With every year comes rich new lessons from life. 1996, for example, was the year that I learned not to attempt dancing to Nine Inch Nails in platforms after drinking Midori and 151, lest one’s derriere hit the dance floor. The following year I became a journalist, and the life lessons have (thankfully) become a bit more profound each year. Here’s reflecting on 10 things we learned in 2008:
1. You don’t need a lot of experience to be president. You just need a Teflon exterior, some good speeches, a pack of devoted followers, the ability to be photographed without your shirt, an opponent who has issues, and the ability to make people forget that you picked Joe Biden for vice president.
2. Pundits are still expected to toe party lines. Unless, of course, the Republican electorate picks someone too moderate for your tastes, then — as Limbaugh and the pack did post-primaries — you can declare conservanarchy and have fun pushing poll boycotts. But suggest that the conservative vice presidential choice is dragging down the ticket, and duck and cover as you’re derided as a traitor. (2008, coincidentally, was the year that I officially became an independent.)
3. Hugo Chavez is not untouchable. Despite an election process that can hardly be called fair, the opposition coalition won enough states — those representing about 70 percent of the nation’s economic activity — in local elections to govern about 45 percent of Venezuela’s population. This included the mayor’s office in Caracas. Democracy be damned, Hugo is roaring into 2009 determined to pass the referendum — you know, the one that voters previously shot down — giving him endless presidential terms. “The referendum will be held and the amendment will be approved. Nobody will be able to avoid it,” Chavez, heading further down the path of mad authoritarian, vowed.
4. Nobody still cares enough about Darfur. Except some celebrities who still believe that the United Nations will ride in and save the day if they do enough photo ops. Then Ahmad Muhammad Harun, Sudan’s minister of state for humanitarian affairs, adds insult to injury by telling the Guardian that “I am at peace with myself” over some 200,000 Sudanese whose deaths he’s accused of orchestrating. The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court is trying to charge Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes related to Darfur, but good luck with that.
5. Just when you think the economy couldn’t get any worse, the Grinch himself rides in. The pre-Christmas bust of former Nasdaq chairman Bernard Madoff, whose shady side business at his investment securities firm was “basically a giant Ponzi scheme,” took bad to worse when it was revealed that he had soaked the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity of more than $15 million, nearly its entire funding. It’s bad when anyone gets ripped off, but can’t Madoff get extra slammer time for that?
6. Asking the wrong question at the neighborhood block party could get you investigated. OK, perhaps Joe the Plumber was overly referenced by John McCain as an example of Middle Class Man About to Get Hosed by Obama Taxes. But it’s not as if Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher did anything to grab the limelight besides challenge Obama on his tax plans at an Ohio campaign stop. In return, the director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, who used her state computer to fundraise for Obama, played Big Brother and snooped on the plumber. Talk about un-American.
7. Peace on Earth goes better with plutonium. Just when you thought the European sympathizers couldn’t get any more batty, a British TV station ran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Christmas message as a counterpoint to the queen’s annual message. Ahmadinejad’s annual message, in a nutshell, is “what would Jesus do if he were an Islamic fundamentalism like me?”
8. Everybody has their breaking point. Israel’s patience with Hamas lackeys firing rockets into their country has been absolutely incredible. But the fight they eventually took to Hamas is more about one country’s security. As Egypt can attest, and Hezbollah and Iran view with glee, Hamas delights in throwing the whole region into turmoil. Will this teach Israel’s critics that the Jewish state is really the safe-and-sane choice in the region? That lesson will likely fly over many heads. But even Mahmoud Abbas had his light-bulb moment, acknowledging that Hamas invited the attack by not extending the cease-fire.
9. Some twerps still think the white-powder letters are funny. Since Dec. 8, reports the FBI, “letters containing a note and suspicious white powder have been received by the offices of more than 40 governors across the country.” The white powder, of course, tests negative for anthrax each time, but the talcum-powder pranks that draw out the cavalry each time and drain time and resources have gotten really old. So cut it out, Mr. Texas Postmark.
10. Since history tends to repeat its lessons, whether or not those in the corridors of power pay attention, this year reminded us, yet again, that the United Nations is pretty much useless. About 250,000 Congolese were displaced in violent fighting that easily intimidated the overwhelmed U.N. peacekeeping force. Despite the slayings, rapes, abductions, use of child soldiers, and more heinous war crimes, the piddly pace of peacekeeping once again taught parties to the conflict that crimes can, indeed, pay. The day after Christmas, 45 women, children and seniors were hacked to death inside a Catholic church in the northeastern part of the DRC. It barely made the headlines. When will we ever learn?