So how exactly do you choose a “Person of the Year”? Here’s more from Time’s Richard Stengel:
People tend to think that choosing the Person of the Year is a scientific process. It’s not; it’s a subjective one. There’s no Person of the Year measuring stick or algorithm…We have meetings…But in the end, it has to be someone or something that feels right, something that’s a little unexpected, someone our readers will be eager to know more about. [Read the full article here.]
This contradicts what was said in Stengel’s other explanation, which focuses on what is indeed a viable, objective criterion, namely historical significance. Of course, one can hardly expect modern journalists to be consistent, but what about an “algorithm” for choosing a ‘Person of the Year’?
Could there be such a thing? Is it possible to objectively assert that one person is the most important person in the world at any point in time?
I think it is, and I think the algorithm is in principle fairly straightforward. (The details, of course, are tricky!)
One element of the calculation that makes it seem daunting at first is that it is impossible to measure a person’s full historical footprint in the present. Although one can certainly anticipate the historical import of an event or action in a journalistic context, historical significance emerges gradually, and it is most easily measured from a distance, with the benefit of hindsight.
One reason for this is that the future does have a way of yielding the unexpected. Free will and unanticipated consequences mean that despite context, trends, and traditions, accidents do happen, and the truly unique or “sui generis” does appear. Both of these have affected the course of events at many junctures in history. For instance, when Corsica became a part of France in 1768 despite its close cultural ties to Italy, one could hardly have expected this minor transfer of European real estate to matter in the larger scheme of things. One year later, however, a certain Napoleone di Buonaparte was born there, whose subsequent entry into French military schools as a youth, rather than schools in Italy, changed the story of the world.
If one can see the “big picture” of history, one can absorb shocks like these, and still plot out a general course for events based on fundamental trends. Even in the context of the Napoleonic upheaval, for instance, one could have predicted that a longer term struggle between the new liberal socialism of the French Revolution and the traditional monarchism of Europe would extend for generations. Such a prediction would have been based on a variety of factors, including on the one side the success of the American republic, the moderate course of England’s constitutional monarchy and its prestige on the continent, the current shocks being dealt to the decaying structure of feudalism by the Napoleonic presence throughout Europe, and on the other side the sustained ideological alignment of Russia, Prussia, and Austria during that period.
Still, there’s no question that Napoleon would have been “Person of the Year” for a good 15 years running, which fact helps us to see the first basic principle that applies in the “Person of the Year” algorithm.
In a word, that principle is “preeminence.”
When one person occupies a place in world affairs that is incommensurably greater that all others, then the choice is easy.
Applying this principle, though one might like to choose, say, Thomas Jefferson in 1801, as third President of the nascent American republic and leader of that infant nation against the Barbary Pirates–or James Madison in 1812, the fourth President, standing up to Britain’s imperial might in defense of his people’s rights, I think that such choices would have been nearly impossible to make for even the best journalist at the time–though in the long run, one could eventually revise one’s choice. While Napoleon held sway over Europe, his actions and their apparent impact on the course of civilization swamped those of any other candidate, and even if these exceptions are allowed, they still serve to highlight the rule.
So preeminence trumps any other consideration, but what do you do when there isn’t a clear choice of the Napoleonic variety? What do you do when you live in a world without leaders–at least, a world without political leaders, as we do today?
(continued in Part 3)