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Menu for 2019: Grassroots grumblings

Menu for 2019: Grassroots grumblings

For the eighth time in the 19 completed years of the 21st century, Time magazine's "Person of the Year" was awarded to a social/professional/grassroots movement, in 2018 to "The Guardians," that is, those conducting "the war on truth." In fact, it is the second consecutive year of such a movement winning that coveted position, with the #MeToo-driven women's movement earning the fair gender the spotlight as "silence breakers." It was the second time the fair gender collectively graced the magazine's cover, with the 1975 recognition of "American women" being that movement's prior hallmark moment. Yet, if the clarion call to treat women as more mainstream individuals must be made a second time in 43 years, then we must worry if the message is delivering, and backed up by appropriate policy action and institutionalisation. When we compare how, since Time magazine made its first award, in 1927, to a 25-year old Charles Lindberg (still the youngest title-holder), only 10 social/professional/grassroots movements have graced the cover in the entire 20th century, are we more legitimate noise and rewarding choices? At stake is a wide array of ostensibly disenfranchised groups whose induction into the unfortunately hitherto male-dominated mainstream might expand the mainstream market and make for more efficient and balanced family/household/corporate/ governmental decision-making.

Those 10 20th century winners were, in chronological order: "American Fighting Men" in 1950 (just after the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was established and the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb), the "Hungarian Freedom Fighter" in 1956 (another Cold War-triggered award, but more reflective of the grassroots than the 1950s "cowboys"); "US scientists" grabbed the attention in 1960 (after Alan B. Shepherd momentously entered outer-space and both superpowers moved beyond the hydrogen-bomb into the nuclear era); the 1966 cover to the "Inheritor," the white, male under-25 Baby Boomer beneficiary of the Cold War, opened the social space wider, though still connected with the military; but the 1969 cover award to the "Middle Americans" was more than indirect recognition of Woodstock musical festival (whose 50th anniversary comes up, in a nostalgic way, in 2019): the widest grassroots recognition of the entire 20th century was being made, as too a rectification of the closeted "Inheritor" choice in 1966.

The story goes on, since the very next "movement" would be the second largest grassroots group, "American women," as alluded to, in 1975 (and no, it was not a commemoration of a similarly named song by the Canadian band, Guess Who). Thence came another recognition at the professional level, the "Competitor" in 1982, earmarking the maturation of the Third Industrial Revolution; "Endangered Earth" in 1988, targeting the widest possible platform of any grassroots group, but with a "survival" accent quite different than any "movement" interest; and finally, the "Peacemakers" ending the 20th century coverage by looking at the greatest 21st century professional need.

In summary, we note the enormous recognition of, and attention to, two groups that became as incompatible with each other, when the hope of their complementarity enhancing humans crossed so many people's minds: one technological, the other grassroots. Both have lived in harmony (for instance, the "green movement" that emerged sporadically from the 1970s before making greater 21st century splashes,  utilises appropriate technologies to enhance life at, not just the social base, but also for society in general), their tendency to end up on opposing sides, oftentimes deliberately, has raised more apprehensions than hope. The arms race, for instance, threatens the grassroots more than anything else in case of any conscription, not just in the numbers and types of people killed in war, but also the environmental damage inflicted, such as "scorched earth" military plans, or napalm bombing. Similarly with the Internet and subsequent artificial intelligence (AI) contraptions/products of the third and fourth industrial revolutions: they benefit an upper crust population so much more than the masses at the bottom, and with tools and tastes that actually hurt the environment (usage of plastics, for example, to construct AI components more than help (for example, by lowering costs of newer services so as to make them more accessible to the lower classes).

The 21st century Time pattern has been to promote both these trends but with greater emphasis on the grassroots over the professionals/technological. The "American soldier" (in 2003, right after the 9/11 events and the war on terrorism officially began) is the 21st century counterpart of the 1950 "American Fighting Man" who symbolised the dominant conflict of the time, the Cold War. Yet, the military-industrial representation in the 21st century thus far has been heavily out-measured by social alarms and alerts: with "Whistleblowers:" (2002), "Good Samaritans" (2005), "Us" (2006, involving perhaps a far wider grassroots audience than the "Middle American" in 1969, or "American Women" in 1975), the "Protestor," "Ebola fighters" (2014), "Silence-breakers" (2017), and "Guardians" (2018), we are being armed not with the weapons that kill, but weapons that might help us survive the multiplication of destructive tools (weapons, industries) and habits (gender-exploitation, fake news under both democratic and dictatorial contexts, the former by spinning words, the latter by twisting arms and bruising backs).

In that sense, Time annual cover-portraits serve as a running commentary on the instruments we have used, either for exploiting environmental resources or enhancing our collective welfare. There must be more to the story: how this is being portrayed may be pushing the enfranchising cause, against, it seems, very stubborn odds, may be the very, very long-turn goal of an even playing-field, when we will all learn from them how to eliminate those mistakes we constantly make (often-times deliberately, like an unreformed child). Or, better yet, having to take our next-door neighbour as he/she is for both to benefit (more trenchantly, to survive).

It does not hurt to advocate that beneficial ending, since we are clumsily moving there anyway. With more people, of whatever stripes, enfranchised (in terms of whatever the extant social rules, norms, regulations, practices, and purposes may be), the market not only grows with more customers, but can also be tailored to produce or release more certified products, that is, environmental friendly or gender-neutral. How these get institutionalised (that is, respected, enforced, and taken for granted), in turn, enhances the legal social respect, and thereby the length, breadth, and depth of civil society.

Of course, weapons will still be built, but since we have reached the limits where complete destruction is possible, it pays to uplift safeguards. Similarly for gender symmetry: we have come so far down the democratic pathway, we cannot but start to ironing out all the wrinkles eventually (again, over a very long haul). Likewise for class and race. We are urgently reminded not to ever give up: in the long-run, we may not at all be dead, though adversities may bring us closer than we have ever chosen to be.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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