The "Great Man" theory of history is usually attributed to the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who wrote that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men." He believed that it is the few, the powerful and the famous who shape our collective destiny as a species. That theory took a serious beating this year.That's right, in a time of turmoil and chaos, in an era of major political changes at home and abroad, in a moment of seismic shifts in geopolitical power, the Person of the Year is a 28-year-old virgin watching YouTube clips of the AfterSchool Special where Helen Hunt does angel dust and jumps out her window, as he passionately edits the Wiki entry on "The Thundercats." A thirteen-year-old girl whose greatest accomplishment is the number of N'Sync references on her My Space page, truly belongs listed alongside the pantheon of world-changing figures like Gandhi, FDR, Hitler, Stalin, MLK, and Pope John Paul II.
To be sure, there are individuals we could blame for the many painful and disturbing things that happened in 2006. The conflict in Iraq only got bloodier and more entrenched. A vicious skirmish erupted between Israel and Lebanon. A war dragged on in Sudan. A tin-pot dictator in North Korea got the Bomb, and the President of Iran wants to go nuclear too. Meanwhile nobody fixed global warming, and Sony didn't make enough PlayStation3s.
But look at 2006 through a different lens and you'll see another story, one that isn't about conflict or great men. It's a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It's about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people's network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It's about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.
You know, Time, if you're going to sneer at the Great Man approach to history -- and I'm right there with you -- then maybe you should simply scrap the whole idea of a Person of the Year, seeing how it seems to privilege the ideas that an individual Man or Woman does Great things. You'd be better off kicking this idea to the curb, instead of reducing it to Everyone Gets a Ribbon Day.
Update: While Time has been busy cheering at the Special Olympics, it seems that Salon not only understands the basic concept of the Person of the Year, but has also made an interesting, thoughtful choice.