The Year in Review: 2021

Friday, January 7, 2022 | Kassel, Germany

New arrivals in 2021: Stella and The Algerian Dream

Strange though it seems, there's no getting around it: Amid a challenging year for the planet and the human race, Nina and I had an unforgettably good year in 2021, marked by just as much transition as our turbulent 2020.

Here's a look back at some major milestones for us and the wider world, some of my favorite media from the year, and a look ahead to 2022.

I. Life

When the year began, Nina was pregnant with our first child and I was entering the final stages of writing my first book; the culmination of two very special life projects felt imminent—though one would prove to be much more a beginning than an end.

Stella's birth was joyful and surreal; watching her grow and learn over the ensuing months has been no less so. Her arrival upended every aspect of our lives, putting to the test all the talents of adaptation we had honed through years of living in foreign lands. Nina has embraced motherhood with grace and confidence. Though still bewildering, fatherhood has grown more familiar—and more fun—with each passing day. I'm thrilled to see what lies ahead.

2021 was the first year in a decade that I didn't set foot in Algeria, though the place, the people, and their ever-unfolding story remained present most notably in the form of The Algerian Dream. After months of lonely drafting and painful editing—aided immeasurably by a cadre of loyal and brilliant friends, to whom I am forever indebted—I published the book in September as a sort of capstone to my years in the country. The book earned me a mention from the New Yorker, interviews in Algerian media, praise from renowned economist Tyler Cowen, invitations to numerous book clubs and signings and webinars, podcast appearances and a French TV interview, and a glowing review in the prestigious Journal of North African Studies. It also helped me land a new post as senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, where I continue to share analyses on Algeria with the wider world.

As if the whirlwind of diaper changes and late-night feedings, editorial decisions and media attention weren't enough to give me grey hair (spoiler alert: it was, and it did), in 2021 I also began—and have nearly completed—an executive master's program in "information and knowledge systems management" at the Sorbonne in Paris. Attending class for several days each month required long train rides and frequent testing (read: regularly inviting pharmacists to rummage for Covid deep in my nasal passages), but also offered regular breaks from German village life. And the program was eye-opening—as much about the French worldview as about the academic content itself.

Once we were both vaccinated, Nina and I towed little Stella to the Dolomites and Venice for our year's only vacation—a luxury in times like these. (More on that trip coming soon.) Apart from those trips and a brief visit to the US for book distribution, I otherwise stayed close to our home-for-now, a historic farmhouse in the German countryside, where walking the dogs through the surrounding fields and forest is about as exciting as it gets. (Also to stave off boredom, I made the highly questionable decision to restart my lacrosse career at age 36 by joining the Kassel Raccoons.)

Finally, this year I adopted Obsidian, a "personal knowledge management" platform that is now my mental base of operations, the center of my little intellectual universe. The program has already begun shaping how I collect, digest, and process the cascade of information that fills my days.

II. Current Events

Despite the historically swift rollout of life-saving vaccines, 2021 was not the year the pandemic ended, as we had all hoped, first because our toxic media ecosystem led so many with access to vaccines to refuse them. (Result: In the US, Covid claimed more American lives this year than last.) Second, by failing to cooperate and invest in expanding vaccination worldwide, humanity earned itself several nasty new Covid variants, effectively ensuring the pandemic will remain with us in some form forever.

Around the world, the news offered a steady stream of other manmade catastrophes, from Israel's horrific bombardment of Gaza to Ethiopia's descent into civil war, Lebanon's slow-motion meltdown, and one climate-change-induced disaster after another. Back home, the January 6 attack on the US Capitol—part of a wider coup attempt by a sitting president—marked a historic low for my homeland, albeit one that many Americans remain committed to outdoing. The effortless slide back into pre-Trump deadlock and fecklessness in Washington, plus the disastrous collapse of whatever we had been propping up in Afghanistan, did little to inspire optimism.

There were bright spots, of course. The mRNA technology behind the Covid vaccines seems likely to lead to incredible advances against malaria, AIDS, and other scourges. And NASA's Perseverance Mars rover landing and James Webb Telescope launch (both of which we watched live in wonder this year) did much to remind us that human progress continues.

Life wasn't all roses before our present era, of course. But looking back on 2021, it's impossible to deny that our present-day collisions of traditional and social media, collective responsibility and individual ambition, new technologies and ingrained psychology are systemically hindering our societies from solving great challenges at a time we can ill afford such dysfunction. Our species' greatest challenge—climate change—is not on the horizon, it is upon us.

Pessimistic as all this might sound, I still believe our best days may still lay ahead.

III. Media & Influences

Child-rearing and a hefty stack of grad-school textbooks left me with far less free time than I would have liked this year, but I still found plenty to feed my curiosity in 2021. Here is a selection of favorite media I found influential and interesting throughout the year:

Essays

Three great satire pieces felt particularly relevant to me this year:

This one wasn't satire, but was perhaps even funnier:

  • "Yahoo Answers, a Haven for the Confused, Is Shutting Down" by Daniel Victor (New York Times, April 6) "Why do people with baguettes think they are better than me? ... What does a hug feel like? ... How many calories are there in soap? ... What do Canadians download? ... Are you aware that we’re the laughingstock of the Internet?"

On social media:

  • "On the Internet, We’re Always Famous" by Chris Hayes (New Yorker, September 24) "Everyone is losing their minds online because the combination of mass fame and mass surveillance increasingly channels our most basic impulses—toward loving and being loved, caring for and being cared for, getting the people we know to laugh at our jokes—into the project of impressing strangers, a project that cannot, by definition, sate our desires but feels close enough to real human connection that we cannot but pursue it in ever more compulsive ways."

On medicine:

  • "The Secret Life of a Coronavirus" by Carl Zimmer (New York Times, February 26) "There are more viruses in a liter of seawater than there are human beings on the entire planet."
  • "All Placebos Are Not Created Equal" by Sam Atis (Substack, November 16) Even at the center of our medical system, there is so much we still don't understand.
  • "When a Virus Is the Cure" by Nicola Twilley (New Yorker, December 14 2020) "Scientists estimate that phages cause a trillion trillion infections per second, destroying half the world’s bacteria every forty-eight hours. As we are now all too aware, animal-specific viruses can mutate enough to infect a different animal species. But they will not attack bacteria, and bacteriophage viruses are similarly harmless to animals, humans included. Phage therapy operates on the principle that the enemy of our enemy could be our friend."
  • "Can Progressives Be Convinced That Genetics Matters?" by Gideon Lewis-Kraus (New Yorker, September 6) The article that left me most unsettled this year.

On climate:

  • "I've Hit My Climate Tipping Point" by Helen Lewis (The Atlantic, August 9) "Understanding a problem intellectually is not the same as feeling its presence in your daily life. ... 'Environmentalism' sounded woolly and tree-hugging... 'Climate change' sounded antiseptic and bloodless. 'Look at that 50-foot wall of fire' might just do the trick."
  • "The moral case for destroying fossil fuel infrastructure" by Andreas Malm (The Guardian, November 18) "If someone has planted a time bomb in your home, you are entitled to dismantle it. The same applies to our planet."

On authoritarianism and resistance:

  • "Vladimir the Poisoner of Underpants" by Aleksei Navalny (New York Times, February 3) "He’s never participated in any debates or campaigned in an election. Murder is the only way he knows how to fight. … He’ll go down in history as nothing but a poisoner."
  • "Surviving the Crackdown in Xinjiang" by Raffi Khatchadourian (New Yorker, April 5) An inside look at the horrors of China's ongoing genocide of the Uyghurs.

On places in decline:

  • "Afghanistan Meant Nothing" by Laura Jedeed (Medium, August 15) "I am Team Get The Fuck Out Of Afghanistan which, as a friend pointed out to me today, has always been Team Taliban. It’s Team Taliban or Team Stay Forever. There is no third team."
  • "The Other Afghan Women" by Anand Gopal (New Yorker, September 6)
  • "Lebanon as We Once Knew It Is Gone" by Lina Mounzer (New York Times, September 3) “Lebanon is not an exception. It is a preview of what happens when people run out of resources they believe are infinite. This is how fast a society can collapse. This is what it looks like when the world as we know it ends.”

And finally, a reflection on the big picture, and our ability to solve big problems:

  • "What if the Coronavirus Crisis Is Just a Trial Run?" by Adam Tooze (New York Times, September 1) "The world’s decision makers have given us a staggering demonstration of their collective inability to grasp what it would actually mean to govern the deeply globalized and interconnected world they have created."

Books

Back in spring, when 2021 was still shaping up to be the year the pandemic ended, I worked up the courage to read a pandemic-themed book, Emily St. John Mandel's 2014 bestseller Station Eleven. It was my favorite of the year, with a gripping story and some timely perspective: bad as it is, our own pandemic could be a lot worse.

Podcasts

"Winds of Change", Patrick Radden Keefe's investigation into whether an internationally beloved 1980s power-band were in fact secret agents who helped end the Cold War, was not merely the year's best podcast, but also the most entertaining bit of journalism I've encountered in recent memory.

In "Day X", NYT Berlin bureau chief Katrin Bennhold laid bare her dogged reporting on the shocking extent of far-right extremism in Germany's armed forces. Coming from a country that knows well where this road can lead (and nonetheless looks barely to be keeping up), it's the sort of cautionary tale that defenders of liberal democracy the world over should heed.

Apart from those limited series, I also listened regularly to "Conversations with Tyler", "How I Built This", and "The Ezra Klein Show" (much improved since Ezra joined the NYT and began actually letting his guests do most of the talking). On tech, my mainstays were "Pivot" and the slightly more serious "Another Podcast."

Music

A few of my perennial favorites issued albums that were just fine (Black Keys, Chaton, Israel Nash, Orions Belte, Wizkid) but overall 2021 felt like a year of remixes, perhaps compiled by homebound artists desperate to wring a little more out of their existing catalogues. (Exhibit A: one of the year's biggest pop hits was a remixed mashup of several 1970s-80s Elton John ballads.) Or maybe I just didn't find time to search as hard, to burrow down esoteric rabbit holes in a quest for new sounds.

In pop, I liked "Flamenco" by Haviah Mighty and perennial hitmaker Mala Rodríguez. Further off the beaten track, "Waylalah" by French DJs Synapson and Moroccan gnawa maestros Bab L'Bluz had a nice thump. Two new discoveries stood out for me: Kondi Band (try "Yeanoh") and · ·-· ·- ··· · -··. (That's "Erased," the name of the Berlin-based label that insisted, inexplicably, on releasing its latest mixtape with all tracks titled—but thankfully not sung—in Morse Code.) The whole album is good, but on "·-·· · - ·· - --· ---" ("Let It Go") Peter Broderick stands out as a singer with something to say.

Movies

On the lighter side, Don't Look Up was a potent, laugh-so-I-don't-cry skewering of the ineptitude of contemporary American society to confront even existential threats. I can't recall a better critique of the left-wing preference for struggling over succeeding than the final scene of the protagonists accepting their demise while chuckling "Man, oh man, did we try!"

On the darker side, nothing beat The Power of the Dog's unsettling aura of foreboding, or its ending.

Among blockbusters, Dune was fine, Tenet (actually a late 2020 release) was intriguing, and The Matrix: Resurrections was as deeply disappointing a sequel to my favorite franchise as I feared. Stowaway was underappreciated.

TV series

I loved the latest seasons of Succession, Babylon Berlin, The Expanse, and The Handmaid's Tale. I also caught some shows I had missed from recent years, the most interesting of which were Our Boys, The Investigation, and The Plot Against America.

IV. Looking Ahead to 2022

My main resolutions for 2022 include trying to avoid getting flu-rona and avoid getting older. Wish me luck.

More seriously, Nina and I look forward to another year watching Stella bloom and discover the world around her with her characteristic delight.

After a year as The World's Busiest Unemployed Person, I'll be working to write my master's thesis (the final requirement for my degree) then return to professional life. Nina also plans to return to work, so in all likelihood 2022 will lead us away from our temporary home here in the village and toward new horizons. Precisely where, we can only guess.


No comments:

Post a Comment