Worldcrunch's editor reflects on how we lived through - and covered - a year that we might have known was coming.
PARIS — I've always been a radio guy: for its ease of access and stripped-down delivery of the news, for the direct connection of the human voice and the serendipity that comes when programming lineups intersect with your own day's schedule.
Yet this past year (for all the obvious reasons when referring to this past year) I've finally picked up a podcast habit. The medium offers the control and convenience of choosing from what initially seems to be an infinite number of shows and subjects — and searching and finding a favorite comedian or a historical topic or an interview of a news industry maven has helped fill the extra alone time and respond to many shifting moods of these strange times. Whatever I want. Whenever I want.
Still, for the very fact that live radio decides the what and when, it remains the medium that can occasionally give me what I may actually need. That's especially true here in France, where a public broadcasting structure guarantees an eclectic mix of high-quality (and sometimes high-brow) programs that can carry me somewhere else.
And so it was this past Saturday afternoon that I turned on national broadcaster France Culture just as I was setting off for a weekend run. The host was returning on air from a station break: "We're back, speaking today about … time." Well, voilà!
The historian François Hartog was indeed the end-of-the-year radio guest we all need. His new book "Chronos" explores how contemporary society is grappling with a changing notion of time: caught between instantaneous information technology accelerating what he calls presentism (where all that matters is right now) and the growing apocalyptic angst generated by man-made risks for the planet. Call it: Real-time v. end times.
The programming, on the last Saturday of 2020, was of course intentional. Hartog had completed his book just before the arrival of the coronavirus, but had delayed publishing in order to add a commentary on how his theories hold up in light of the pandemic.
It's both momentous and somehow blank.
As we wrap up 2020, it can all appear both so momentous and somehow blank. It's also true that the year didn't exactly "fly by," as we so often remark in late December. Professor Hartog explained the difference between the Greek concepts of Khronos (ordinary "elusive" time) and Krisis, where the proverbial merde hits the fan. Instead, he says, the pandemic has left us somewhere in between, where "time is suspended"...
For those of us, like Worldcrunch, whose daily bread is delivering international news, there was plenty ostensibly disconnected from the pandemic to fill the time: from the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in early January to the global awakening of the Black Lives Matter movement to the final (final) deal on Brexit in late December.
Still, the year has essentially been in the hands of a microscopic virus that has criss-crossed the planet, killing more than 1.7 million people, shrinking life's confines and threatening livelihoods for billions of others, swaying national elections, changing individual habits at work and at home.
Faced with unprecedented circumstances and unrelenting reader demand, those of us delivering the news hustled to try to understand what was happening — and what was going to happen. The Italian news site Il Post recently chided fellow media outlets for inventing a new journalistic format: the draft, where reporters publish information they know is incomplete (or non-existent), expecting it to be revised or reversed soon after.
For Worldcrunch, the onus is less on time than on space, as we try to connect the dots from around the planet. Whether it was the spread of the virus or new lockdown rules, knowing what has happening elsewhere could feel empowering — especially earlier in the crisis.
This year taught us what we already knew.
In the U.S., my native country, the pandemic shaped the final year (and election loss) of President Donald Trump, a leader whose dictatorial tendencies threatened the world's oldest democracy. There was also the connection between the health crisis and the reckoning with centuries of racial injustice and newer tensions over the power of America's big tech companies and the impact of global warming which was blamed for a month when the entire West Coast seemed to be covered in flames. End times indeed, with cartoonist Barry Blitt drawing himself knocked over by the "news cyclones" arriving one after another.
Photo: Dan Gaken
Yes, it was a lot. But we might also look at 2020 as the year that taught us what we already knew. That starts with the risk of infectious disease itself, which experts had been warning us about for years. We've also learned (anew) that the immediate protection of human life supersedes economic concerns, but for only so long. We've learned (anew) about the fundamental weaknesses of liberal democracies, but continue to prefer them to the alternative. We learned in new ways how much the world is intimately intertwined, but that nations are ready to shut themselves off to protect their own. And finally, and most encouragingly, we learned that advances in scientific research, and a dose of global cooperation, can find cures in record time for the worst scourges we might imagine.
And finally, we learned that time is in fact not only measured in 24-hour news cycles, or 15 minutes of fame. "What disturbs us is that we have extra time that we can control, but we can't project ourselves into the future," France Marchand, a psychologist based in the French coastal city of Brest, told Le Monde in November. "Not being able to be sure of anything refers to ancestral fears...of emptiness, of missing, of dying."
So how will 2021 unfold? With infection and death rates hitting new highs just as the rollout has begun on an unprecedented mass global vaccination campaign, we can expect a different kind of anxiety in relation to time. Hopefully that will only last a few more months. Then, we are told, we will begin to emerge from our hives. We will start to travel again, and reunite with our loved ones. The economy may pick up or it may implode. Some old habits will return, others may not.
And as for the future of Khronos and Krisis ... and "time suspended"? Some of the finer philosophical points from that French radio show may have eluded me, but these final days of the year brought back some words I first heard a long time ago on an American station, from a different kind of philosopher: it's Willie Nelson singing "ain't it funny how time just slips away." Who could have known how much we'd miss the ordinary, bittersweet passage of life.