“You seem much happier than me, Greg,” Tom complains to his relative-by-marriage, who’s exulting over landing a date. Cousin Greg comes across as clueless in the show on HBO (which, like CNN, is owned by WarnerMedia), until he periodically reveals his inner sage.
He really is happy, Greg admits — “I like her” — and then advises: “It’s not a finite pie; we can both be happy.”
In 2021, happiness has too often seemed like a “finite pie.” The year began with an attack on the US Capitol and ended with surges of Covid-19 in a pandemic that refuses to release its hold on us.
In our last weekly opinion column before the new year, we’re focusing on the points of view that were most popular with you — and with the team at CNN Opinion — this year. (We’re taking a break next week and returning on January 2.)
You can sample the 40 pieces that told the story of the year here. Last week, CNN Opinion’s Jane Greenway Carr recounted the “social commentary and cultural criticism that helped us look hard into the darkness, bridge the gaps between us and, sometimes, take hold of the light.”
Our team’s picks
We have the rare luxury of being able to publish opinion pieces on any topic under — and around — the sun, and our team members’ favorites for the year reflect that variety, touching on everything from space junk to “Ted Lasso” to the Czech election.
Here are their choices:
Jessica Chia picked “The growing problem of space junk,” by Alice Gorman:
Remember that brief, sweet window in May, when we could set aside any worries we had about Covid-19 and our decaying democracy and ask ourselves, “What are the odds a rocket will fall out of the sky and land on me?” The Long March 5B rocket was one of the largest uncontrolled space objects to fall out of orbit, and most of it burned up when it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere, according to the Chinese government. “Reentry is considered the most desirable outcome as it removes space junk from orbit where it can collide with functioning satellites, create more junk, and threaten human life when it comes to crewed spacecraft,” according to Dr. Alice Gorman, who is also known as Dr. Space Junk. But very little has been done on the environmental impact of this incineration in the atmosphere. Learn more in this fascinating piece, which includes this gem of a sentence: “Earth’s atmosphere has become a liminal zone that marks a zombie spacecraft’s transition to true death.”
Kirsi Goldynia‘s favorite was “Gen Z’s telling nostalgia for Bennifer, ‘Friends’ and Y2K,” by Holly Thomas:
I’m a few years older than Gen Z’ers, but I can fully relate to their desire to recreate some aspects of early 2000s culture while choosing to leave other less desirable parts in the dust. Holly Thomas captured this feeling of selective nostalgia perfectly when she wrote: “As a millennial who grew up during the noughties, I both envy and admire Gen Z’ers’ capacity to idealize those years. It’s unfair that they’re managing to make bucket hats and aggressive brand logos look anything besides tragic, but commendable that they’re paying a ton more mind to where they’re sourcing their clothes than we did.”
Yaffa Fredrick chose “‘Ted Lasso’ is not about what you think,” by David N. Perry and Matthew Gabriele:
Amid the stresses of the ongoing pandemic, one show reminded me to pause and enjoy the simple pleasures in life — “Ted Lasso.” David M. Perry and Matthew Gabriele’s op-ed on “Ted Lasso” beautifully captures why the show succeeds in helping viewers disconnect from their day-to-day realities and instead embrace a world in which friendship and community take priority. They write that “Ted Lasso” proves to us “there’s a world possible in which people can count on one another.” And while that’s a lesson not even all the characters master by the end of the second season, it’s one we can all aspire to as we enter the new year.
Breeanna Hare picked “The tragic messages the Gabby Petito case sends,” by Sonia Pruitt:
This year hasn’t been the breakthrough for equality that 2020 promised it could be. But at the very least, it seems we are getting better at calling out those disparities in all facets of American life — even within our response to tragedy. When 22-year-old Gabby Petito vanished on a road trip with her fiance in the fall, her story was a top headline from coast to coast in a rightful effort to gather information and bring a young woman home safely. And yet, as retired police captain Sonia Pruitt observed, it also reignited “a national conversation about the lasting spotlight that is often given to missing White people, compared to their non-White counterparts.” With this case, two things were true at once: Something horrible had happened to Petito and the nation was aware of it — and something horrible is happening when the missing person cases of people of color don’t get nearly as much empathy. With thoughtfulness and sensitivity, Pruitt captured this reality with an unblinking honesty, calling on all of us to engage and change this truth. “While Petito’s family should of course be allowed to use everything at their disposal to get to the bottom of exactly what happened to Gabby, we cannot ignore the effects of that same level of access not being extended to the Black and brown, who are just as desperate to find missing loved ones,” Pruitt wrote. “As a former police captain, it is particularly concerning what message this could be sending to perpetrators: that young people of color are easy targets because few will care to look for them.”
Jane Greenway Carr chose “The problem with ‘bereavement’ leave after pregnancy loss,” by Lara Freidenfelds:
In 2021, like 2020 before it, so many of us spent time feeling powerless or out of control. There was so much in our lives we couldn’t do or weren’t empowered to change, even when we wanted to. But as historian Lara Freidenfelds reminded us in this powerful piece on the need to rethink the language we use about pregnancy loss: Choices that seem small at the time can have enormous consequences in the everyday lives of those around us. By saying “loss” instead of “bereavement” to make space to be inclusive of more people’s diverse experiences and myriad feelings about miscarriage isn’t just more accurate to the history of human beings’ reproductive lives, she tells us; it’s a more compassionate (and ultimately revolutionary) way to build policy. It’s something we can do from where we stand to change harmful taboos and make people feel seen. Fundamentally, her point is that words have power and we can use them more effectively to make people’s lives better. This year, that was a message I cherished and tried to live into.
To Sheena McKenzie, this piece stood out: “This country’s election may be the strategy to defeat Trumpism,” by Dean Obeidallah:
“Czech election” and “edge-of-your-seat drama” are not two phrases I would normally put together. But on a recent gray weekend in October I found myself reporting on exactly that — a cliffhanger election involving the “Czech Donald Trump,” a hospitalized president and a group called the “Pirate Party.” Dean Obeidallah smartly unpacks why this offbeat election — where opposition parties joined forces to topple populist Prime Minister Andrej Babiš — has so much to teach the US about defeating Trumpism. Obeidallah writes that the US needs “a pro-democracy coalition in the same way leaders in the Czech Republic were able to put aside political differences to defeat a right-wing, populist leader.” And with more strongman elections coming up in 2022 (Orban in Hungary and Bolsonaro in Brazil), it’s a tactic other nations will be watching closely.
Many of our most popular pieces flowed out of the end of Donald Trump’s presidency and the start of Joe Biden’s. Power was ultimately handed over on January 20, but the closing days of the Trump White House were epically chaotic, as police struggled to put down an insurrection aimed at stopping Congress’ certification of Biden’s victory and officials coped with the aftereffects. On January 6, after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, Frida Ghitis called for “Mike Pence and the members of the Cabinet to pull the country back from the edge of abyss and remove Trump from office.”
As the year went on, many Republicans pivoted from condemning the attack to making excuses for it. But there were notable exceptions — including former President George W. Bush. As Paul Begala wrote, “Bush summed up the reaction to the attack on our Capitol — or at least the reaction of all decent, patriotic Americans — in just six words, as evocative as they are accurate: ‘I was sick to my stomach.’”
The concession that never came
Trump never admitted that he lost the election, repeating instead a fabricated story that he was cheated by massive voter fraud. His refusal to come to terms with reality dominates the Republican Party today.
It was no surprise that Trump didn’t invite Biden to the White House for the traditional meeting between outgoing and incoming presidents, but even first lady Melania Trump skipped the nicety of hosting Jill Biden for tea. “Understandably lost in the morass of the horrifying things that have happened leading up to Joe Biden’s inauguration is something that did not happen,” wrote Kate Andersen Brower. “Melania Trump will become the first modern first lady not to invite the woman who will replace her to the White House for a walk-through of the private living quarters on the second and third floors.”
Trump skipped the inauguration, flying home to Mar-a-Lago on Air Force One, but Washington wasn’t done with him. The former president had been impeached a week before his term was over and was eventually put on trial for the second time in the Senate, which voted to acquit him of inciting an insurrection. Days before his trial, Trump’s legal team quit and had to be hastily replaced. As Elie Honig, wrote, “It’s telling that the source of the falling-out between Trump and his (former) lawyers was his insistence that they raise the ‘stolen election’ defense.”
In red states across the nation, Republican legislators passed bills to limit access to the polls and bring election administrators more tightly under the control of political forces that could potentially overrule voters in future elections. As in other states, Trump spread phony questions about the results in Arizona, where Biden won by a narrow margin. There, Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer pushed back hard against Trump’s insinuations.
It was time “to loudly speak the truth,” he wrote in May. “The truth is that there is no solid evidence of significant fraud in Maricopa County’s November 3 election. There is no solid evidence that the election in Maricopa County was stolen from former President Trump. That is why all eight cases brought in Arizona state and federal courts alleging widespread fraud, inaccuracies, or irregularities lost spectacularly.”
As former world chess champion Garry Kasparov wrote in the CNN Opinion “Voices of Freedom” series, democracy is too precious to let slip away. “Hailing from the Soviet Union, a repressive regime and precursor to Putin’s Russia, I have always understood that democracy is a privilege — one that must constantly be defended. But over the last few years, I have watched with growing alarm as many Americans lose faith in their democratic system… Because democratic sentiment is weak, the rights to vote and free speech are more vulnerable in my adopted home of America today than at any point in my life.” Now, “we can either be the generation that renews democracy, or loses it forever,” Kasparov declared.
“The clearest driver of distrust in US democracy is Trump’s lie that he really won the 2020 election,” wrote CNN Opinion’s Yaffa Fredrick. “Despite any evidence of systematic voter fraud, Trump and his loyalists continue to sow doubt about Biden’s victory in the minds of the American people… they are achieving some degree of success. 36% of Americans — and a startling 78% of Republicans — now believe Biden did not win enough votes to be the legitimately elected president.”
Facebook was among the social media platforms that came under a torrent of criticism over the spread of misinformation about the election — and Covid-19 vaccines.
The company, which now operates under the new corporate title of “Meta,” is “ignoring the truth, to your detriment,” wrote Kara Alaimo, after “Frances Haugen, a former Facebook project manager and now whistleblower, said the company is well aware that its social network is being used to promote hate, violence and misinformation — but it has tried to cover up the evidence in order to generate more revenue.”
Biden plowed ahead with pledges to return the nation to normalcy and lead America out of the Covid-19 pandemic, only to run into the Delta and Omicron variants of the virus. Still, he succeeded in passing and signing legislation to spend trillions to stimulate the economy and rebuild bridges, roads and other infrastructure. He repaired some alliances that had been strained in the Trump years and visited the UK, where his meeting with Queen Elizabeth II was judged a success despite a “spectacular” breach of royal protocol, as Rosa Prince noted.
The new President faced divides in his own party, as progressives pushed him to move faster to reduce inequality and counter threats to voting rights while Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema withheld their support for a massive social spending bill that originally included sharp hikes in taxes on corporations and the wealthy. In September, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “made her Met Gala debut in a long white off-shoulder mermaid gown, with ‘Tax The Rich’ scribed across the back in massive, flag-red letters,” wrote Holly Thomas. “It was explicit, as close as you could come to having a placard at the gala without literally bringing one…”
Biden’s decision to pull all US troops out of Afghanistan, in accordance with the peace agreement with the Taliban negotiated by the Trump administration, led to the collapse of the Afghan government and a disorderly exodus from Kabul. Nick Ochsner, the son of a Green Beret killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, wrote, “If my dad were alive today, I know he would be worried about the thousands of Afghans who risked their lives and their families’ security in service to an America that has now left many of them stranded, helpless, behind enemy lines.“
There were also tensions over the role of Vice President Kamala Harris, as Roxanne Jones noted. “I’m hoping she stays the course, steps fully into her powerful, intelligent, straight-talking self,” Jones wrote. “But please ditch the chuckle. It’s time for Black women to bring their entire selves to the table. And even when we stumble, we got this.”
As the President’s approval ratings dropped, Democrats fretted over who might lead their ticket in 2024 should Biden, who will turn 82 by the next presidential inauguration, choose not to run. Harris and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, once rivals for the 2020 presidential nomination, don’t have to be competitors, wrote Lincoln Mitchell, who suggested they could run together on the same ticket.
Covid isn’t done with us
Since the start of 2021, more than 203 million Americans have been fully vaccinated against the virus that causes Covid-19, and more than 58 million have received booster shots. The vaccinations have saved millions from severe illness and death, but the vaccine-hesitant and vaccine resisters remain at great risk.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Florida-based emergency room doctor Alex Busko’s sickest patients were “almost exclusively older people with chronic health problems.” But in July, he wrote, “Now the patients I see, frightened and struggling to breathe, are mostly in their 30s, 40s and 50s. They come from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Many of them have no identifiable risk factors. The one thing many of them have in common: They are all unvaccinated… Hundreds of Americans are dying every day from a vaccine-preventable illness.”
In April 2020, infectious disease expert Michael Osterholm told Peter Bergen that he expected 800,000 Americans could die of the disease within 18 months. Last week, the US surpassed that number, and in a recent follow-up interview conducted by Bergen, Osterholm warned, “You cannot outrun the game clock with this pandemic. This virus will find you and, unfortunately, many of the outcomes are very sad…We have health care systems around the country, including in my home state of Minnesota, that are hanging on by a thread. We’ve seen health care systems virtually broken by this pandemic. They just couldn’t provide critical care to non-Covid patients. If you’re not going to get vaccinated for yourself, please get vaccinated for your loved ones and for the community because this is a very challenging situation.”
The psychic toll of the pandemic is fearsome, as Thomas Lake wrote in January: “Are you holding it together? I am not. Most days I struggle with grief and rage. I often cover my face with my hands. My fingers keep closing into fists.”
“What is happening to me? To us? Maybe you’re like me: afraid, anxious, nervous, or feeling whatever else you call that paralyzing sensation that radiates from below the ribcage up into your chest. You can’t stop worrying about all you have left to lose.”
Year of climate
In a year when the world focused more than ever on the menace of climate change, John Sutter traveled to Wyoming to examine the impact of eventually ending the fossil fuel economy.
“Gillette is the hub of a region called the Powder River Basin, which produces roughly 40% of US coal,” Sutter wrote. “Residents here know that the Biden administration, which rejoined the Paris Agreement on climate change and promises a 100% clean electric grid by 2035, could help push Gillette out of existence.”
The pandemic has been generous to the world’s billionaires — their wealth has grown dramatically. As if to demonstrate their enormous resources, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and UK entrepreneur Richard Branson flew into space. Elon Musk, whose company SpaceX has jumped in front of rivals in its commercialization of space, was named Time’s Person of the Year.
Space tourism offers the luxury of “a Disney park ride for the super-rich,” noted physicist Don Lincoln, but there’s more to it than that. The competition could benefit science and business. “The real bottom line is that the commercialization of space will reduce launch costs and that has benefits for anyone needing to lift an object above the Earth’s atmosphere.”
But the billionaires should focus on improving life on earth, argued Holly Thomas. “Mitigating further climate damage is the most urgent challenge currently facing the planet — one which should interest the world’s billionaires far more than that of stepping just over the well-trod threshold of space.”
…Some highlights from the past week:
Jill Filipovic: Panicky texts to Mark Meadows paint a damning picture
Joshua Wurman: How to improve our odds against deadly tornadoes
Julian Zelizer: This moment is Biden’s biggest leadership test
Jennifer Williams: I’m a transgender woman in America. I shouldn’t have to live in fear
Chris Cillizza: Why my Covid anxiety is spiking now, all these months later
Michael D’Antonio: Devin Nunes’ new job is out of Trump’s old playbook
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela: Where fitness meets sexual fantasy
Kara Alaimo: What Elon Musk as ‘Person of the Year’ says about us
Frida Ghitis: Trump delivers Georgia Democrats a holiday gift
Where help is needed
Last weekend’s wave of tornadoes laid waste to Dawson Springs, Kentucky. Officials said about 75% of the town was destroyed. CNN political commentator Scott Jennings and his father, Jeff Jennings, wrote that the tornadoes “turned the town we love into a wasteland of debris, rubble and memories.”
“Gone are so many homes and lives of our cherished neighbors. Every house on Oak Heights, the street the Jennings family grew up on, has been wiped away. Largely destroyed is the city park where we both spent so many nights on Little League and softball fields.
“But we are lucky. Jeff, who has lived in Dawson Springs since 1958 and graduated from its high school in 1976, made it across town and rode out the storm in a friend’s basement. Several others we know didn’t survive, and there are still many unaccounted for…
“If you can spare a donation of money or blood, please do. The people of western Kentucky need your help today and for many years to come.”
To learn more about how to help victims in Dawson Springs and other hard-hit areas, click here.
It turns out that compassion, like happiness, isn’t finite.