved runners-up from previous contests. This fate, however, would be no small achievement for the former Massachusetts governor, a steely political pragmatist who nobody seems to like all that much.
In a year of conservative posturing, Romney has had to overcome fair charges that he only recently jettisoned his liberal positions on such issues as same-sex civil unions, abortion, global warming (whatever it means to be liberal on yes/no questions of empirical science), and immigration. Given the deep unpopularity of the individual mandate component Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, it’s a genuine wonder that Romney has been able to live down the fact that he spearheaded nearly the same program during his tenure as Massachusetts governor.
As a result, the Republican electorate has spent all of 2011 in a Hegelian struggle against an ever-steady, gaffe-proof Mitt Romney. Thesis: Romney, antithesis: Bachmann/Perry/Cain/Gingrich. The synthesis, Democrats hope and Republicans fear: a fractured, unenthusiastic Republican base.
‘Brotherhood of man’ just got a lot more complicated.
Once upon a time, there was ‘Out of Africa’, a theory that allowed religious adherents ideas like the ‘Y-chromosomal Adam’ and the ‘mitochondrial Eve’, gave humanists evidence of the common, equal descent of all races, and furnished National Geographic with a new opportunity to make sexy maps that everyone would identify with. However, the idea that all people can trace their lineage back 50,000 years to one group of East African wanderers was anything but romantic and universalistic – that is to say, it assumed that in our species’ explosion onto the Eurasian scene, our ancestors had to spend much of their time clearing the way of pesky, sub-human Neanderthals and Homo erectus sub-branches.
In all likelihood, 2011 will be remembered by anthropologists and evolutionary biologists as the year that a strict, recent version of ‘Out of Africa’ went out the window for good. High-resolution sequencing technology, ingenious DNA extraction methods, and the crowdsourcing of modern population genetics made it possible to conclude that all Europeans and Asians derived one to three percent of their total genetic material (and much more for certain selected traits) from Neanderthals – who, brutes or not, now must be counted as part of the family tree. Melanesians and Australian aborigines seem to also be partially descended from Denisovans, a newly-discovered hominid population in Siberia – and certain African populations demonstrate population structure effects that would suggest the absorption of non-sapiens groups in their prehistory.
This needn’t mean anything for politics or policy, but there’s no doubt that people will draw broader conclusions, as they have been known to do with past genetic discoveries. What it should invite is a deeper, more cosmopolitan evaluation of what it means to be human – a complex we could once tie only to direct descent from prehistoric Homo sapiens.
And in the interest of full disclosure, 23andMe’s Neanderthal calculator estimates this writer to be 2.9% Neanderthal – well above the Eurasian average.
Harvard is much more conservative than you thought.
This one is predicated to a large degree on anecdotal evidence, but no year was better than 2011 to demonstrate that Harvard is not the bastion of radical leftism that second-rate social commentators describe. Like those of most elite universities, Harvard’s administration and student body fall squarely into the mainstream of American liberalism. But in this sense, that places Harvard closer to moderate conservatives than to radical leftists – a phenomenon demonstrated in the innumerable editorial meetings of The Crimson that pit conservatives and liberals alike against two or three socialists and sympathizers.
Unlike Occupy Berkeley or Occupy Davis, Occupy Harvard was essentially a dud. For most of its duration, the nonviolent, mildly radical encampment contained somewhere around two dozen tents. Most of Harvard’s 6,600 undergraduates, it so happens, cared very little about the movement’s aims – reacting strongly only when a lockdown of the Yard incrementally increased commute times. By the beginning of this month, an independent survey concluded that Occupy Harvard’s campus approval rating was about 2.84 out of 10, with self-described liberals reporting a not-even-lukewarm rating of 3.83 out of 10.
As I’ve discussed with several friends, conventional people – liberal and conservative alike – are strongly self-selected in Harvard’s student body. Whether too reputation-concerned to report or too risk-averse to try, only 37% of Harvard students claim on exit to have ever smoked marijuana – a figure that would be starkly out of place if Harvard were truly a holdout of sixties-style leftism.