It’s hard to say what the worst year of all time was. It’s grimly easy to joke about it being 1989, when the fall of the Berlin Wall set in motion a chain of events that sent the U.S. into a tailspin of hubris and self-immolation — and “Don’t Worry Be Happy” won Grammys for Best Song and Best Record of the Year. Then again, 1347 was when the Bubonic plague hit Europe hardest, cutting the population nearly in half, and that was definitely much worse.
Although 1929 (stock market crash) and 1933 (nadir of the Great Depression, Hitler) give it a run for its money, I’m going to go with 1939, because that was the beginning of the most recent war among the Great Powers. It’s beginning to feel like we’re rapidly heading toward a showdown, with the U.S., Russia, and Israel pitted against an ascendant China and the fraying E.U. playing the same crypto-neutral “hey-let’s-don’t-maybe” role it played in 2003. (Unless, that is, its member states start electing populist, illiberal governments of their own.) The E.U. is — was? — a noble experiment, but NATO was always the true military alliance, and its resilience seems about to be tested as its members take opposing sides. Impossible to say for sure in the aftermath, but the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey feels very 1914, at least. (Then again, maybe not?)
There were things that, in a more normal year, would have reverberated across the news for months at a time. The Texas law mandating funeral rites for aborted and miscarried(!) fetuses, for example. Or what Newt Gingrich said about violent crime, how the feeling that it’s going up is more important than statistics that is isn’t.
So what makes 2016 so uniquely terrible? Apart from Trump and Trumpism and the death of David Bowie and facts and Arctic sea ice, is it the gnawing sense that this is the beginning of the end? Are we feeling a bend in the curve, a shift in the underlying calculus of human history — which was rumored to have ended, in the Marxist sense, with the triumph of liberal democracy? (That was from an essay by the neocon Francis Fukuyama, also written in 1989.)
— christhebarker (@christhebarker) December 27, 2016
Other than flipping through back issues of SF Weekly whose mastheads list unimaginable luxuries like a clubs editor and an assistant calendar editor, what feels quaintest to me now about the Before Times are the predictions that the internet would become a digital commons. It was only 20 years ago that academics speculated that we would get a new form of direct “e-democracy,” from the nascent World Wide Web, on that would hold legislators to unforeseen standards of transparency and accountability and turn every jurisdiction into an eighteenth-century New England township (with universal suffrage, that is).
It was incredibly, almost pathetically, naive. But the enemy — if you’ll pardon the war analogy — isn’t Donald Trump or fake news or even white supremacy. They’re all horrible, but they weren’t the underlying corruptive force. The internet itself was. Its powers of democratization have allowed dual realities for awhile now, and I stupidly thought that eventually, we’d reach a point where the one not rooted in empiricism would have to give. (Or, as Barack Obama put it, the Republican fever would break, and the GOP would go back to being a normal, right-of-center party.)
But it turned out to be the reverse. Look at FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver’s data-driven nerd paradise, which correctly called every state in 2008 and branched out into sports and social analysis. Throughout the entire 2016 presidential campaign, what educated liberal didn’t compulsively refresh the “Now-cast” to a psychologically unhealthy degree, hoping for the shiniest spin on Hillary’s chances even though FiveThirtyEight’s repeatedly all but disavowed it as a methodology? (I did, I admit it.) And FiveThirtyEight called the election just as wrongly as everybody else — except for Michael Moore, who won himself zero credibility from the pundit class.
For me, the worst, most existentially soul-crushing revelation after the election was that FiveThirtyEight was just entertainment all along. It was always already part of the Spectacle — just like Fox News, just like Addicting Info, just like NASCAR and A Prairie Home Companion and Kashi Good Friends and 30 Rock and every other facet of a society driven into two opposing tribes through the churn of globalized capital. FiveThirtyEight was marketed as more intellectually nutritious than other sites — and how many people spent how many collective millions of hours convinced that they were rising above the noise? All that while, you were advertised at and marketed to, and had your perception of the world subtly shaped by the implied sense of superiority you got from not watching Don Lemon or Sean Hannity instead.
Whether Nate Silver et al. redeem themselves with brilliant analyses of other topics or gradually fade away between now and 2020, reading it will always and forever be a marker of one’s affiliation with the liberal tribe. And effectively, affiliating with “the truth” — which is to say, empirical, scientifically reached conclusions, supported by reason — will now always be the proof of liberals’ elitism, the cause of our stupefied misery, and the cause of our alienation from the people we profess to know and love. Meanwhile, a billionaire and consummate insider can run for president as a credible outsider, win, appoint a cabal of plutocrats, and retain the people’s affection while rewriting history.
It’s because of the internet.
I know I’m a huge hypocrite — an addict, too. I write for the internet; it is the source of my income and a great deal of my self-worth; I divide my time every day among several screens; I can’t escape them all for more than a few hours. Even when I drove through a place as remote as eastern Oregon on a road trip this spring, I scanned the landscape with eyeballs trained by Instagram to capture, that I may later bathe in the warm goo of likes. But the internet is the root of it all.
The scariest thing about 2016 is the dread that this is could be a transitional year, only a taste of the neo-fascist future to come. Gaming out the consequences of a four-year Trump presidency, it feels like half of the medium-term scenarios lead to a thermonuclear exchange, and every long-term scenario points to mass extinction on a boiling planet. The Year of the Monkey was ghastly, and while normally I’d be saying “Bring on the Year of the Cock!,” I’m not so sure this time. For all the talk of a demographically guaranteed progressive utopia that always seems to be one election away, from this vantage point, it seems like the Obama years were the aberration. It’s easy to say that America went crazy in 2016, but it might be more accurate to say it acquired a personality disorder, one that resists diagnosis, will be almost impossible to treat, and in the absence of any checks, will only deepen. What will happen after another significant terrorist attack, or another serious recession? People who flipped out in 2016 will not behave any more rationally then. The tribalism and the fear won’t go away. Donald Trump could be a hugely popular president.
Seven weeks after Nov. 8, I still wake up in the night thinking about all this, and I know I’m not alone. How the hell do we fix something enormous that’s almost certainly going to get much worse, perhaps inescapably so, before it gets better? The answer isn’t a redoubling of rational argument in the hopes that we may persuade a few thousand white people in the Rust Belt and/or flip Arizona and Georgia in 2020. And it’s definitely not the online liberal firing squad, zapping everybody for the tiniest deviations from orthodoxy and demanding that everybody refrain from posting anything fun on Facebook ever again.
To hell with that shit. It only leads to despair. The answer is hedonism and joy, helping other people experience as much pleasure and happiness and camaraderie as we can. Just as Charlie Hebdo responded to the 2015 Paris attacks with a defiant, “They have weapons. We have Champagne,” two of 2016’s saddest casualties offered the best answers to the mounting angst.
George Michael’s T-shirt said to Choose Life, in all its glorious, impure mess.
And Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton, after running through the three most poignant stanzas of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” did one better: “I’m not giving up, and neither should you.”
Me neither. Happy New Year.