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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Usury in the Middle Ages


The "fall" of the Roman Empire not only marked the end of a powerful geo-political entity of stability for most of Europe, but it also ushered in the demise of an economy that had dominated the continent for centuries.  With the dawn of the "Dark Ages," Europeans of all stripes were forced to start from scratch and to establish new rules to govern the newly emerging political, social and economic practices that were emerging in the post-Roman world.

Among the many issues dealt with at this time was the practice of usury (interest practices on monetary loans).  During the height of the Roman Empire, usury had been, by and large, an approved practice, though it was almost exclusively a privatized enterprise.  Wealthy citizens could, if they so chose, grant loans with fixed interest rates (though the empire did, at times, place certain restrictions on those rates), thereby allowing a quasi-privatized banking system to arise.  With the rise of the Catholic church in the early 4th century, however, the practice of usury was met with stern disapproval by early Christian leaders.  For these early Christians, the teachings of Jesus, and of the Bible itself, made the practice of usury not only undesirable but downright sinful.  From the Book of Deuteronomy:
19.) Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother; usury of money, usury of victuals, usury of any thing that is lent upon usury:
20.) Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury: that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all that thous settest thine hand to in the land...
This clear commandment against the practice of usury (with the exception given in bold for a "stranger," a loophole that Medieval Jews found quite useful) served as more than sufficient ammunition to criminalize the practice for the majority of the Middle Ages.  The elimination of Usury was unanimously accepted during the 325 Council of Nicea.  In the eighth century under Charlemagne, usury was, under the law, considered to be a general criminal offence.  In 1179, at the Third Council of the Latean, anyone found benefiting from the practice of usury was prohibited from taking the sacraments and could eventually be excommunicated entirely.  Later, Pope Sixtus V would call the practice of usury, "most detestable to God and man, damned by the sacred canons and contrary to Christian charity."

So, if the practice of usury was so deplorable to Medieval Christians, how did it eventually become standard operating procedure?  And how are Christians today (along with capitalism in general) able to so gleefully support its continued existence?

The answer rests primarily with the rise of trade and (eventually) Mercantilism in Europe.  As European society continued to progress through the Middle Ages, the growth of trade and finance forced change upon a society that was, for centuries, operating on a set of rules that issued divine punishment for certain practices (such as usury).  But these divine punishments eventually had to give way to the sweeping tides of change. 

Increasingly thereafter, and despite numerous subsequent prohibitions by Popes and civil legislators, loopholes in the law and contradictions in the Church's arguments were found and along with the growing tide of commercialization, the pro-usury counter-movement began to grow.  Nobles and other elites of European society quickly discovered that the practice of usury was virtually a gold mine waiting to be tapped.  As trade and commercialization began to spread its roots further out into the Middle East and the Orient, European powers saw greater opportunities to increase their wealth.  Even holy religious orders like the famous Knights Templar got into the act by taking advantage of their complex network of members that were branched out all across the European countryside.  

But not everyone was in favor of this new justification on an old sin.  Both Martin Luther and John Calvin, along with their followers, expressed severe disappointment with what was taking place, going so far as to claim that those who practice usury were carrying the "mark of the beast" mentioned of in the Book of Revelations.  In many ways, this conflict between the pro and anti-usury crowds helped to spark much of the Antisemitism that began to permeate Europe at the latter portion of the Middle Ages.  

In the end, the economic and social revolutions taking place throughout Europe, coupled with the eventual discovery of the "New World" made the conversion to an acceptance of usury a virtual guarantee.  The new demands for goods from all across the globe created an environment that was simply too rich for the practice of usury not to flourish.  This, of course, eventually contributed to the rise of market capitalism, which is essentially married to the practice of usury.  As a result, the long-held prohibition on usury had gone the way of the Dodo Bird.  


The Glenn Beck Check: Part VII, Book Review of "Being George Washington"

Glenn Beck has written yet another book, but this time he isn't passing himself off as an expert on climate change or trying to conduct yet another "progressive" witch hunt. Instead, Beck is trying to be George Washington. Much like his ridiculous 2009 attempt at trying to become the next Thomas Paine (a hysterical notion due to the fact that Paine had almost nothing in common with Beck), Beck has now moved on to bigger and better things (like moving from the #1 cable news network to nothing more than a glorified Youtube program). Being George Washington: The Indispensable Man, as You've Never Seen Him, the title of Beck's newest and greatest laugh-u-mentary, is essentially the attempt of a desperate man to stay relevant by hijacking the legacy of the father of our nation.

Unfortunately for Beck, most have caught on to his smoke and mirrors circus act and now accept the fact that he is not a historian. With that said, I don't want to completely toss the baby Beck out with the bath water. Even if his newest book is little more than an attempt to make George Washington look like a modern day conservative who hates progressives, loves talk radio, attends Tea Party rallies, wants Obama dead, buys gold from Goldline and is a Glenn Beck "insider", the work does do one thing very well: it illustrates how the legacy of Washington has become bigger than the man himself. George Washington, the man, was like any other: flawed, prone to rash decisions, arrogant and worldly. But George Washington, the legend, has reached a Herculean level of prestige. No American has, or likely will, reach the level of fame that Washington has achieved, and make no mistake, George Washington is certainly deserving of the accolades. In this respect, Glenn Beck's work excels. He treats Washington as a religious object worthy of our adoration and devotion. But again, as a work of history, the book is exactly like his earlier attempts at uncovering the past: piss-poor.

Beck's book opens by suggesting to the reader that each and every one of us, as Americans, are modern day George Washington's. Beck writes:
The news of my self-elevation to national fatherhood will likely spread from blog to blog, then to news sources and pundits, all of whom will be more than happy to spread the news that Glenn Beck's messianic complex can no longer be contained. None of them, of course, will take the time to realize the irony of the situation: they are literally judging a book by its cover.

So what's the truth?

Simple, I do believe I am George Washington.

But I also believe that you are too.

I don't believe this because I have an extraordinarily high opinion of myself. I believe it because I have a real understanding of who George Washington was.
And though I have no problem with Beck's suggestion that we all are capable of doing great and noble things, the political undertones are reminiscent of those employed by earlier politicians who also hijacked the Founding Fathers to legitimize their political goals.  By declaring "I am George Washington," Beck is essentially trying to say that all of our Founding Fathers were cut from the same cloth as him.  This is beyond ridiculous to anyone with even an elementary understanding of early American history.

But what is even worse about Beck's "book" is the fact that it twists facts to fit his strange and twisted agenda.  Beck argues that Washington was a "devout Christian" but then provides zero evidence to support this claim (probably because all of the evidence supports the contrary).  Beck also tries to argue that Washington saw "progressivism" as the greatest threat to American prosperity.  A funny notion since "progressivism" doesn't come along for quite some time.  Of course, Beck offers not a single shred of anything resembling evidence to support strange assertions that have nothing to do with anything.

In short, Beck's book is a textbook example of how somebody who knows little about history can completely derail any attempt at true and objective research into the past.  Beck wants the Founding Fathers to be like him so much that he sacrifices any true historical pursuits upon an altar of psycho partisan politics.  In so doing, Beck has once again rendered his work to be of little to no value.  I would offer up a more detailed review of Beck's "book" but it simply became too painful to wade through all of his B.S.  Yeah, it really was that bad.

Perhaps it would be best for him (and his most devout followers) to go off into their compound of "freedom" and leave the rest of us alone for good.

Monday, January 28, 2013

God and the Presidential Inauguration

When it comes to pomp and circumstance in the United States, there are few ceremonies that can surpass the one we call the Presidential Inauguration.  The peaceful transfer of power from one executive head to the other is a matter of national pride for most Americans and serves to highlight what is best about American democracy.

In light of President Obama's swearing in last week, I thought it might be fun to review the Inaugural ceremonies (particularly the Inaugural Addresses) of presidents past, and see what sort of similarities and differences might exist.  After all, a president's Inauguration has, traditionally, served as a "coming attractions" of sorts for what a president hopes to achieve.  Studying these ceremonies can help us to understand what each of the 44 American Presidencies held to be most dear.

Right out of the gate, the first thing I noticed when reviewing Presidential Inaugurations is the emphasis that each President placed on God, albeit in different ways.  From Washington to Obama, no Inaugural Address omits invoking some sort of special reference to deity.  But as I stated, the manner in which the particular invocation is made is quite different, and reveals a great deal about the President's (and society's) view of  God and his relationship to the American republic.

From George Washington's first Inaugural Address we see his typical flavor of Providential neutrality, in which his "god talk" could apply to virtually any creed in any era. He stated:
It would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency (my emphasis).
Washington's first successors followed suit in invoking a generic providential figure instead of a specific deity as the divine overseer of the infant American republic.  John Adams petitioned the "Being who is supreme over all, the Patron of Order, the Fountain of Justice, and the Protector in all ages of the world of virtuous liberty" to bless America, while James Madison asked for the blessings of "that Almighty Being whose power regulates the destiny of nations."  Even the Great Thomas Jefferson, who has been erroneously claimed as one of their own by the modern atheists, made reference in his now infamous Inaugural Address ("We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists") when he petitioned the "Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe" to "lead our councils to what is best."  And, somewhat surprisingly, even Andrew Jackson, the "President of the People" only went so far as to invoke the blessings of "Providence" and the "Almighty Being" to assist him in his Presidential endeavors.  

It is safe to say that America's first eight presidents (with a possible exception for John Q. Adams who briefly paraphrased Psalms 127 when he stated "except the Lord keep the city the watchman waketh but in vain"), intentionally invoked a warm, generic providence as being the source of America's blessings as opposed to any specifically defined god from any particular creed.  

It wasn't until 1841 and the Inauguration of William Henry Harrison that a president paid homage to a specific god:
I deem the present occasion sufficiently important and solemn to justify me in expressing to my fellow-citizens a profound reverence for the Christian religion and a thorough conviction that sound morals, religious liberty, and a just sense of religious responsibility are essentially connected with all true and lasting happiness (My emphasis). 
But even after this precedent, many subsequent presidents returned to the standard of thanking, "that Divine Being who has watched over and protected our beloved country from its infancy" (James K. Polk) and "Divine" or "Kind Providence" (Zachary Taylor and Franklin Pierce).

A specific reference to Christianity isn't made again until 1861 when the Legendary Abraham Lincoln, while facing what would become America's greatest crisis, proudly declared that "Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust in the best way all our present difficulty."  Lincoln would again reference the Christian God in his Second Inaugural Address, but would do so with less confidence that this God was on their side:
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered—that of neither has been answered fully.
Lincoln went on to quote several Bible passages including, "Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh!" (Matthew 18:7) and "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether" (Psalms 19:9). In so doing, Abraham Lincoln became the first president to make dramatic, substantial and blatant references to the Christian God in his Inaugural Address.  

Those presidents who followed Lincoln would invoke both the general divine providence of Washington, Jefferson, etc. (to include Presidents Grant, Hayes, B. Harrison, Cleveland, T. Roosevelt, Wilson, Taft, Hoover, FDR, L. Johnson and Clinton), while others paid homage to the Christian God of W.H. Harrison and Abraham Lincoln (including Garfield, Harding, Coolidge, Truman, JFK, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, G.H. Bush, G.W. Bush and Obama), depending on their own individual feelings and beliefs.  Eisenhower went far enough to lead the nation in prayer as his first act of his presidency:



Regardless of which deity served to be the ultimate source of blessings and providential protection, the fact remains that ALL American presidents have, as a component of their Inaugural "coming attractions" petitioned the heavens as a source for further prosperity and as an object of communal gratitude.  The name of this god has taken on many different shapes and colors (everything from Divine Creator, Almighty Providence, to Jesus Christ himself) but the point is that a god of some kind is beseeched to go before us all, as the avant garde of American society.  This reminds me a great deal of Benjamin Franklin's admonition for a "public religion" as being the glue that would bind the American republic.  In this regard, the American experiment has worked wonders and continues to amaze even to this day.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Not So "Holy," Not So "Roman" Empire

For students of Medieval Europe, the geopolitical entity known by historians as the Holy Roman Empire is a unique and fascinating topic to research.  Speaking for myself on a personal level, studying the history of the Holy Roman Empire is a revealing and enlightening experience, because it shows just how much emphasis our Medieval forefathers placed on resurrecting the idea of Roma.  Despite all of the social degradation  cultural erosion and spiritual revolution that came as a result of the "fall" of Rome, Europeans, at least the elites of society, still embraced the belief in the glory of Rome, and tried to resurrect it with all of their might.

By nature, to study the history of the Holy Roman Empire is to take a nostalgic trip that inevitably leads you to the history of the Roman Empire itself.  After all, the "Holy Romans" of the Holy Roman Empire considered themselves to be heirs to the glory of Rome itself.  For them, Rome hadn't so much "fallen" as it had "transformed."  It was their duty and blessing to carry on the sacred and glorious legacy of Rome.  Rome may have undergone a "metamorphosis" but all of the ideology, power, glory and prestige that had been endowed upon the Caesars of old was theirs to cherish once again.

But in the end, this was all wishful thinking on their part; a pipe dream to help salve the Medieval world from this one painful and unavoidable truth:  Rome, at least in the Western world, was gone.  The "Dark Ages" had all but extinguished any flicker of hope in rekindling the true glory and power that was Rome, but this didn't stop our Medieval fathers from trying. 

In reality, the Holy Roman Empire had very little in common with its namesake.  It's title was little more than a relic to an extinct but still revered era.  Yet despite its inability to resurrect the glory of one of mankind's greatest civilizations, The Holy Roman Empire did leave an indelible impression upon Europe; one that is unique and different from that of Rome itself, but still critical to the development of Europe.

Traditionally, the Holy Roman Empire's roots are dated back to either Charlemagne or Otto the Great (Otto I).  Most Medieval historians are divided on whose reign it was that served as the true "starting point" for the HRE, but for me, it's Charlemagne all the way.  First off, Charlemagne saw himself (much like his father) as the great "protector" of Christianity and the papacy.  His campaigns against Muslims and "Christianization" (forced) of those he conquered, along with his coronation as Emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas of 800, all illustrate Charlemagne's intent.  He wasn't just a "conqueror" like Clovis or Charles Martel, who just happened to be "Christianized" along the way.  Charlemagne was a believer all the way.

But Charlemagne's new found prestige wasn't enough.  He needed to add more than just glorious victories in battle and spiritual religious endorsement to his legacy.  And, naturally, the idea of being crowned Emperor or Caesar (Charlemagne was called both) had tremendous appeal.  Essentially, this act would put him in the class of Augustus, Constantine and Marcus Aurelius.  Charlemagne could become a legend.

But the Holy Roman Empire had little more than self-proclaimed titles to offer its chief leaders.  Unlike the actual Roman Empire, with its vast territories, extensive infrastructure and complex social hierarchy, the Holy Roman Empire was brutish, limited and constantly infested with conflicts between the religious and secular worlds.  For example, the Investiture Controversy, which primarily pitted the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV against Pope Gregory VII, revealed just how heated the divide between the religious and the secular world had become.  Unlike Ancient Rome, which (at least until its later years) managed to maintain a monopoly of control, thus keeping religious zealots (for the most part) at check, the Holy Roman Empire was a constant fight between Emperors and Popes, men of glory v. men of God.

In addition to it's regular tussles with matters of religion, the Holy Roman Empire also lacked a cohesion between the reigns of its kings.  Unlike Ancient Rome, which, though regularly beset by wars, coups and civil unrest from time to time, but was still able to maintain an intimidating and legitimate foothold on its empire, the Holy Roman Empire faced constant upheaval, never-ending turmoil and repeated revision of its borders.  The Holy Roman Empire, depending on its leader, experienced every extreme on the political and social spectrum, at times emerging as the dominant power in Europe while at others appearing more like a laughable lame duck society.

Regardless of how it differed from its ancient counterpart, the compelling factor we must all remember is that the Holy Roman Empire, despite all of its imperfections and struggles, was, at heart, an attempt to rekindle the glory of the ancient world.  We must never forget that for many of our Medieval ancestors the glory of Rome was still very much a Utopian dream that they sincerely believed could be resurrected.  And though much of this rebirth came in the form of Catholic Christianity as opposed to civic collaboration, the Holy Roman Empire should be seen as its contemporaries saw it: a rekindling of the ideas of Ancient Rome with a major dose of Christianity as a twist.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Li(v)e Strong: The Paradox of Lance Armstrong

How much better is it to get wisdom than gold! and to get understanding rather to be chosen than silver! The highway of the upright is to depart from evil: he that keepeth his way preserveth his soul. Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before the fall.  Better it is to be of a humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud." -Proverbs 16: 16-19


Last week, over 28 million people watched Oprah Winfrey's interview with cycling great Lance Armstrong, who, after over a decade of passionate and pathological denial finally admitted to using performance enhancing drugs throughout the course of his career.  And while there is nothing remarkable about an athlete admitting to using PED's in today's society (it has become almost commonplace these days), Lance Armstrong's story is a unique case.  Not only did he insist upon his innocence with greater zeal and determination than any other athlete, but he also regularly resorted to great and often hostile means to protect his legacy.



Let me say right from the beginning: I am not a cycling expert.  I know little to nothing about the sport and would probably have to strain my brain to come up with even half of a dozen professional riders.  Like most Americans, I know of Lance Armstrong almost exclusively due to the reputation he has gained as a seven-time Tour de France winner and as the founder of his cancer charity, Livestrong. And like most people who watched the interview, I too was struck by Armstrong's admission.  But it wasn't his admission to using PED's that stood out for me.  Instead, it was the detailed and calculated measures that Armstrong resorted to, over the course of a decade, that not only destroyed the lives and reputations of those who dared to challenge him, but also created an atmosphere of  absolute defiance to anyone who stood in his way.  Essentially, Armstrong considered himself bulletproof.  No attack, no matter how personal, no drug test, no matter how thorough, could penetrate the Teflon exterior of cycling's golden boy.

But all of this came to a violent and ugly end last week as Armstrong, under the weight of mounting evidence and departing sponsors, was forced to admit that he had been living a lie.  And in the process, America's white knight hero was brought back down to earth.

 

But the story of Lance Armstrong isn't as cut and dry as we may think.  After all, Lance isn't the normal star athlete by any stretch of the imagination.  Unlike Alex Rodriguez, Mark McGwire, Marion Jones, or the countless number of professional athletes who have admitted to using PED's, Armstrong's legacy transcends the world of sports.  As a cancer survivor and founder of Livestrong, Armstrong has become a walking, talking rally cry for cancer victims all over the world.  His inspirational story is undeniable, his impact to those who face this horrible disease immeasurable.  His Livestrong charity has raised over half a billion dollars for cancer research while his personal triumph over cancer has inspired countless millions in a way that only a cancer victim can fully understand.

Let me be clear here, it would be arrogant presumption of the highest order for me to assume that I know what a diagnosis of cancer feels like.  I have no clue and I hope I never do.  The unimaginable shock and horror of such a diagnosis is something that only a cancer patient truly understands.  As a result, none of us (or at least very few of us) have any right to pass judgement on Lance or any other cancer patient for how they choose to face this disease.  It is for this reason that Lance Armstrong has become a paradox of epic proportions.  One the one hand, you have a lying, cheating athlete who used banned substances to achieve excellence and then went to wild extremes to cover it up, often severely hurting those around him.  On the other hand, you have a philanthropist of the highest order.  A man who has given heart, mind and soul to defeating one of the most horrific diseases in human history.  In a very real sense, Lance Armstrong is a 21st century version of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  He is fire and ice personified.

But such is often the case with great and inspiring figures.  After all, it is easy to love the demigod who rarely if ever makes a mistake.  Sure, we would all love to believe that our heroes are the embodiment of perfection but such is rarely if ever the case.  Some of the most iconic individuals are also often the most complex and troubled as well.  For example, I have always been perplexed by how Thomas Jefferson (my favorite Founding Father) could write, "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal" while at the same time keeping over 300 human souls in bondage (not to mention having sexual relations and children with one of them).  Or how about the case of the great King David, who, as the hero of all Israel, chose to fall to temptation by sleeping with Bathsheba and then cover it up by sending her husband to die on the front lines of battle.  And while I'm not trying to equate Lance Armstrong with Thomas Jefferson or King David I do think the illustration is sound.  Sometimes great figures have great challenges and the higher they rise the harder they fall.

We live in a cynical society.  For whatever reason, Americans love to watch the rise and eventual fall of those in the public eye, and Lance Armstrong's story provides us with ample opportunity to rubber-neck this car crash to our heart's content.  With that being said, I believe that Lance deserves our eventual forgiveness.  Yes, the man lied and created an ugly situation for himself, leaving a trail of wreckage in his path, but such is life.  As the great poet Alexander Pope aptly stated, "To err is human to forgive, divine."  There is no doubt that Lance Armstrong has some ugly and difficult days ahead of him, but as he himself stated, "This is not my darkest hour."

And even though I never watched one of his races, nor did I care much for his sport, I am proud to declare today that I am now a Lance Armstrong fan!  Yes, I know he lied, cheated and hurt anyone who stood in his way, but I believe that the final chapter to the Lance Armstrong story is yet to be written.  I'm a fan of Lance because he is a walking, talking paradox, and as such is yet another example of the complexity of human existence.  We are all capable of the most beautiful dreams and the most terrible nightmares.  Every one of us walks the tight rope between virtue and vice.  But the point is that we never cave to our mistakes.  As Armstrong himself stated:
Pain is temporary.  It may last an hour, a day or a year, but eventually subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.   
Amen, Lance.  A professional theologian couldn't have said it better!  And no doubt Lance will face his pain and his demons, as we all will.  Sure, it is likely that Lance Armstrong will never again recover his reputation but at this point it really isn't about reputation.  As Oprah Winfrey said at the conclusion of her interview with Armstrong, "I hope that the moral to your story will be: 'the truth will set you free.'"  Hopefully such will be the case with us all.

My 2012 Person of the Year

Another year has finally come to an end and with it another opportunity to reflect on the people and events that helped to make 2012 an unforgettable moment in history.  Yes, I realize that I am 24 days PAST the new year, but I still wanted to get this post in before moving forward with anything else.  For the millions...er...half dozen of fans of Corazon's Corner, I am pleased to present the second annual installment of my Person of the Year award (you can see last year's winners by clicking here).  So, without further delay, here are my selections for 2012's Person of the Year:



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10.) Michael Phelps
Last summer, at the Olympic Games in London, Phelps became the most decorated Olympian of all-time, winning 22 medals overall for his career, 18 of which were gold.  Phelps' dominance in the pool over the last 15 years (and 3 Olympic games) has made him swimming's ultimate hero, not to mention has earned him millions of dollars (impressive considering the fact that swimmers really aren't that celebrated).  2012 also marks the end of Phelps' dominance, as he announced his intention to retire at the conclusion of the London Games.  Thanks, M.P. for all the memories! You were a joy to watch!

9.) The Super Hero
So maybe this selection is a little over the top and is certainly influenced by the fact that my two young boys are DIE HARD super hero fans right now. With that said, I couldn't help but notice just how prevalent super heroes were in our culture last year.  For example, the top two grossing films for 2012 were The Avengers ($623 million) and The Dark Knight Rises ($448 million), while The Amazing Spiderman came in 6th ($262 million).  For whatever reason, the super hero has been a big deal in American (and world) culture in 2012, but I think it isn't simply due to their entertainment value.  Super heroes make us hopeful.  They make us believe that a better world, with better people (capable of amazing feats) is possible.  The past few years have brought with them a measure of economic and social decline, but the super hero, albeit fictional, makes us feel like the darkness can and will eventually give way to the dawn.  And if not....Hulk SMASH!!!!!

8.) Bashar al-Assad
Just another asshole dictator trying to maintain his pathetic regime at the cost of the people he claims to "love." Bashar is the second of four sons (and one daughter) of the al-Assad family, which rose to power in Syria in the 1960s.  The family line is one of tyranny and evil, and Bashar seems more than happy to continue the family business.  The struggle of the Syrian citizenry gripped the headlines throughout 2012, and al-Assad is a chief reason for it.  His unwillingness to compromise or release even a small measure of control has caused misery and despair for far too many. One can only hope that Bashar's people will have the opportunity to show him the same love that the Lybians showed Muammar Gaddafi.

7.) Queen Elizabeth II
Back in June of last year, Queen Elizabeth II, along with millions of citizens of Great Britain and the Commonwealth across the globe, celebrated the Diamond Jubilee (60th anniversary) of Britain's second longest standing monarch.  Queen Elizabeth II's reign has been one of constant change.  She came to the throne at the conclusion of the Second World War, and witnessed first-hand the social, political and economic evolution of Great Britain from that of a dominant world power to a lesser but still very relevant nation.  In addition, the British Royal Family has experienced a number of ups and downs that have caused popular support for their reign to ebb and flow over the years.  Everything from Princess Diana, Lady Camilla, and a wild Prince Harry have captivated the tabloids, and brought the Royal Family unwanted attention. Yet through it all, Queen Elizabeth has managed to keep the British Monarchy relevant.  Her approval is still quite high and doesn't appear to change any time soon.  She truly has become the embodiment of everything special about Great Britain.

6.) Barack Obama
Any time you are the President of the United States you are probably a lock to be a top 10 Person of the Year every year. But when you win reelection it becomes a virtual requirement. Of course, we all know that President Obama won a second term in the Oval Office, despite facing a number of obstacles that, at least to some, threatened his chances in a big way. From a historical perspective, it is rare that a standing president with high unemployment levels and rising debt is able to win a second term, but Obama did just that, and did so in fairly convincing fashion. Some will argue that he won because of Romney's ineptitude, others will say he won because he was a success in his first term. Personally, I think he won because of a shifting electorate. Best of luck with your second term, Mr. President. We all wish you the best.

5.) The Changing American Voter
As stated in the comment above, I firmly believe that Barack Obama won reelection thanks in large part to a shifting electorate.  The American voter is, no longer, what he once was.  The clear shift in demographics, predominantly marked by a massive increase in Latino voters, has forever changed the American political landscape.  No longer can a national candidate hope to guarantee his/her seat in office by focusing on the traditional "meat and potato" voting block.  An increased number of Latino, African American and female voters, along with a younger demographic, has changed the game in a big way.  President Obama's team understood this, Romney's did not.  Pure and simple. 

4.) Neil Armstrong
Okay, I must admit, I am a bit of a space nerd but that isn't the reason I made this pick.  When it comes to exploration, there is no greater name than that of Neil Armstrong.  People of this generation seem to forget (or never understood in the first place) just how important of an achievement the Apollo space program really was, and Neil Armstrong is its crowning gem.  As the first man to walk on the Moon, Armstrong forever etched his legacy in stone with the likes of Columbus, Magellan and Lindbergh (he actually surpasses those guys).  After his astronaut career, Armstrong essentially retired from public life.  He was rarely if ever outspoken except for on a few key issues, the main one of course being the importance of further space exploration (a cause that I agree with 100%).  With the passing of Armstrong, along with the retirement of the Space Shuttle, one has to wonder if America will ever explore the heavens again like we once did so many years ago. One can only hope that the legacy of this, the greatest explorer in human history, will challenge us to do better...MUCH better!  

3.) Curiosity: The Mars Rover
On August 6th of last year, at approximately 5:17 a.m. (EST), a 7ft tall, 9ft long, 2,000lb robotic car named Curiosity made contact with the surface of Mars.  This, of course, was not the first time that a human-built robotic object has graced the Martian surface.  Far from it.  Curiosity, however, is still a special achievement.  Her size, strength, speed, mobility, on board navigation and communications alone make her the most advanced rover to ever venture into space.  But that isn't all that Curiosity has packed under her skirt.  Along with all of her technological advances, Curiosity is also equipped with the most advanced biological, geological, geochemical and radiological sensors/equipment known to man.  Her mission, which is primarily to assess if life has/is/is capable of existing on Mars, has already yielded mountains of invaluable data, and will surely supply even greater amounts of data in the coming months.  Thanks to Curiosity and other rovers like her, Mars is becoming less like the distant alien world our ancestors worshiped, and more like a friendly neighbor who lives next door. 

2.) The Nut-Job
2012 saw no shortage of paranoid, idiotic, crazy, whacked out, Looney Tune, kookoo for Cocoa Puffs, doomsday nut-jobs!  In fact, 2012 was full of them.  Whether it was the Newtown Connecticut shooting, the Aurora movie theater shooting, the Seattle cafe shooting, the Sikh Temple shooting in Wisconsin (4 of at least 16 mass shootings last year), 2012 saw its fair share of psychotic evil.  But that wasn't all.  As if our crazy train wasn't full enough, 2012 also saw plenty of paranoid political propagandists as well.  With the election of 2012, both extremes of the political spectrum had more than enough crazy to last a lifetime.  But the biggest nut-jobs of the year have to be the dimwits who bought into the whole Mayan apocalypse.  From doom bunkers to cataclysmic global power outages, these wackos spent ridiculous sums of money and time preparing for an end that never came.  And, of course, let's not forget the other "end of days" loons.  People like Warren Jeffs, who has convinced his polygamous flock that the world was going to end before New Year's Day, and the Westboro Baptist Church, which has protested everything under the sun in the name of some psychotic apocalyptic god.  Yes, I think it is safe to say that the inmates took over at least a portion of the asylum in 2012.  Here's hoping we can get rid of them in 2013.  In the words of Jack Nicholson from the movie, As Good As It Gets, "Sell crazy someplace else, we're all stocked up here." 

And the winner of the 2012 Corazon's Corner Person of the Year Award is.....{cue drum roll}........


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1.) Malala Yousafzai
Though she may seem like any other average teenage girl, the life and story of Malala Yousafazai is far from mundane.  Long story short, she has become the embodiment of everything hopeful and praiseworthy about the "Arab Spring."  Her short life has served to illustrate the power and value of every human life, regardless of age, race, gender or religion.

Malala's story begins with her quest to challenge the social, political and religious norms of her home in Pakistan by insisting on her right to pursue an education (something forbidden to young girls).  Her insistent petitions eventually let to her expulsion from school, along with severe condemnation for her family.  Eventually, however, Malala's vocal pleas provided her with an opportunity to become a blogger for the BBC.  Malala used the opportunity to share with the world not only her plight but her dreams, goals and aspirations.  In so doing, this added a human element to conditions in Pakistan (and many other parts of the world), which garnered greater support for change.  Eventually, the attention forced Pakistani officials to reluctantly re-open schools for young girls.  Malala's efforts in this manner, coupled with her devotion to other women and human rights causes, eventually led to her being awarded the National Youth Peace Prize and International Children's Peace Prize.  Malala has also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize as well.

Sadly, Malala was shot and almost killed in October of last year by Taliban radicals.  After spending weeks in a coma and months in recovery, Malala was eventually healthy enough to be transported to Great Britain where she had a full recovery.  Malala's iron will and grit not only let to her physical triumph over her foes, but continues to aid her in the continued cause of peace and human rights.

There is no doubt that the "Arab Spring" still has a long way to go, but thanks in large part to the efforts of Malala Yousafzai and others like her, there is great hope for a renaissance of sorts taking place in the Middle East and other areas.  Malala's impact will, no doubt, be felt for generations to come.  As a Joan of Arc of sorts to the Muslim world, Malala's life serves as proof that nobody is too young or feeble to make a change.  This makes her the PERFECT selection for the Corazon's Corner Person of 2012.