Johann Hari: What did we misjudge in 2008?

Did we underestimate the American people, who rejected racism so definitively?

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Can we declare 2008 over a couple of weeks early, before even more of the world economy collapses? If we hit the fast-forward button, maybe we can skip the plague of locusts, the slaying of the first-born, and the rain of frogs. But before we mumble a premature Auld Lang Syne, I have a suggestion. Every year Prospect magazine conducts a stock-take of the past 12 months, asking who – or what – we misunderstood. It should be part of everyone's New Year routine to ask: who did we over-rate in '08, and who didn't get their due? Here are my proposals:

Most over-rated US politician: Sarah Palin. Has the right learned nothing from the Bush years? You betcha! Once again, they fawned over a know-nothing incompetent because she could sound like a Bible-lovin' Ordinary Joe-ess while screwing them over on behalf of Corporate America. It turned out she thought Africa was one big country, believed global warming wasn't happening, and couldn't name a single Supreme Court judgement except Roe vs Wade – but have her cheerleaders apologised? It ain't so, Joe. They still insist the only reason anyone would condemn this book-banning dim-wit is snobbery and sexism. Chant with me now: Palin 2012! Palin 2012!

Most under-rated US politician: John Edwards. In the Democratic primaries, this bouffant-centrist announced he was sick of the corporate influence-buying in Washington. He exposed how both parties were serving the financial elite, not the people. His populist cry – and the swell of support it gathered – forced Obama and Clinton leftwards on a slew of issues, changing their agenda for government for the better. So he had an affair. So what? That would rule out Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy too. Grow up. It's the policies, not the penis, that counts.

Most over-rated international event: The Beijing Olympics. Yes, it's true: a ruthless Communist police-state can put on a show. They can arrest protestors, clear out dissidents, and demand the entire society stop and serve their prestige project. But should the world praise them for it? The 2012 London Olympics should be messy and frequently halted by protestors. It's called democracy – and it's worth a thousand slick, soulless acts of athleticism.

The most under-rated international event: Chinese fiction. The best form of travel is always into a novel. Go to Beijing and you can stare at the shiny neon exterior; pick up one of the extraordinary new wave of Chinese novelists and you peer into the real China. This year I have been travelling through the rising super-power by reading its fiction. Only there can you grasp the shifting consciousness that the Communist Party is trying to suppress. In Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem you witness the dawn of Chinese environmentalism; in Ma Jian's Beijing Coma you hear democracy trying to wake.

Most over-rated celebrity: Cheryl Cole. Whenever Cole gazed on one of her X-Factor acts, I imagined her saying: "Aw! babe, I'm so proud of yer. The minute I saw yer I knew we'd be friends! Unless you had turned out to be a toilet attendant. Then I'd have beat you so bad you'd be hospitalised." While the brilliant Russell Brand left the BBC over a crude joke, Cole was turned into a "bless-her" national treasure on ITV – without anyone mentioning her thuggery. In a Guildford nightclub in 2003, she went into a toilet and seized some lollies. The toilet attendant Sophie Amogbokpa asked her politely to pay for them – and Cole beat her up so badly that she was in pain for a month. At the trial, Cole showed no regret. Cheryl, babe – I'm so not proud of yer.

Most under-rated group: Plane Stupid. The news story of this year – of this millennium – is the great global melting we are triggering. Yet as the ice vanishes, we are becoming more frozen. We change our light-bulbs and look away – except for a few. There were jeers and sneers when these smart young eco-activists blockaded a runway at Stansted, but if the destruction of our own habitat doesn't warrant direct action, what does? If Plane Stupid doesn't try to slap the sleepwalker awake, who will?

Most over-rated phenomenon: The surge in Iraq. The outbreak of cholera in Zimbabwe became a symbol of that country's collapse – but who noticed the spread of cholera across Iraq? The McCainiacs chorused that "the surge worked" – but a study by the journal Environment and Planning found the truth. Between 2003 and 2007, Iraq was ripped by a massive ethnic cleansing. The mixed Sunni-Shia areas were destroyed. By the time the surge started, there was nobody left to purge: the country was carved into ethnically homogeneous neighbourhoods. All the surge did was build vast concrete walls between the collapsing hoods, cementing the cleansing. That's success?

Most under-rated phenomenon: Newspapers. Here's a weird paradox. If you include the internet, more people are reading quality papers than ever before. Yet they are – as the bankruptcy of the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune show – dying. We don't just want it all, we want it free. Does it matter? As good as some bloggers are, they don't have the foreign correspondents and investigative teams necessary to make sense of the world. If newspapers – for all their flaws and corporate biases – die, there will be an aching hole where newsgathering used to be. Newspapers: buy them or lose them.

And we can argue long into the New Year's Eve fireworks about the borderline cases. Did we under-estimate Gordon Brown, who seemed to find his feet by standing on Keynes's shoulders? Did we over-estimate the eternal return of Peter Mandelson – a man fond of saying, "I am seriously relaxed about people getting filthy rich"?

Did we underestimate the American people, who rejected racism and Bush-ism so definitively? And can someone please tell me why I know so much about the divorce of Madonna and Guy Ritchie? Farewell, 2008. Go now, before we are hit by a plague of boils.

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