Yom Kippur is once again upon us — the day when religious Jews atone for their sins of the outgoing year. Secular Jews and gentiles might try a version of it as well, for it does not require God. A conscience is enough, the sinning is all over, and our hell may be on earth.
While contemplation is needed, I have thought Judaism goes too far with its alphabetized laundry-list prayer called the vidui (confession), whose wording implies across-the-board guilt by every person. The quibbler in me says this cannot be right: even Vladimir Putin wasn’t guilty of all twentysomething sins, in every calendar year. Well maybe Putin was, but certainly not me or you.
Either way, the outgoing year 5782 was another in which humanity’s iniquities and inanities were on morbid display. These were referenced repeatedly in my own essays, so as a public service on the Day of Atonement I’ll revisit just a few. And having mentioned Putin already, let’s jump right in with the Sinner of the Year.
GLUTTONY (The Astounding Gluttony of Giants)
This is the year in which the world’s biggest country, stretching across 11 time zones and about double the size of the United States, felt the need to grab a bit of territory from a neighbor. When the result was mass murder, global economic mayhem and pariah status for the perpetrator, Putin doubled down, annexed some occupied territory plus a bit more, and is threatening nuclear war. He has turned Russia from a fake democracy into a totalitarian state, and his damage to the world is so gigantic that even China, a fellow glutton that covets Taiwan, is displeased. Though Putin has not achieved Hitler-level gluttony quite yet, he competes with Stalin for modern history’s silver medal; no challengers exist among leaders of recognized countries.
The individual equivalent of national gluttony is the greed of the uber-rich, who have exploited disruption, globalization, liberalization and the digital tendency toward monopoly (known as the network effect) to amass a toxic and dangerous wealth gap versus their societies (Exhibit A: the bizarre case of Elon Musk). Consider that the U.S. newspaper industry last year brought in just under $10b from advertising (perhaps a third of the world total) while the Google search engine, which makes wads of cash from “fair usage” of news, brought in over $200b in digital ad revenue. Google and Facebook together account for almost three-quarters of the digital advertising total, double their share of five years ago. Yet when Big Tech execs negotiate licensing deals with the news media whose lunch they has eaten, you’d think their lives are on the line. It is one thing for civilization to cast aside typewriters and travel agents, and another to be left without what Carl Bernstein called “the best obtainable version of the truth.” Regulation, legislation, taxation — some version of a squeeze is coming, and it will be richly deserved.
ARROGANCE (The left can win the abortion debate)
Connoisseurs of arrogance will find few purer versions than what’s on display by the six conservative members of the U.S. Supreme Court. Implanted into lifelong office by dirty trickery carried out by a movement that does not enjoy a national majority yet has learned to game the system, they are hell-bent on forcing Republican political positions like absurdly free access to guns (which has made America the developed world’s leader by magnitudes in gun deaths) on a captive moderate majority. This year they violated express promises by overturning the “Roe v. Wade” ban on states’ abortion bans, a move that will kill many women and was opposed by a supermajority across the land. They not only do not care but they are smug about it, because they think someone’s buying that they are juridical sages as opposed to party hacks. Polls show most Americans now have no faith in the institution; term limits or court packing may be coming. The crisis of legitimacy shows there’s a limit to credulousness. Will their smirking pride have come before the fall? The November midterms will offer clues.
MULISHNESS (Liz Truss’ tenure as UK PM could be a short one)
A cousin of arrogance, mulishness (often mistaken for the more valiant steadfastness), is everywhere these days. A prime example is Britain’s Conservative Party. Exploiting an odd electoral system that vastly inflates barebones pluralities, they returned to power in 2010 and swiftly set to work impoverishing Britons with an ill-conceived austerity obsession. They then unintentionally blundered into Brexit, badly bungled COVID, and in recent days nearly wiped out the country’s pension plans and trashed its once-proud currency via a preposterous scheme that involved, of course, unfunded tax cuts for the rich. The latest cluelessness came from new PM Liz Truss, who opposed Brexit during the 2016 referendum (like three of the four leaders since, with the other one having tossed a coin). But like all of them, she will never admit that leaving the European Union is behind the UK’s precarious drop in GDP. Truss will mulishly insist all is as it should be and will never say she’s sorry. This Margaret Thatcher wannabe may soon find that while the lady’s not for turning the voters are, and they will turn her out.
SELFISHNESS (Liberal democracy is not that popular)
In recent weeks Italy has elected a new prime minister whose Brothers of Italy party has fascist roots. Georgia Meloni joins authoritarian leaders like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Recep Teyyep Erdogan, Benjamin Netanyahu and Viktor Orban, who all remain popular despite being sworn enemies of liberal democracy. Liberal democracy checks the powers of the majority by guaranteeing the rights of the minority with principles like freedom of speech. These principles are often imposed by the “elites” via “constitutions” — but majorities everywhere in many places are telling us they do much like to be constrained. People who think this way might want to talk to Russians currently scrambling to flee their country after having made a grim discovery: illiberal regimes that disdain protection of the minority will eventually turn on the majority as well. They will finally come for you, and then it will be too late.
Social media has tapped into our vanity with devastating results, but the original sin was reality TV. Fools of every stripe will toss dignity to the winds to appear on these shows, which celebrate beauty over intelligence, performance over creativity, popularity over worth. Some will say that my war with the genre and its purveyors betrays arrogance — a sin, as mentioned above. They may be right (some see arrogance in my numerous remembrances of my own meetings with world leaders recently departed, like this one with Gorbachev). But my sins are a trifle. The mammoth footprint these sinners have achieved, meanwhile, has taught a new generation that appearance is the essence, impression is the key, celebrity is the goal and winning’s all that counts. It was always going to be a short journey from there to the epidemic of preening selfies, teen Insta-models, and pointless food pornography. Idiocracy seems a few TikToks away. We could do so much better, yet here nonetheless we are.
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Vanity brings us, however illogically, to taking God’s name in vain. I do not consider it a sin — I hardly consider God to be a thing — but is certainly a violation of one of the Ten Commandments. My friend Rabbi Heshy Grossman and I debated on these pages last January whether the Holocaust proved there was no God. One of us might have irked the alleged deity — but who? Was it I, who argued that no true God could be complicit in all the sinning, or Heshy, who found excuses? I will not be so arrogant as to presume.
Dan Perry is managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. He is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press. Follow him at twitter.com/perry_dan