The turn of the year always leaves me relieved for two reasons. First, every time I go out, I don’t have to watch women exhausting themselves to feed dozens, and refusing all help. Second, most of the year end summaries are over and done with.
I admit that I’ve done my share of year end summaries. As a journalist, I find these stories are almost unavoidable, and I imagine I will do more of them in the future. If nothing else, they are relatively easy – if tedious – to write, which can be a relief at a time of year when I’m distracted by various social demands and low on ideas.
But although I try to find a theme or two for my summaries, so that they are not just a random collection of facts, I’m still uncomfortable about writing them. For me, the only thing worse than writing these stories are reading them.
What I object to is that these stories are the first effort at official history. I have no problem with reporting or reading individual stories as they happen. But selecting which stories are important – that I have a problem with.
I realize, of course, that proposing stories or taking suggestions from editors is itself a form of deciding what is memorable. Sometimes, when I think of the stories that I haven’t told, either because I was too busy or because an editor thinks them too dull or too hot to handle, I feel like Midas’ barber. You know – the one who, seeing his master cursed with donkey ears, dug a hole to whisper his secret to, because he had to tell someone.
However, I can more or less live with this daily selectivity as a necessity. After all, there just isn’t time to cover every story.
But year end summaries go one step further. Starting from the already selected daily news, they go one selection further. That makes them two removes from reality, an abstraction that is even more remote from what’s happening than an everyday story.
Even worse, year end summaries are the beginnings of official history. And, as anyone who has read George Orwell’s”Looking Back at the Spanish Civil War” is aware, official history slips easily into distortions and outright lies.
For example, when Expo 86 was held in Vancouver, there were mass evictions of the poor, and pointed questions asked about government spending priorities. But, after it was all over, the year end summaries proclaimed it a success that silenced all oppositions. Never mind that those of us who objected continued for years to boycott many people and companies who took part: drawing on those year end summaries, people now talk about the whole affair as a golden moment, unsullied by any complaints.
The same transformation has occurred already with the 2011 Winter Olympics. I remember several surveys that showed that, even after the fact, fifty percent of those living in the greater Vancouver area continued to object to the spectacle. Yet, now, less than two years later, mainstream journalists continue to tell how, despite some initial misgivings, residents were won over by the excitement and the Olympic spirit. Inconvenient facts like riots and protests are dealt with simply by not mentioning them.
Fortunately, writing about free and open source software for a variety of websites and magazines, I face almost no pressure to write feel-good stories, nor controversial ones. But, being aware of how easily year end summaries can become part of a corrupt process, I shy away from writing them. I don’t falsify my reactions, but I worry that, by writing such stories at all, I could be lending myself to a process of which I disapprove.
Just as I rarely read such stories, I can barely bring myself to write them. That’s why I’m always glad to see their season depart. Come January 1, for another eleven months, I don’t have to face the dilemma that they represent. Like the spectacle of women being expected (and expecting themselves) to prepare a huge meal while everyone else socializes, for me year end summaries seriously diminish what whould otherwise be an enjoyable occasion.