“You’re so merry,” says Tom Wambsgans in the “Too Much Birthday” episode of “Succession,” the television series that depicts the desperately unhappy lives of a media mogul family.
“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 the favorites some of our team members chose 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