In a tumultuous year, writers at CNN Opinion made sense of seismic political and social events and pointed the way toward a better future. Here are 40 of the most popular, intriguing and insightful pieces of 2021.
Pause with us to rest and reflect on the moments that shaped our year, and then take a deep breath as we look ahead to what’s next.
President Donald Trump has brought the country to depths of division, unrest and instability that once would have been unthinkable — even if they were completely predictable. The entire world watched aghast as a mob of Trump supporters, whipped into a frenzy by the President’s incitement, stormed the US Capitol, smashing windows, forcing a lockdown and bringing a temporary end to a constitutionally mandated affirmation of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the November election. What more does it take? It’s time for Vice President Mike Pence and the members of the Cabinet to pull the country back from the edge of abyss and remove Trump from office.
Issac Bailey: The jarring, revealing video of Black men cleaning up the Capitol
The image is jarring because it’s a scene so commonplace, so normal. A few Black men are seen in a video sweeping and vacuuming in the Capitol building to undo some of the damage caused by a mostly White mob trying to overturn an election because their preferred candidate lost….With each stroke of the broom, they were slowly helping to piece this democracy back together.
CNN contributors: We just hit the biggest reset button in history
This month we’ve seen two very different symbols in the Capitol. On January 6, we watched insurrectionists strut through that building with the Confederate flag. … Just two weeks later, Kamala Harris got sworn in as vice president — the first woman and third person of color to do so. So, whose century is it? Does it belong to the people who are trying to recapture something they’ve lost? Or is there something new happening? I believe it’s the latter.
Thomas Lake: Are you OK? I’m not
Maybe you’re like me: afraid, anxious, nervous, or feeling whatever else you call that paralyzing sensation that radiates from below the ribcage up into your chest. You can’t stop worrying about all you have left to lose. You think you might be losing your mind. I find myself experiencing this mental-health decline even though I have not fallen gravely ill, or lost my job, or lost my home, or been trapped in a long-term care facility, or endured any of the other major tribulations that currently afflict tens of millions of my fellow Americans. And so I wonder: If the pandemic is this bad for me, how much worse is it for you?
John Sutter: This town powered America for decades. What do we owe them?
Gillette is the hub of a region called the Powder River Basin, which produces roughly 40% of US coal. West Virginia’s coal country gets more attention, but Wyoming produces more coal at this point. Gillette is the town that powers America — at least it did for decades.
But as the urgency of the climate crisis has become more apparent, markets have shifted toward cheaper and cleaner electricity sources — wind, solar and natural gas. Residents here know that the Biden administration, which rejoined the Paris Agreement on climate change and promises a 100% clean electric grid by 2035, could help push Gillette out of existence.
Jhodie-Ann Williams and Jane Greenway Carr: Americans are wondering: Will I get the vaccine or the virus first?
When trials began to show high efficacy and effectiveness for vaccines, it offered a glimmer of hope for millions of people. In the United States, that glimmer turned into a bright promise of returning to some semblance of our full lives after the FDA approved the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. But the rollout has proven to be less than perfect. As Brenda Kotewa of Bellingham, Washington, put it, so many Americans are left “wondering if we’ll get the vaccine or the virus first.” May (this) selection of stories serve as a reminder that you are not alone.
SE Cupp: How we can decrease gun violence
In an episode of “Unfiltered” following two mass shootings — one in Atlanta, Georgia, and another in Boulder, Colorado — political commentator SE Cupp urges Americans to stop standing in the way of solutions to solve the nation’s gun violence problem.
Yumi Hogan: We will not stand silent anymore
As the first Korean American first lady in the history of the United States, Maryland’s first Asian American first lady, and a first-generation immigrant, my heart breaks for all victims of hate and racism. Today, our grandparents, parents, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, and friends are forced to live in fear. But as proud citizens of this country, we should not have to be afraid of anything. The time has come for us to speak out, and demand action.
Charlie Dent: John Boehner is right about the GOP before Trump
Former House Speaker John Boehner, in excerpts from “On the House: A Washington Memoir,” provides clear evidence that the Republican Party was already struggling with its identity and ideology long before Trump was a serious candidate for political office.
Peter Bergen: Biden’s magical thinking on Afghanistan
President Biden’s decision to announce a date for pulling all US troops out of Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of 9/11 sets the stage for a predictable disaster.
CNN contributors: Why I’m not celebrating after the Chauvin verdict
I don’t begrudge others who burst into celebration at the sound of “guilty” guilty” “guilty” in the case of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer who slowly murdered George Floyd in broad daylight. I feel more relieved than anything else. But I’m not in a celebratory mood — because it took overwhelming evidence to convict a police officer, evidence so clear even his former boss and colleagues testified against him. There won’t always be that much evidence.
Amy Gravino: I now know what caused my autism, which changes everything — and nothing
I’m hopeful that the picture these results paint will show that autism is less of a puzzle to be solved and more of a story to be told. I want the answers and knowledge that we glean to open a discussion on how we can improve the quality of life not just for future generations, but for individuals on the spectrum living in the world right now.
Nicole Hemmer: Living in the world of pants-on-fire lies
When President Donald Trump’s social media feeds went dark after the insurrection at the Capitol, it felt like a fog beginning to lift. … From exhaustive fact checks to contentious briefing-room clashes over the administration’s “alternative facts,” debunking the whirl of lies became a full-time process and started derailing pressing long-term conversations. But as the past few weeks have shown, the mendacity that once seemed like a feature of politics in the age of Trump has outlived the former president’s Twitter feed.
Karl Kusserow: The case for reparations, in pictures
The legacy of slavery goes deep in this country. Looking closely at an iconic history painting and a contemporary reinterpretation of it helps us recognize racism’s abiding shadow and envision a more just future.
Tiffany Crutcher: My great-grandmother survived the 1921 Tulsa massacre. We’re not heeding her history
What was once the wealthiest Black neighborhood in America became charred ash in a matter of hours. 10,000 Black residents were left homeless — and an entire generation of Black Tulsans were robbed of their wealth and prosperity they had built. To this day, not one person has ever been held accountable and not a single cent of reparations has been paid to the survivors or the victims’ descendants. Without this necessary reckoning with the past, we’re already repeating it.
Jill Filipovic: The real reason employers can’t hire enough workers
A pandemic that upended so many of our lives and killed more than half a million Americans was bound to make a lot of us reconsider how we were living before. Our country may treat wage workers as disposable automatons, but if the past year has taught us anything, it should be how much we need the folks who deliver our food, stock our grocery store shelves, care for our children and tend to our ill and aging.
Tess Taylor: Stop trying to return to life as you know it
Here we are, six months into the year 2021, attempting to return to a world that abruptly shut down 16 months ago. The on-ramps are scrambled. Some of them are gone. It’s a bit like waking up from a dream, except we are different, and the world is different, and will not, despite all the talk of getting “back to normal,” be the same again.
Roxanne Jones: Kamala Harris is every woman who stands up to speak
Last month, the vice president was criticized by Republicans, along with members of her own party, for comments she made on her first foreign trip to Guatemala. But I understood that Harris was trying to balance being authentic and honest with being politically correct, all while under the pressure to please everyone on all sides of a complex immigration issue.
David M. Perry: The two lessons everyone should learn from this Utah cheerleading photo
In disability social media, where I’m active, this kind of story is common. I live in Minnesota, first found it on the page of a mom who lives in Illinois. and before it got national media coverage, saw it ricocheting through my networks around the county and beyond. We all shared it … because as parents of kids with disabilities, each of us has encountered moments like this. And fury is appropriate.
Amy Bass: This is the most GOAT thing Simone Biles has ever done
On Tuesday in Tokyo, Simone Biles reminded all of us that while she might own four Olympic golds and 25 world medals — making her the most decorated gymnast in history — she is, indeed, human.
Peter Bregman and Howard Jacobson: Angry at the unvaccinated? Here’s a better way
In the moment, it can feel good to indulge our emotions and let them have it. But the cost is high: We damage the relationship, and they don’t get vaccinated. … So when we can’t persuade with facts or criticism, what can we lead with instead? Two things: empathy and curiosity.
Nick Ochsner: My dad died serving in Afghanistan. I’m sad and angry, and you should be too
Two decades of war. Thousands of lives lost. Trillions of dollars spent. And, at this point, it’s hard to tell for what. The Taliban has retaken the country my dad and thousands of others died fighting to free from future oppression. If my dad were alive today, I know he would be worried about the thousands of Afghans who risked their lives and their families’ security in service to an America that has now left many of them stranded, helpless, behind enemy lines.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: I’m a college professor, not a Covid guinea pig
The stakes of teaching in person in a pandemic without proper safety protocols and necessary accommodations being uniformly required have led faculty to make difficult decisions. Even in places where masks and/or vaccines are required, some faculty have resigned from their positions rather than teach in unsafe environments that may expose them and their family members to infection.
Julian Zelizer: The mistake Biden can’t afford to make
As we approach the 2022 midterm elections, the President faces a critical juncture. He will need to maneuver carefully to pass key legislation and retain the Democratic majorities in Congress that will allow him to plow on with his agenda while Republicans are undertaking a massive effort to curtail voting rights and recapture control of Congress in order to make the second half of his term a living hell.
Kimberly Rex: When people say ‘Never Forget’ 9/11, this is what I hear
As though it’s easy to forget that your strong, stocky father was whittled down to only pieces. That when we buried him, only my mother knew how much of him was inside the coffin. As if we’d forget that this actually makes us lucky. That others have only empty plots filled with knickknacks, mementos instead of remains….As if we could forget. As if we could let go.
Ayelet Haimson Lushkov: This is how you mess with Texas
Like many Texans, I am devastated at what my state legislature has done to women’s reproductive rights, and what the Supreme Court has allowed. And my deep concern is all the greater because these actions come amid other outrages in my state: a hobbled Covid-19 response that has already caused a surge in cases among children and shutdowns in one school district after two middle-school teachers died of Covid-19 complications in the same week, a health care system operating beyond capacity, an unregulated and unreliable electricity grid, and now new voting rights restrictions signed by our governor, Greg Abbott, on Tuesday. And the list goes on. But the answer is not to cut Texas loose from the rest of the country, or to leave the state.
Caroline Polisi: Elizabeth Holmes’ surprising defense
Elizabeth Holmes, Silicon Valley’s one-time darling for founding and leading the now failed biotech company Theranos, is on trial in one of the most highly anticipated criminal fraud cases in the country — and one of her potential defense strategies is not what you might expect.
Holly Thomas: What women see when they look at Gabby Petito
It feels impossible that something horrific could have happened to a young woman whose life and relationship — documented on her beautiful Instagram grid — appeared to be perfect. The fact that it likely wasn’t — and that the stories of most women who go missing remain untold — both speak to a darker truth about the dangers all women face every day.
Kara Alaimo: How to protect ourselves against Facebook’s failures
While it’s appalling to confront the fact that using Instagram has harmful effects on young girls and that Facebook appears to have prioritized its own growth and profits over curbing the toxic effects of its platforms, it shouldn’t be shocking. What is stunning is the extent to which Facebook seems to have ignored the obvious damage it was causing to society in the process — from contributing to poor body images to depression in teens.
Dean Obeidallah: The most alarming Trump rally yet
At Trump’s past post-presidency events, you wouldn’t find the state’s leading GOP officials attending en masse. … Saturday’s rally in Iowa, though, was different. This one was attended by longtime Iowa US Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, Iowa Reps. Mariannette Miller-Meeks and Ashley Hinson, and other mainstream Republican officials. Some of these very same people, who just nine months ago were slamming Trump for his role in the Capitol riots, were now only too happy to be seen supporting him. This is politics at its worst — and at its most dangerous for our democracy.
Elie Honig: 60 years ago, we saw the face of evil
The notorious Nazi Adolf Eichmann, widely known as the “Architect of the Holocaust,” stood charged with unimaginable crimes against humanity — the murder of millions. While the Eichmann trial is now firmly part of world history, the lessons still resonate today. Hatred based on race, religion, sex, sexual orientation and ethnicity sadly remains a potent and growing threat in the United States and elsewhere. We need to remember the Eichmann trial for what it can teach us about our collective past — and future.
Sara Stewart: Stealthing is still flying dangerously under the radar
As popular culture so often does, it was a TV show — Michaela Coel’s brilliant 2020 HBO series “I May Destroy You” — that brought stealthing more fully into mainstream awareness, and made its own ruling on what, exactly, it is…Alas, real life doesn’t often afford such neatly scripted opportunities to hold someone publicly accountable. But there are clear measures that can help ensure stealthing stops happening so often. Other states need to follow California’s example and pass anti-stealthing bills, and we need to be talking about the subject a lot more, and more loudly.
Scott Jennings: The GOP’s Trump-free campaign in Virginia worked
Education. Crime. The economy. Reforming state government. All of this mattered to Virginia voters and Glenn Youngkin did what Donald Trump failed to do in the 2020 election: construct a platform to meet those concerns. Make America Boring Again by running on issues and refusing to chase the personal grievance of the day.
Don Lincoln: The problem with the Big Bang Theory
Perhaps the oldest and grandest question asked by humanity is “How did the universe come into existence?” A recent astronomical measurement recorded in a laboratory at the South Pole is causing scientists to revisit their theories. While those people who crave certainty in their life might be unhappy because of the new measurement, it’s important to remember that there are no sacred cows in science, and scientists are always checking and rechecking even their favorite universal models.
David Axelrod: Biden’s peacock moment
Odds are there are more feather-duster days ahead. Thus is the nature of a presidency in fractious and turbulent times, with tenuous majorities in each chamber of Congress. But for these next few days, at least, Joe Biden is a peacock once more.
Yaffa Fredrick: The fiercest fight of the 21st century
Evan Mawarire, Marina Nemat and Wai Hnin Pwint Thon are among the 21st century’s freedom fighters — people who have risked their lives and liberty in a battle for democracy that is being fought globally. In this series, “Voices of Freedom,” 13 dissidents from around the world are telling their stories and making the case for supporters of democracy to fight for restoring and protecting the rights to speak freely and vote in honest elections.
Peniel E. Joseph: What Kyle Rittenhouse’s tears reveal about America
Anyone watching the proceedings who was unfamiliar with the events that led to this trial would be forgiven for assuming that (Kyle) Rittenhouse was the victim of an unspeakable crime rather than being its accused perpetrator. His protracted sobs — and people’s telling reactions to them — spoke volumes about the moment America now finds itself in. Whether or not Rittenhouse is convicted, the perspective he represents — galvanized by the anger, fear and prejudice of White Americans — has already achieved its ends: normalizing a kind of racial privilege exposed, but far from extinguished, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year.
Fatima Goss Graves, Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner and Ai-jen Poo: Congress is one step closer to fulfilling its promise to women voters
The bill’s passage … signals the beginning of an era in which Congress recognizes that women’s problems are America’s problems, and women’s successes are America’s success. Most importantly, it is an acknowledgment that our country will never realize its full potential if women and, in particular, women of color continue to be devalued, underpaid and left behind.
Robert Redford: This magical place deserves our protection
This landscape — and others like it — tells a story about the history of our country and humankind itself. Ancient people would travel for hundreds of miles to reach this cultural center, which has left behind archeological mysteries that continue to perplex us more than a thousand years later. These places remain sacred to the Pueblo and Navajo communities, and they should be incredibly important to all of us.
Josh Replogle: Our story of pregnancy loss shows the trauma state abortion bans can cause
I’m not sharing my family’s painful story to take a stance on abortion. That’s a journalism taboo. That’s not what this is. I share our hardship to show how important it is to have options in reproductive health care.