Welp, here we are. The end of the year that felt like a decade. I quit drinking in November 2019, which at various times throughout this dreadful collective trauma we call 2020 has felt like a mistake. Yet here we are at finish line. We made it, when so many of our fellow humans did not. If nothing else, that is worth acknowledging, mourning, but also celebrating. Despite the pandemic, life lives on.
This has been a shit year, chock-full of endless misery and despair. Yet, there have been some real angels emerge, reminding us that even in the bleakest of times, there are those who will put first their fellow human beings. The bad folks deserve to be called out, while the good folks deserve a moment in the sun. That’s why I compile this list every year.
So, pull up a chair, grab your favourite intoxicating beverage (or, if you’re a teetotaller like me, a cup of tea or coffee), and enjoy as I wax lyrical about the heroes and villains of this most villainous of years.
It’s Skylar’s 2020 Naughty and Nice List!
6. Kate Shemirani
Perhaps the most famous anti-vaxxer in the UK, Kate Shemirani is a former nurse (!!) who has made it her personal crusade to convince the nation that coronavirus is a hoax, vaccines are poison, and 5G is… I don’t know, doing something harmful that is utter bollocks. Here, she represents not only her own particular brand of bonkers, but all the science-denying conspiracy theorists who have politicised and exasperated attempts to fight the pandemic. Shemirani’s narcissistic delusions — she claims nurses only counter her lies because they’re jealous she is thinner and prettier — have so strained her relationship with her son that he publicly spoke out against her. Wouldn’t want to spend Christmas in that home.
5. James Bennet
There was a time when fascism was firmly outside the Overton window, at least in Western democracies. Not so in 2020, and that is in part thanks to James Bennet. His tenure as Opinion Editor of the New York Times was controversial from the beginning, bringing in conservative writers Bret Stephens and professional contrarians like Beri Weiss. That alone isn’t a bad thing; ideological diversity should be the goal of any opinion page. It was the commissioning of an op-ed from US Senator Tom Cotton (Republican from Arkansas) back in June which finally crossed the line.
In it, Cotton advocated deploying the US military against peaceful protestors demonstrating against racial injustice. The op-ed was rife with inaccuracies, and Bennet claimed not to have reviewed it before publication (which is a shocking admission), but leaving those aside, its central premise — that the Constitutional rights of American citizens should be curtailed by the military because those in power don’t like what they’re protesting — was chilling, and it had no place in the nation’s paper-of-record.
As I said before, ideological diversity is important, but editors serve as gatekeepers, especially so at a paper as prestigious as the New York Times. Validating fascism as an acceptable argument was a bridge too far and is more than enough to earn Bennet some coal in his stocking and an unemployment check.
4. Guardian staffers
On the other hand, newspapers need to be incredibly careful when deciding which ideas are outside the bounds of respectable discourse. Back in March, the writer Suzanne Moore penned a column for the Guardian — a paper she has written in for decades — lamenting the treatment of a feminist professor who expressed views on gender that run contrary to the prevailing wisdom of an increasingly idealist left but are in keeping with feminist and materialist thought going back at least half-a-century. In response, more than 300 staffers from across the Guardian (not just journalists, but web designers and salespeople and all sorts) signed a letter condemning the paper for publishing “transphobic content” — a pointed reference to Moore’s column, even if they never mentioned her by name. So badly was Moore treated by the paper she had given years of her life to that in November she resigned as a columnist.
Writing about gender and LGBT issues is never not contentious, as I well know. A bit of pushback is to be expected, and indeed welcomed. This is how the exchange of ideas works. But when we get to a point where feminist thought is considered “hate speech,” we have truly crossed the Rubicon.
To compare this with James Bennet and the Tom Cotton controversy, there is a massive difference between advocating for a military crackdown on anti-regime protestors and stating a belief that sex is an immutable trait. Journalists and editors must be able to distinguish between the two, striking a balance of what is controversial-but-acceptable and what is out-of-bounds in a liberal democracy. If the New York Times didn’t go far enough, the Guardian — or at least its staffers, many of whom have not one bit of journalistic or editorial expertise — went too far.
3. Dominic Cummings
Dominic Cummings, the architect of Brexit and until last month Boris Johnson’s chief Svengali, is a bit of an enigmatic figure. Always behind-the-scenes, he has exercised extraordinary control over British politics since the 2016 EU referendum. They say sunlight is the best disinfectant, and so it seems to be here. His trip to Barnard Castle, which saw him driving across the country in the middle of a national lockdown, brought him into the spotlight and understandably outraged the Great British Public. This was after he allegedly argued that the nation should pursue “herd immunity” and “let old people die” of Covid-19.
The more people learned about him, the more they despised him. Flouting the rules with the ludicrous excuse that he was “testing his vision” by going on an hours-long drive rightly engendered contempt from a public tired of one set of rules for the establishment and another for the rest of the country.
It also exposed the general gap in understanding between Number 10 and the nation, and the scorn Johnson and his government has for the average person. Indeed, any number of senior Tories — from Priti Patel to Liz Truss to Jacob Rees-Mogg — could have made this list. Cummings, however, stands above them all not only because he is so utterly smug and contemptable, but because more than any other figure, he is responsible for the mess the UK finds itself in today, from coronavirus to Brexit.
2. Mark Zuckerberg
With any luck, 2020 will prove to be the beginning of the end of Mark Zuckerberg’s reign of terror. Facebook is currently being sued by the US government for antitrust violations, alleging the social media giant — which owns popular apps Instagram and WhatsApp — is knowingly operating an illegal monopoly. The case rests largely on Zuck’s own words, including a 2008 e-mail in which he plainly states “it is better to buy than compete.” You’d think the founder of Facebook would know the Internet never forgets, but I digress.
Facebook long ago became the place your parents and grandparents comment on 10-year-old photos asking why you aren’t wearing any socks. Millennials have abandoned it in droves, and Gen Z all but ignores Facebook proper. Still, it has a massive reach among Boomers and Gen X, who are fed a steady diet of far-right propaganda and misinformation by the all-knowing but soulless algorithm, driven not by any sense of journalistic curation but by cold hard cash. What makes this worse is that Facebook knows it has a problem and does. not. care.
For his part, Zuckerberg shows no interest in changing the way Facebook operates. While other social media platforms have tried (albeit belatedly and anaemically) to crack down on misinformation, Zuckerberg continues as if there is no problem.
It’s enough to make the fact I once entertained the idea of voting for him for president my greatest public shame and, hands down, the worst take I ever had. Go ahead, put me on the naughty list, too. I take my punches.
1. The Seditious 126
How dare they? How fucking dare they?
The peaceful transfer of power is the cornerstone of the American republic and of American democracy. (And yes, you pedantic right-wing trolls, America is both a democracy and a republic.) That the women and men who swore to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States would sign an amicus brief in a lawsuit which threatens the fundamental principals of not only democracy but federalism — something the right is supposed to champion, last I checked — is just mind-boggling. What has happened to the Republican Party?
Well, the obvious answer is Donald Trump. Like a cancer that has metastasized, he has so degraded the body politic of the GOP that it is now an actively fascistic party. Each of the 126 Republican members of the House of Representatives who endorsed this blatant attempt to use the courts to invalidate the votes of hundreds of thousands of their fellow Americans are, so far as I am concerned, actively antagonistic to the very country they claim to represent. They are not fit for a high school prom committee, let alone high office.
Some have argued that these Congressmen and Congresswomen knew the lawsuit wouldn’t go anywhere but signed on as a mark of loyalty to Trump and Trumpism in a bid to head off any primary challenges. Perhaps. That doesn’t make what they did any less egregious, dangerous, or offensive to every value for which this country purports to stand. History, should humanity survive long enough to view 2020 as history and not “the beginning of the end,” will not look kindly on those cowards who put their own political interests above their commitment to democracy and the Constitution.
Dishonourable mentions: Ron DeSantis (America’s superspreader-in-chief), Laurence Fox (everyone’s least favourite racist uncle), James Lindsay (a bigot masquerading as an intellectual crusader), Kerry-Ann Mendoza (the left-wing version of James Lindsay), Candace Owen (who can pry my makeup out of my cold, dead, manicured hand)
6. Harry Styles
The thing I love about Harry Styles is that he does not give a single fuck what you think of him. He is unabashedly himself, and that is so rare to find in our artificial, image-conscious culture. The more cynical among you might argue he is capitalising on, or simply a product of, the zeitgeist. Still others might accuse of him “queerbaiting” his audiences. I think both points miss the mark.
I am a Millennial, but on the older end of that spectrum. Too to have grown up with One Direction, but too young to remember the prime of David Bowie and Boy George. *NSync and the Backstreet Boys, Westlife and Boyzone — these were the bands of my youth. None of them were hypermasculine per se, but their sexuality and gender expression were rigidly policed. I’m old enough to remember when Stephen Gately was all but forced out of the closet, and when Lance Bass coming out (years after *NSync broke up) was major news.
Is Harry Styles LGBT? I don’t know. He’s coy about the whole thing, which I admit can be annoying. I’m not sure it matters, though. He is reimagining what it means to be a man, what men can wear, yes, but also how men can act, and what they can talk about. In the process, he is giving permission to little boys and young men around the world to do the same. He is kind and compassionate, vulnerable and soft. If he wants to paint his nails, he paints his nails. If he wants to wear a dress, he wears a dress. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t. And he does all of this while remaining one of the most desirable men on the planet and never claiming to be anything other than Haz (tell me if you hate that, Haz).
I look forward to the day when a man wearing a dress and being in touch with his emotions is not so remarkable that it earns you a spot on a “nice list.” We are not yet there, and if you had any doubt, just look around at the machismo of a resurgent far right and the moral panic the likes of Candace Owen tried to drum up over his Vogue cover. Haz (I’m committed to this now) doesn’t care. He just keeps doing him, and that is sexy as fuck.
5. Mickey Guyton
I have been a fan of Mickey Guyton for years, since I cried into my Makers while listening to “Better Than You Left Me” following a particularly tragic breakup. Ever since, I have been waiting for her to get her big break in country music. That finally came this year.
In February, while playing her new song “What Are You Gonna Tell Her” at an industry event at the Ryman Auditorium, Guyton received a standing ovation. The song itself is a powerful ballad about how difficult it is growing up female in a misogynistic world, with lyrics that are raw and honest in a genre that is increasingly neither.
Guyton followed up “What Are You Gonna Tell Her” with another unflinchingly candid song. “Black Like Me” is Guyton’s lament about racism and discrimination and was released as the nation convulsed in protests and conversations about racial injustice. It was perfectly timed, no doubt cathartic for Black country fans, and is now Grammy-nominated, making Guyton the first Black female solo artist nominated for a country music Grammy.
Her music alone is remarkable enough to warrant inclusion on this list. What makes her a transformative figure in country music, though, is that she is not pulling the ladder up behind her. Guyton’s music has opened up a much-needed conversation about sexism and racism within the genre, and she is not shying away from it. She is engaging in frank conversations about the prejudice she has faced, while also amplifying the voices of other female artists and artists of colour who feel marginalised in a genre dominated by white men. In the process, she has emerged as one of the most important, relevant, and authentic voices across any genre of American music.
If country music needs saving, Mickey Guyton is the woman to save it.
4. Marcus Rashford MBE
It shouldn’t take a footballer to convince the government to feed hungry kids, but it did. Luckily for countless British children, Marcus Rashford stepped up. When the Tories decided that actually, it was okay for kids to go hungry, the Manchester United forward delivered where the government wouldn’t, feeding over four million vulnerable people across the UK.
In June, Rashford wrote an open letter to the government, calling for it to end child poverty. The next day, the government announced that it would feed needy children over the summer holidays, with Rashford’s campaign given much of the credit. Rashford continued his advocacy work, setting up a charity dedicated to tackling hunger and continuing to pressure the government to act. He took MPs to task when Parliament voted against feeding hungry children over the winter holidays, turning instead to the private sector to do what should be the government’s job. All the while, he continued to work with elected officials, eventually securing £400 million in government funding for struggling families in England.
Some, such as Will Lloyd writing in UnHerd, have argued that Rashford is motivated less by altruism and more by PR. This is, I think, a hopelessly cynical take. Rashford grew up with food insecurity and knows all too well what it is to struggle. He has worked tirelessly to address childhood hunger, turning to the private sector when the public sector turned its back on kids. He is a man who sees a problem needing fixing, and he is determined to fix it one way or another. Good on him.
I also admire the way Rashford seeks consensus and coalition building. He does not vilify those who disagree with him or vote against feeding hungry kids. Instead, he continues to dialogue with MPs, ministers, and SPADs, trying to find common ground. Anything to help the kids. For him, this isn’t about politics, it is about results. And damn if he doesn’t get results.
3. Brad Raffensperger
I will never forgive the Seditious 126, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, Rudy Giuliani, and ultimately Donald Trump for forcing me to include a Republican on my nice list, but here we are. 2020 is fucking weird. Part of that weirdness is that Brad Raffensperger, the Republican Secretary of State down in Georgia, became a hero of American democracy for simply doing his fucking job.
Long story short, a bunch of fascists got upset that Joe Biden was winning in the state of Georgia. They didn’t like this, so they turned to Raffensperger, expecting “their guy” (i.e. a fellow Republican) to help steal the election and hand Georgia’s 16 electoral votes to Donald Trump. When Raffensperger said, essentially, that there was no fraud and that Biden won fair and square, the Red Hats got all up in their feelings — by which I mean started sending him and other election officials death threats.
To be sure, Raffensperger is not the only elected official to be threatened with violence for simply doing their job and following the law. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson had armed protestors swarm outside her home, while far-right militias plotted to kidnap the state’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer.
Both are women, and both are Democrats. I can already hear some of you asking with a quiet indignation why I did not name them to my nice list instead of Raffensperger. After all, Raffensperger made a lot of false equivalencies between Donald Trump’s attempts to steal the election and Stacey Abrams’ frustration over ongoing voter suppression efforts in the Peach State, which Raffensperger is party to. He is not exactly a hero in normal times.
But, as you probably have realised after 12 months of this abysmal year, these are not normal times. Democrats standing up to Republican attempts to undermine our democracy is — or at least God it should be — expected. Republicans standing up to other Republicans, including the sitting president? That takes guts.
Regardless of what you think about Raffensperger, his shameless politicking in op-eds and interviews, or his stance on voter id laws or anything else, he did not buckle under the immense pressure to subvert the democratic will of the people. He did his job, upheld his oath, followed the law, and accepted the results of a free and fair election when far too many of his colleagues, whether out of fear or political expediency, would not. He put country over party, and in doing so demonstrated a commitment to democracy and liberty. For that, we all owe him a debt of gratitude.
2. The All-Poland Women’s Strike
My list is usually centred on the US and UK, but sometimes you just have to look abroad. A Twitter follower suggested the All-Poland Women’s Strike for inclusion on this list. As soon as she did, I knew these women belonged on here.
I have been following the Polish women’s movement for years now, impressed with the tenacity of Polish women as they agitated against a far-right government for access to safe and legal abortion. This year, the protests seemed to take on a new life, galvanised into action when the Polish government considered withdrawing from an international convention to prevent gendered violence. The October ruling from Poland’s Supreme Court, essentially outlawing abortion, was met with fierce backlash from Polish women, who took to the streets in sustained and ongoing protest.
Protestors broadened their demands, including not only access to abortion, but free contraception and sex education. Crucially, they also called for a restoration of Poland’s democratic institutions, which have been eroded under the reactionary government of President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. In short, Polish women are leading the charge not only for their own rights, but for the rights of all Polish citizens to live in a free and democratic country.
One thing that is notable about the All-Poland Women’s Strike from a Western lens is the spotlight it shines on global women’s issues. It is hard enough to organise around women’s rights issues in the UK and the US, where women are often told to wait their turn or to sit down and shut up. The All-Poland Women’s Strike reminds us that the fight for women’s rights is universal, and that women in other nations face an even starker inequality than many women in the West.
It remains to be seen if this is a watershed moment for women’s rights and democracy in Poland. The ruling Law and Justice party is firmly entrenched and shows no signs of relaxing its grasp on power. But Polish women are standing up for themselves, and they deserve our respect and solidarity.
1. Nurse Emily (representing frontline workers and content creators)
I first learned of “Nurse Emily” when, somewhat ironically, she went viral with a funny video about Coronavirus. Expressing frustration at the oxymoronic behaviour of so many people in the early days of the pandemic, “just touch your face” became a rallying cry for the weary and the beleaguered. Nurse Emily would go on to continue producing content, bringing a smile to my face throughout 2020, all while working in a hospital treating Covid patients.
There was only ever one choice for the top spot on this year’s nice list, and it was always going to be essential workers. From doctors and nurses and other medical professionals to grocery store clerks and postal workers and farmers and those who work in food processing, this year has laid bare the professions we cannot function without and those we can. If there was ever any doubt as to who the true heroes of the American and British economies are, well, now we know. They aren’t on Wall Street or in the City, nor are they in boardrooms or the C-Suite. They’re at the supermarket, or the hospital, or the food processing plant, or picking up your rubbish.
But this year has done something else, as well, something that makes Nurse Emily a unique and fitting choice for the top spot. As we have all been forced into our homes, separated from loved ones and cooped up like caged animals, and with the existential dread and mortal terror that accompanies the carnage of Covid-19, many people — myself included — have longed for some sort of release. A catharsis. An escape.
Lucky for us, content creators upped their game this year. Comedians like Sarah Cooper went viral on Twitter for making fun of (and in the process giving voice to our collective frustration with) Donald Trump’s bungling of the pandemic response. TikToks like “Fighting in a Grocery Store” made us laugh in a year when there simply was not much to laugh at. Meanwhile, folks like Claudia Conway — yes, the daughter of Kellyanne and George — gave voice to a new generation of American youth who are, quite frankly, sick of our bullshit.
2020 drove home the importance of laughter, of connection, of joy in all our lives, while also underscoring just who are the true heroes in our society. Nurse Emily exists at the juncture of those two inescapable truths. She represents the best of us, the people who heal both our spirits and our bodies. If this miserable year has shown us anything, it is that there is no one nicer than a nurse with a sense of humour.
Honourable mentions: Jacinda Ardern (for showing the world how to govern during a pandemic), Pete Buttigieg (for making history in Iowa and making sense on Fox News), Dr Anthony Fauci (for trying, God love him), Marina Hyde (for putting into words what so many of us are thinking), Dolly Parton (for being a philanthropic angel among us sinners)
Did your favourite make my nice list? Or is there some naughty fucker I forgot? Let me know in the comments below.
May 2021 be the end of this nightmare, and may it bring you health and happiness. Until then, a very Merry Christmas and the happiest of New Years from me to you and yours.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan