Opinions

Our favorite Washington Post op-eds of 2020

Our favorite Washington Post op-eds of 2020

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The Washington Post Opinions section published hundreds of op-eds from outside contributors this year, covering an enormous range of topics, from the coronavirus pandemic to America’s racial reckoning to the presidential election. Below, opinions staff members pick their favorite op-eds from 2020 and explain what made their choices stand out.

A decade separated my mother and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It was a great awakening.

By David Simon

Dorothy Simon, shown during high school in 1939, left, and at her college graduation in 1983 with her grandson. (David Simon/Simon family photos)

This is a beautifully written piece. It saddened me, enraged me and inspired me. Saddened because of the loss of these two wonderful lives. Enraged because not only was Dorothy Simon cheated — to use her own unsparing assessment of her blocked opportunities — but America was also cheated by the loss of possibilities from so many women who had it ingrained in them that their sole ambition was to marry well and have children. Inspired because how could you not be by the spark that drove Dorothy’s life and that lit up the remarkable career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. — Jo-Ann Armao, associate editorial page editor

I spent six days on a ventilator with covid-19. It saved me, but my life is not the same.

By David Lat

David Lat is shown receiving oxygen. Later, he ended up in critical condition and was moved to a ventilator. (Courtesy of David Lat)

We published Lat’s harrowing account in early April, when media coverage about ventilators (and possible shortages) was hitting a fever pitch. At a time when there was still so much to figure out about the virus, his near-death experience helped drive home the human toll of covid-19. The pandemic has evolved, and doctors are increasingly leaning on less-invasive treatments, but Lat’s writing stands out as an example of the power of honesty and vulnerability. — Karen Attiah, columnist and global opinions editor

Elijah McClain’s final words haunt me as the parent of a child who is ‘different’

By Jackie Spinner

Demonstrators march during a June 27 protest in Aurora, Colo., over the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain. (David Zalubowski/AP)

Like many Americans, Spinner had not heard of Elijah McClain before his death drew new media attention in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. But McClain’s harrowing experience — “I’m just different,” the 23-year-old told police officers who tackled him as he walked home from a convenience store in Aurora, Colo. — troubled her as the parent of a neurodiverse child. If police approached her son, Spinner wrote, “and he doesn’t react in a typical way, would they wrestle him to the ground?" Spinner’s op-ed was a powerful call to prevent future tragedies by increasing awareness of people who are “different.” — Autumn Brewington, associate opinions editor

Don’t believe Iranian propaganda about the mourning for Soleimani

By Masih Alinejad

After a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander Qasem Soleimani in January, media outlets around the world began transmitting images of immense public mourning ceremonies across Iran. Some commentators assured us that the huge crowds showed a genuine outpouring of grief. Alinejad, an exiled Iranian journalist, gave readers a skeptically corrective look at the reality behind the scenes — and reminded us that the picture presented by authoritarian regimes is rarely the whole story. — Christian Caryl, op-ed editor, international

Our cruise ship was quarantined. Now we’re on an Air Force base. But the end is in sight.

By Gay Courter

Buses carrying passengers from the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship leave a port in Yokohama, near Tokyo, Feb. 17. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

Courter’s experience in quarantine on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan, then at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, is an eerie early pandemic account. She wrote two op-eds for The Post, the second of which was published Feb. 28 — weeks before states across America starting shutting down nonessential businesses and ordering residents to stay home. The rear admiral leading their quarantine at Lackland “has drilled us so much about ‘social distancing’ and ‘proper hand washing’ that her dictums about infection, prevention and control measures are lodged in my mind,” Courter wrote. Now, that advice is lodged in so many of our minds. — Becca Clemons, operations editor

Voter suppression kept my grandfather from voting. It won’t stop me.

By the Rev. Otis Moss III

Moss shares a gutting story of his grandfather jumping through hoop after hoop while trying to vote in rural Georgia in the 1940s — only for White clerks and a racist system to deny him at every turn. Decades later, the story lives on in his family, and Moss wrote of it as he prepared to head to the polls with his son in November. It is a powerful reminder of both our nation’s history and the number of Black Americans who still face voter suppression. — Kaitlin Coward, copy editor and digital producer

What my family learned after a year of social distancing

By Daniel Sallick

As we all stumbled into a new world of pandemic living, Sallick explained that his family had already been social distancing for about a year, ever since his son had been diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer. He succinctly described the loneliness of being apart from friends, but he also showed us that there can be gifts in isolation, too. And he beautifully articulated the best reason to stay socially distant, one that still resonates with me months later: “My son’s recovery, along with the health and recovery of so many others whom you may never meet, now relies as much on your social distancing as on mine. … Please be safe. Please be considerate and compassionate.” — Mary-Ellen Deily, multiplatform editor

President Trump is sick. How can we pray for him when we hate his policies?

By the Rev. William J. Barber II

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more steadfast advocate for the poor and oppressed in America than Barber. So it may have surprised some when, after President Trump was diagnosed with covid-19, Barber said he would pray for him. Barber’s powerful op-ed explores this “moral tension at the heart of Christian ethics.” Whether we believe in the divine or not, there is futility in expending energy on hating others, he wrote, especially when we are “giving ourselves to work for love and justice.” — James Downie, digital opinions editor

Think you’re out of baker’s yeast? Think again.

By Sudeep Agarwala

As our pandemic panic — and panic-buying — heightened into a frenzy, biologist Sudeep Agarwala cheerfully explained one of our newfound obsessions. And as he delivered an enlightening science lesson, he gently encouraged us to hope instead of despair. His sense of wonder and emphasis on connection made us feel less alone, even as the world felt like it was closing in. — Christine Emba, columnist and opinions editor

D.C.’s waterways are good for mental health, but some days that really is sewage in the water

By Amy Eskind

A cyclist crosses Boulder Bridge in Rock Creek Park. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

In her Oct. 23 Local Opinions essay, D.C. resident Amy Eskind alerted readers to a danger in the waters around them: sewage. She noticed while out for a walk that a recent deluge had sent overflows into area rivers and creeks. A long-term project is underway to correct the problem, but she pointed out things that can be done immediately to help keep people away from unhealthy waters. — Jamie Riley, letters and local opinions editor

We cannot keep ignoring the possibility of airborne transmission. Here’s how to address it.

By Joseph Allen

That the novel coronavirus is airborne may seem like common knowledge now, but establishing that fact took months of intense scientific wrangling. Allen made the bold claim in an op-ed for The Post in late May, more than a month before the World Health Organization recognized airborne spread and five months before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did the same. This serves not only as an indictment of the U.S. response to the pandemic, but more importantly highlights the heroic work of public health scientists to protect our nation from covid-19 — even if the government didn’t always heed their advice. — Robert Gebelhoff, assistant op-ed editor

Get with the program. Legalize weed.

By John Fetterman

“In Pennsylvania and in most states, it is perfectly legal to wake up in the morning, smoke a carton of Marlboros, chug a fifth of vodka, take a pinch of Copenhagen, pop an OxyContin and gamble away your entire life savings in a state-approved casino,” writes John Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor (and one of the country’s most colorful elected officials). Don’t worry — he gets to a point. His op-ed is a clear-eyed call for Democrats to push hard to fully legalize marijuana and end the stigma that transformed this comparatively un-dangerous drug into the “weed from hell coming for your children.” — Drew Goins, assistant editor

We’re past ‘if’ on the coronavirus. We’re on to ‘how bad will it be?’

By Ronald A. Klain and Nicole Lurie

On Jan. 22, when this piece was published, there was one confirmed case of covid-19 in the United States. One. On the same day, President Trump said, “It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control,” adding: “It’s going to be just fine.” Little has been fine since. Klain, who will become White House chief of staff when President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in, and Lurie outlined their suggestions to mitigate the coming outbreak’s effects — presidential leadership, swift congressional action and a reliance on science and medical expertise to guide the response. All were common-sense suggestions that would have saved untold thousands of lives. Except for stimulus early on, none of them, to any meaningful extent, happened. — Chris Hanna, multiplatform editor

I finished ‘War and Peace,’ so shouldn’t we be done with the pandemic by now?

By Kate Cohen

(Ellen Weinstein for The Washington Post)

In several brilliant op-eds, Cohen captured with honesty, humor and grace the strangeness of this year for those of us who knew we were relatively fortunate (healthy, able to work from home, sheltering with our families) but who still didn’t feel all that fortunate. My favorite may have been one she wrote in May, when she finished her pandemic project — only to realize that the pandemic was far from finished with her. “If you’ve started ‘War and Peace,’ and it’s taking you a while, don’t quit,” she advised. “But don’t rush to finish it either.” — Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor

I was the woman surrounded by BLM protesters at a D.C. restaurant. Here’s why I didn’t raise my fist.

By Lauren Victor

I picked Victor’s first-person account of her reasons for refusing to raise her fist, as demanded by the pro-Black Lives Matter protesters who surrounded her at an outdoor restaurant table. Victor gave us the surprising story behind the viral images in the news. She had not been quite as frightened or intimidated as certain conservative media accounts implied. She also agreed with the protesters’ cause, which she had supported at previous demonstrations. But she had, indeed, refused on principle to engage in a hollow display of solidarity. Things are not always what they seem as this op-ed trenchantly reminded us. — Charles Lane, editorial writer and columnist

Why ‘White’ should be capitalized, too

By Nell Irvin Painter

Great op-eds change our thinking, and that’s exactly what Painter’s piece did for me. I went into it agreeing with an emerging consensus that newspaper stylebooks should return to a former practice of capitalizing the B in the word “Black.” But I wasn’t so sure that the policy should be extended to the W in “White.” In fewer than 850 words of commanding argument, Painter had me convinced. — Michael Larabee, op-ed editor

NASCAR’s Confederate flag ban is long overdue. But I’ll believe it when I see it.

By Robert Edelstein

Given NASCAR’s past skittishness about alienating its many Southern fans, Edelstein wrote in June, he was going to wait to see how well the organization enforced a ban on displays of the Confederate battle flag at its races. For the time being, though, the longtime NASCAR writer wanted to commend “a gesture of inclusion that might have been impossible at any moment other than this one, when the coronavirus pandemic and racial strife have thrown the country and its institutions into turmoil.” — Mark Lasswell, associate op-ed editor

Meat is not essential. Why are we killing for it?

By Jonathan Safran Foer

(Kailey Whitman for The Washington Post)

As covid-19 deaths rose at meat plants across the United States, Safran Foer offered a brutal rebuke of an industry with a dismal record of exploitation and abuse. He reminded us that it is mostly people of color who work at these plants and who comprise a disproportionate share of “essential” workers, and he castigates the Trump administration for using the Defense Production Act to order slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants to stay open. “For years, we have knowingly destroyed our planet for the sake of a protein preference,” he writes. “How did the president arrive at the absurdity of requiring civilians to risk their lives for the sake of a particular food?” — Elias Lopez, senior editor, global opinions

Inside a two-week quarantine in Singapore

By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

The view from my room at the Village Sentosa Hotel. (Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan)

“By Day Three, I begin to embrace the rhythm: Rise as soon as sunlight streams in through the window I cannot open, await the 8 a.m. doorbell, pause for a moment to give the man on the other side time to move sufficiently far away, retrieve the box of food left outside, retreat, eat. Twice more in the day, we will repeat this dance.” Tan’s account of her two-week quarantine in a Singapore hotel room was full of remarkable details about a surreal experience. As a Singaporean who has experienced the pandemic in the United States, I was particularly interested in her reflections about how freedom and the role of government are interpreted in two very different countries. Singapore hasn’t managed the pandemic perfectly — The Post has covered how migrant workers were disproportionately affected — but its experience offers lessons for other nations, including this one. — Mili Mitra, global opinions editor

Graduates, ‘Don’t ever, ever let anyone tell you that you’re too angry

By Michelle Obama

(Robert Generette III for The Washington Post; based on a photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The former first lady’s message to the Class of 2020 transcended the unique position these students faced in graduating during a pandemic — they spoke to everyone who has had their foundation shaken by the loss, anger, confusion and frustration of a tumultuous year. Obama’s mentoring wisdom was something many of us needed to hear: “I hope that what you’re going through right now can be your wake-up call, that it pushes you not just to think about what kind of career you want to build, but what kind of person you want to be.” — Zainab Mudallal, assistant editor

We almost didn’t hear about Ahmaud Arbery. These stories must not go untold.

By Wes Moore

A protestor holds up a photo of Ahmaud Arbery during a march on the White House on May 29. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Ahmaud Arbery, a young Black man, was shot and killed in February after being pursued by three armed White men while out for a jog near his home. More than two months passed before arrests were made, after video of the killing was released. But how many Arberys are out there that we don’t know about? In his beautifully written op-ed, Moore struggles with this question, while also laying out the difficult and potentially lifesaving decisions he himself makes before going out for a simple run in his own neighborhood. — Nana Efua Mumford, executive assistant to the editorial board

White Americans, your lack of imagination is killing us

By Kasi Lemmons

I love Lemmons’s movies, and as the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement swept across the country, this op-ed offered a striking new way of seeing what was happening to the country. In illuminating the gap between what Black Americans have had to imagine and what White Americans have been able to ignore, Lemmons wrote a lament that was also a call to action. — Alyssa Rosenberg, culture columnist

What to rename the Army bases that honor Confederate soldiers

By Ty Seidule

Seidule, a U.S. Military Academy professor emeritus of history, nominates 11 people, representing a wide swath of our nation, to venerably replace the names of Confederates and enslavers now attached to our Army bases: a woman who served during the Revolution; a Virginian who remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War; a concentration camp survivor who went on to receive the Medal of Honor for valor during the Korean War; and a Black colonel denied promotion during World War I because President Woodrow Wilson and the War Department refused to let him command White troops. The fact — as Seidule notes — that “there are hundreds and hundreds of other worthy soldiers who could be honored” makes clear the absurdity that these posts still bear the names of traitors whose cause was human enslavement. — Chris Rukan, art director

How the media has us thinking all wrong about the coronavirus

By Emily Oster

Oster, an empiricist whose data-driven book “Cribsheet” has provided interesting reading to this new parent, points up the core bias in the media — not toward liberals or conservatives, but in determining what is news at all. In the same way outlets report extensively on a single shark attack but you won’t find the article “World marks another day with zero shark attacks,” journalists focus on the obvious carnage of covid-19 but not the extensive, but subtler, destruction wrought by shutting down schools and businesses. — Ryan Vogt, multiplatform editor

Don’t see your favorite op-ed here? Let us know your pick in the comments. And read our 2019 picks here.

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