Salon's Time Capsule

Our 2011 time capsule

Dear 2011: We come not just to honor but also to bury you. Here's how

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    President Obama’s long-form birth certificate

    In the spring of 2011, while the country was beset by intractably high joblessness, the national political conversation was hijacked by a reality-show host who used his media platform to promote a crackpot theory that the president of the United States was actually born in Kenya and therefore wasn’t eligible to serve. And a quarter of the American public actually thought he might be on to something.

    Donald Trump did all of this under the guise of a fake presidential candidacy — even though the wild “Birther” fantasies had been debunked back in 2008, when then-candidate Barack Obama released a copy of his legal birth certificate from the state of Hawaii and when clips from Hawaiian newspapers of his 1961 birth were circulated.

    Thus, with Birther stories dominating the political media and Trump pushing to the top of Republican presidential polls, Obama ordered the release of his “long form” birth certificate, an obscure document that had been buried in Hawaii’s bureaucratic archives. Even though it proved nothing that wasn’t already obvious, the long form had a remarkable effect: Birther-mania died down almost immediately, Trump’s poll numbers collapsed, and his fake campaign ended.

    – Steve Kornacki

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    Ryan Gosling Internet memes

    “Hey Girl” was the meme that would not stop in 2011. It started with the blog “Fuck Yeah! Ryan Gosling,” which used lolcat-style mash-ups of photo and text to lampoon the absurdity of the star’s perfect-guy persona. Then followed a motley bunch of remixes of that basic premise — most notably “Feminist Ryan Gosling” and “Typographer Ryan Gosling.” Just when it seemed that meme was dying out, there came ““Is Ryan Gosling cuter than a puppy?” — which juxtaposed the star alongside photos of similarly posed or outfitted puppies (and now even that meme has been re-appropriated). When People magazine named Bradley Cooper the “sexiest man alive,” it inspired a tongue-in-cheek street protest and a “human rights” petition. Gos-memes reflect not only the viral whimsy of the Internet but also the rise of the ironic hipster heartthrob.

    – Tracy Clark-Flory

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    Reuters/Kimberly White

    Steve Jobs memorials

    The spontaneous popular memorials that appeared on Apple stores around the world after the announcement of the death of Steve Jobs cap a major transformation in contemporary culture. Instead of mourning the loss of an artist like John Lennon or Kurt Cobain, they commemorate a person who, to some baffled laggers, might seem to be merely a design-obsessed captain of industry. It’s not that Jobs wasn’t creative, but what made people so grateful was the fact that he fostered their own creativity by supplying them with tools of great beauty and potential power. They loved him less for what he did than for what he encouraged them to do for themselves.

    – Laura Miller

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    The White House

    The Situation Room photo

    What are all these people looking at? That wasn’t the only question occasioned by this photo, released on the White House’s Flickr stream shortly after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, this spring.

    From the men and women who (controversially) assembled in venues around the country after bin Laden’s death to chant “USA! USA!” and from the journalists and skeptical onlookers who questioned the muddled version of events put forward by the White House and the State Department in the days after the news first broke — responses to the former terrorist leader’s demise were all over the map. A good deal of attention was focused on this particular photograph, with particular confusion over whether it showed Obama and his team watching the raid itself or a more general update. (Was Hillary shocked? Or did she just have allergies?) The White House’s failure to explain exactly what the photo showed was representative, to many, of its failure to get the broader story straight.

    Of course, this wasn’t the only bin Laden-related photo that was the subject of intense discussion and debate. Despite the publication of a couple of red herrings in the international press, the White House has so far succeeded in keeping graphic photos of the deceased bin Laden from entering the public sphere. In other memorable cases this year — most notably that of the killing of Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi — the march of technology ensured the impossibility of any such safeguards; photographs and graphic videos of the Libyan dictator’s gruesome last minutes were released into the ether and widely circulated almost immediately.

    In the year when we marked the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the event of bin Laden’s death — and this image in particular, along with the larger cultural confusion it represents — were remarkably resonant.

    – Emma Mustich

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    Reuters/Brian Snyder

    New York Jets vs. Dallas Cowboys, 9/11/2011

    While I gave serious consideration to the monumental bronze statue of Ronald Reagan unveiled at Reagan National Airport in November, I think the artifact that best explains where we are as a nation in the year 2011 is a tape of the season-opening game between the New York Jets and the Dallas Cowboys. It was played in New York (well, New Jersey) on 9/11/2011. This is an excerpt from the Jets’ announcement of the day’s plans:

    – “Each fan will receive an American Flag upon entrance to MetLife Stadium.”
    – “A full-field American Flag will be unfurled and held by members of the military, FDNY, NYPD and PAPD alongside both the Cowboys and the Jets.”
    – “Our National Anthem will be performed by New York native and Grammy Award-winning artist Mary J. Blige.”
    – “As part of a special halftime tribute, the stadium will transition into concert mode and the stadium lights will be turned off for the duration of halftime. The team asks that fans remain in their seats for this emotional tribute.”

    It’s not just the gross symbolism of a devastatingly violent tragedy commemorated with a devastatingly violent spectacle that makes this game worth remembering. It’s that the violent spectacle itself — the brutal but wildly entertaining game — was then wrapped in hoary sentimentalism. That day, the most profitable and often the most morally queasy of our mass national interests buried the remembrance of 9/11 in its corporate nationalism (the NFL has, no lie, an “official armed forces appreciation sponsor”) and it all seemed basically inevitable. Here was a complicated, horrible, still not quite fathomable event reduced to the sad version of a Fourth of July fireworks spectacular, with the requisite flag-and-firefighter worship and a Grammy-winning score. Oh, and the Jets won on a Nick Folk field goal following a Tony Romo interception.

    – Alex Pareene

  • The pill

    Middle age offered no security for the humble birth control pill, which turned 50 in 2010 but formed the symbolic center of battles throughout 2011. The newly Republican House of Representatives nearly shut down the entire government in an attempt to strip Planned Parenthood of federal money — chiefly for birth control. In Mississippi, anti-choice activists might have managed to convince the electorate that zygotes were people, had not the opposition marched with “Save the Pill” signs and warned of the measure’s ultimate intentions. But it wasn’t just the right that was cutting off access to contraception — by the end of the year, the Obama administration outraged women and public health advocates by keeping the status quo on Plan B (after all, a high dose of the standard birth control pill). Who would have thought that a half century could change so much and yet change so little when it came to fighting over women’s bodies?

    – Irin Carmon

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    Louis C.K.

    Do-it-yourself filmmaking is nothing new — it became a semi-affordable option about 10 years ago, when decent-quality digital video cameras and the then-state-of-the-art Final Cut Pro editing software turned a generation of filmmakers into novelists and journalists who wrote with pixels. But the FX series “Louie” might represent the DIY aesthetic’s highest stage of evolution to date, at least on TV. HBO’s “K Street” and “Unscripted” and FX’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” among other series, showed that it was possible to apply super-low-budget moviemaking techniques to a scripted series and create a loose, intimate, semi-improvised comedy set in the real world. But “Louie” goes a step further, creating the televised version of a fiction writer’s body of work in progress — one that mixes short stories, novellas, and little poems and sketches, shifting in and out of “real” space and dream space, documentary and fiction, comedy and tragedy. Louis C.K. is definitely the primary author here, more so than almost any other TV series creator in the medium’s history. He doesn’t just write, produce and star in the series; he shoots it himself with a Sony Red camera and edits it on a MacBook Pro, paying close attention to framing, lighting and lens choice on the set and demonstrating a distinctively laid-back, jazzy rhythm in his cutting. It’s hard to pick just one episode to stand in for this series, much less one representative scene, but for illustration’s sake, we’ve included this moment from Season 2 in which Louie confronts his sort-of archnemesis, Dane Cook, in the bowels of an arena that Cook has sold out. More than an inside-showbiz spat, it’s a great scene about hypocrisy, plagiarism, gossip, competition, the commonality of artists, and the way that capitalism distorts the definition of success.

    – Matt Zoller Seitz

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    New York City flood zone map

    When Hurricane Irene came barreling up the East Coast this summer, it was poised to become the first hurricane to make a direct strike on New York in nearly a century. And in the days preceding the storm, panic was in the air. New Yorkers were advised to buy supplies, prepare for the worst, and, most importantly, consult the city’s flood zone map. Out of the blue, the city’s streets and neighborhoods became divided into new sectors that nobody had previously heard about — Flood Zone A, Flood Zone B and Flood Zone C. If you were in Flood Zone A, it didn’t just mean that you were at high risk of damage — it meant that you needed to leave your home. And as Irene approached the city, thousands of New Yorkers packed up their belongings and left their skyscrapers and houses behind.

    In a stroke of luck, the brunt of the storm mostly missed the city, but that digital map should be remembered for many years to come. As climate change continues to affect weather patterns over the next few decades, hurricanes are going to become stronger and their trajectories more likely to hit New York City and other parts of the Northeast. With rising ocean levels, many coastal American cities — like Miami, New Orleans and Oakland — are going to be faced with some stark choices: What can be saved? What needs to be sacrificed? Maps like this one are likely to become far more common. For New Yorkers, that flood map gave them a strange new way of thinking about their city. And it gave us all a terrifying glimpse into the future.

    – Thomas Rogers

  • The “Sh*t Is F*cked Up and Bullsh*t” sign from Occupy Wall Street

    Before a late-night NYPD raid put an end to the occupation of Wall Street, a daily fixture at Zuccotti Park was a quiet young man holding a profane, grammatically challenged sign: “Shit Is Fucked Up and Bullshit.” It quickly became a popular alternative slogan for Occupy Wall Street. Perhaps more than some of the notable political signs associated with the movement (“I’ll believe that corporations are people when Texas executes one”), the young man’s sign captured the spirit of the moment: the rage at the state of the country that sparked Occupy and fueled its spread around the country; the opposition by many in the movement to making specific policy demands; and the nonconformist spirit of the movement, with its resistance to traditional focus-grouped progressive messaging.

    – Justin Elliott

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    After years of the soulless Auto-Tune, who’d have guessed a low-tech musical form would roar back into pop music with a swagger we haven’t known since the heyday of “Walk Like an Egyptian”?

    The year of whistle kicked off the moment the Black Keys’ “Tighten Up” pursed its kisser and peaked on the Billboard chart back in January. For good measure, the song then showed up in “I Am Number Four” and “Bad Teacher.” The trend crescendoed when a whistle solo played a pivotal role in autumn’s “Muppets” movie. Finally, it got a throwback denouement when old-school whistle masters Guns N’ Roses made it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

    In between, puckered up interludes appeared in Bruno Mars’ kickin’ back anthem “The Lazy Song,” in Maroon 5′s unavoidable summer slam “Moves Like Jagger,” and Foster the People’s sprightly killing-spree ditty “Pumped Up Kicks.” You want to know how to sum up 2011 without saying a word? You just put your lips together and blow.

    – Mary Elizabeth Williams

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    Voldemort’s Elder Wand

    In an era when the once-marginalized fantasy genre has become mainstream both in literature and film, 2011 brought the concluding chapter of the most successful film series ever made, and so brought down the curtain on J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter empire, at least as far as new works are concerned. Others can better explain the tortuous history of the Elder Wand — one of the “Deathly Hallows,” bestowed on Antioch Peverell by Death himself! — and I realize I am committing a terrible faux pas by describing it as the property of He Who Shall Not Be Named, when it was never really his. But this intelligent instrument, which Voldemort believed would ensure his final victory, instead dooms him to defeat at the hands of a certain bespectacled schoolboy. It was first interred in the tomb of Albus Dumbledore, and now it belongs in our time capsule. Retrieve it at your peril!

    – Andrew O’Hehir

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    An expended canister of pepper spray

    Many years from now, some may wonder what “Casually Pepper Spray Everything Cop” is, in the same way some today wonder what “All Your Base Are Belong to Us” ever referred to. To preemptively prevent that confusion, the expended canister of pepper spray — preferably with a police department logo on it — reminds us that 2011 was the year when America’s militarized municipal security forces tried to put down spontaneous mass protests over economic inequality. Though the police have used everything from rubber bullets to sound cannons to try to intimidate Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, pepper spray has been the weapon most consistently used across the country. Thanks to that, it has become the central character in some of the most iconic photos of the year — and, consequently, a symbol of what modern repression looks like in the American police state.

    – David Sirota

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    “Friday,” by Rebecca Black

    Sure, after she redefined the word “ubiquitous” this year, it’s tempting to suggest we toss Rebecca Black in that time capsule and let her be the future’s problem. But it’s the phenomenon of “Friday” itself that sums up 2011 so beautifully — the way that it’s so terrible it almost becomes awesome and then circles back into even more horrifying than initially estimated. Yup, that’s 2011 all right.

    What began as an obscure bit of Internet terribleness evolved, over the excruciating course of the year, into a bona fide chart hit and the most viewed video in YouTube history. Along the way, “Friday” also became one of its all-time “dislike” champs and one of the most roundly excoriated songs ever recorded. How did this happen? Because in that one relentless, Auto-Tuned earworm, we have both a “plucky underdog makes good” fairy tale and the worst thing that ever happened to music. And like a chocolate-covered pretzel, “Friday” is a salty-sweet treat that’s as disgusting as it is irresistible. The other days of the week never stood a chance.

    – Mary Elizabeth Williams

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    Is it local?

    You know something has arrived when it starts getting made fun of. And in 2011, farmers’ markets, locavore dining and all things organic were brilliantly satirized on “Portlandia” by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein. When their characters go to a Portland restaurant, they pepper a waitress with questions about how their chicken lived and what he was fed. (“Is that USDA organic or Portland organic?” Brownstein asks.) The jokes keep building — the waitress is so prepared for their questions that she brings them the chicken’s papers. But the diners decide to see for themselves and leave the restaurant to head to the farm — where they are not exactly the first people to have made the same trip. If a visitor from the future wants to know what food-obsessed people were like in 2011, this genius sketch gets all the details right.

    – David Daley