When news broke yesterday that John Berger, the critic and novelist, had died at age 90, it was tempting to take it as a sign that 2017 would be little more than a baleful continuation of the previous 12 months. Anyone who spent any amount of time on social media in 2016 will be familiar with the litany of bereavement that had users of Facebook and Twitter convulsing in increasingly hyperbolic agitation at the apparent indifference – not to say malevolence – of whatever universal forces were aligned against humanity. And because it was social media, the demise of figures in popular culture caused the loudest, most fervid rending of cloth.
Beginning with the death of David Bowie on January 10, the year 2016 offered up a seemingly unending parade of significant or beloved public figures who shuffled off this mortal coil. Even a partial list is undeniably dismaying: Alan Rickman; Glenn Frey; Harper Lee; George Martin; Phife Dawg; Garry Shandling; Ellen Seligman; Patty Duke; Merle Haggard; Prince; Muhammad Ali; Gordie Howe; Austin Clarke; Gene Wilder; Jon Polito; Edward Albee; W.P. Kinsella; Arnold Palmer; Leonard Cohen; Alan Thicke; Richard Adams; George Michael; Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds – daughter and mother dying one day apart. Outside the sphere of movies, music, books, and sports, politicians and journalists fared little better. Antonin Scalia, Janet Reno, Nancy Reagan, Rob Ford, and Morley Safer all died in calendar 2016. Even the redoubtable Fidel Castro, who often appeared just shy of immortal, perished during the course of the past year.
In the political realm, it felt as though violent paroxysms were assaulting us on all sides. The two most significant were of course the U.K. Brexit referendum, in June, and the shock election of Donald Trump in the U.S. But other dire forces continued to exert pressure on the global polity as well: a succession of black civilians in the U.S. killed at the hands of white police officers; ongoing protests – occasionally violent – around the controversial Dakota Access pipeline; the increasingly emboldened far right and white supremacist movements in the U.S. and parts of Europe; ongoing war in Syria and the concomitant refugee crisis; an attempted coup in Turkey and subsequent government crackdown; belligerent sabre rattling on the part of Russia and North Korea; an ascendant Beijing making provocative moves in the South China Sea; violent, state-sanctioned suppression and murder of alleged criminals and drug runners in the Philippines; a seemingly intractable roadblock to a two-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict; ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks across Europe and the Middle East.
Online it became de rigueur to blame the year itself for the turmoil, a kind of magical thinking that located a repository for our displaced anxieties and intimations of mortality in a contained, readily comprehensible place. If only we could put 2016 behind us, the implication was, we could somehow reset and start from scratch. John Oliver served up the apotheosis of this mentality on his HBO series This Week Tonight by literally blowing up an effigy of 2016 in his year-end broadcast.
Obviously, this was never the case. People won’t stop dying just because the calendar has turned, and the global geopolitical situation is poised to get more challenging in the coming year, not less. In fact, an article on the Bloomberg website argues persuasively that political risk is at its most volatile point since the Second World War and that the world is embarking on a period of “political recession.” Decades of neoliberalism and globalization have enriched a small cadre of the super-rich and impoverished pretty much everyone else; the fault lines created in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq are splitting wide open; and around the globe, authoritarian strongmen have found validation and encouragement to pursue their particular anti-democratic agendas. This is the world we have created, and there is good reason to believe that far from being the nadir, 2016 represented merely the prelude to an increasingly dark and dangerous period of human history.
However, there remains cause for optimism and hope. The first step in dealing with problems is recognizing them for what they are, and in this respect, our experience over the past year might help guide us forward. His own protestations to the contrary, Donald Trump lost the popular vote in the U.S. by a margin of 2.8 million, meaning he does not have a broad mandate to govern, and the majority of American voters rejected him. Today’s announcement that the GOP in the U.S. has decided to walk back yesterday’s in camera vote to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics comes after “hundreds of phone calls flooded lawmakers’ offices and both conservative and liberal ethics groups issued statements condemning the move,” according to The New York Times. This is a testament to the power and effectiveness of grassroots organizing and direct action, both of which will remain essential in the coming weeks and months.
Elections in France this spring will test the mettle of European attitudes toward far-right xenophobia and intolerance; Marine Le Pen’s Front National party has been bolstered by Brexit and the results in the U.S., but there is still reason to believe that they will suffer defeat at the polls in April. Germany’s Angela Merkel – who, along with Canada’s Justin Trudeau, has been identified as the beacon of hope for liberal democracy in the coming year – is up for re-election in September; Germany’s choice will have significant repercussions for European, and by extension global, stability. If the upheavals of the previous year are seen as warnings rather than aspirations, these elections might just prove the cynics wrong.
Canada, which celebrates its sesquicentennial in 2017, remains comparatively well off, though we must also resist the temptation to become complacent. Initiatives to provide reparation to our indigenous communities in the aftermath of the Truth and Reconciliation Report must continue, and it is imperative in this regard that we permit different perspectives to be recognized. Black Lives Matter and other frontline organizations working for social justice and equity need to be allowed space to make their voices heard and we must continue to remain vigilant in preventing the fearful and hate-ridden attitudes of white nationalism from gaining a toehold in our country.
The events of the previous twelve months have provided every reason to approach 2017 with foreboding. But contrary to the persistent memes and online chatter, no year is granted miraculous powers of its own; we create our own world by our actions and the ways in which we choose to react to the events unfolding around us. We can become discouraged by the circumstances of the year just past, or we can instead heed its lessons and use them to work toward a different, more enlightened future. Our collective decisions in this regard will have a large influence in determining the trajectory of the coming year.