Thursday, December 27, 2012

On the Banality of Annual Rankings of "Best" and "Worst"

It's that time of the year again - the holiday season when political and other "news" is hard to come by -   that the news media start putting out their various best and worst lists, rankings, etc. As I've noted previously, I don't like rankings that pretend to be objective (see here and here). I have no problem with individuals having (subjectively) favorite recordings, books, concerts, whatever. I have them myself, although I don't much see the point of specifying annual favorites. The best book I read in 2012 may or may not have been authored in 2012. And my favorite composer is unlikely to change from one year to the next (although longer-term changes in preferences certainly are possible).

I do have a fairly clear idea of what were the worst events of 2012 in my own life: unquestionably the top three were the loss of my dear friends Lin Ostrom, Karl Raynor, and my melanoma diagnosis last Spring. In many respects, those three events dominated my entire year, leaving me more than ready for the 2013 ball to drop in Times Square. I'm sure some good things happened for me in 2012 as well (e.g., surviving the cancer scare, growing closer with my Workshop colleagues, and just enjoying the company of my family), but the bad always seems to overshadow the good (as in Kahneman and Tversky's theory of loss aversion, see here).

Aside from personal misfortunes, I'm very bad at retrospective assessments of mundane or even sublime events over any particular period of time. I tend to be more myopically focused on what I haven't yet read, seen, heard. So, I'll leave others to pronounce on the best and worst books, concerts, films, recordings, people, cars, bikes, computers, tablets, phones, weapons, sports performances, airlines, art exhibitions, celebrity miscues, judicial decisions, news stories, pharmaceuticals, parties, cookies, etc., of 2012.

But here's one exception (if only to prove Emerson's adage that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds): Lionel Messi dominated his sport to such an extent that even Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky would be envious. The world is highly unlikely to see his record of 91 goals in a single calendar year broken, unless Messi himself does it, for another 20-30 years, if ever. In a sport where scoring a single goal is an incredibly difficult feat, Messi makes it look so easy - of course, it helps to play with the likes of Xavi and Iniesta. He is without question the greatest footballer of 2012, and perhaps ever (with all due respect to Pele, Cruyff, Eusebio, and Maradona).

Finally, listings, rankings, pronouncements, etc., are the stock in trade of public intellectuals, and as a blogger, it might be assumed that I hold myself out as such. Even if that were the case, I don't think public intellectuals have an obligation to construct artificial (and often misleading) lists and rankings. More to the point, I do not consider myself a public intellectual; certainly, I've never aspired or pretended to be one. This blog is more in the nature of public musings of a private intellectual (assuming I qualify as "intellectual").

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