This year was a year of protest — from Wall Street, to London, to Athens, to Moscow and, most importantly, the Arab Spring — and, as such, Time magazine has chosen to not honour any sole identifiable individual who embodies any of these protests but has, instead, chosen to claim its 2011 Person of the Year as the humble, anonymous “protester” …

As usual, the decision has ignited debate. After all, it has chosen polarising, if not downright villainous, people in the past: Wallis Simpson (1936), Adolf Hitler (1938), Joseph Stalin (1939), Nikita Khrushchev (1957), Richard Nixon (1971 and ’72) and Ruhollah Khomeini (1979). The Washington Post was bemused that just one woman, Kate Middleton, made the runners-up list and was “famous for whom she married rather than what she did”. Slate labelled the decision a cop-out: “Instead of picking any one revolutionary — like that Tunisian fruit picker guy — and building an essay, we get the ‘The Protester’.” The Guardian calls out the whole concept as an outdated PR exercise: “Each December, for an hour or two, the ever-shrinking publication gets to relive its gloried past, when it was a prime creator of America’s public agenda.” And, predictably, Fox and Friends’ Brian Kilmeade was not happy about the choice.

However, if there is one thing that Time loves more than the anti-hero it’s the collective and/or inanimate. From its inaugural winner, Charles Lindbergh, in 1927 no less than 15 winners have either been non-human entities or a broader group within society. These include:

  • The American Fighting Man (1950)
  • The Hungarian Freedom Fighter (1956)
  • American Scientists (1960)
  • Baby Boomers (1966)
  • The Apollo 8 Astronauts (1968)
  • The Middle Americans (1969)
  • American Women (1975)
  • The Computer (1982)
  • The Endangered Earth (1988)
  • The Peacemakers (1993)

And since the turn of the millennium, Time has ramped up its preference for not choosing a single individual:

  • The Whistleblowers (2002)
  • The American Soldier (2003)
  • The Good Samaritans (2005)
  • You (2006)
  • The Protester (2011)

Managing editor Rick Stengel explained the decision thus: “Everywhere this year, people have complained about the failure of traditional leadership and the fecklessness of institutions. Politicians cannot look beyond the next election, and they refuse to make hard choices. That’s one reason we did not select an individual this year. But leadership has come from the bottom of the pyramid, not the top.” But as The Los Angeles Times wrote today: “If 2011 was the year of the protester, one can only wonder if 2012 will be the year of success or disappointment.” —Leigh Josey