There are only a few hours left in 2016, and almost everybody seems relieved. The consensus view is that 2016 was a no good, rotten, horrible year.
The United States endured an angry, divisive presidential campaign, which resulted in the winner receiving almost 3 million fewer votes than the loser and enjoying lower approval ratings than just about any other president-elect in modern times. Across the ocean, the British decided to leave the European Union and, from all indications, impede their own economic prospects for decades.
Almost certainly, 2016 will be the hottest year in history, topping 2015. The horrors of Syria continued. The worst mass shooting in America’s history happened in June, five police officers who were guarding a protest in Dallas were gunned down in July, and too many other lives were cut short by opioids.
The most notable victim of the opioid epidemic was the singer Prince, who died in April. His was just one of a horde of celebrity deaths in 2016. David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Garry Shandling, Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, Florence Henderson, Alan Rickman and Alan Thicke all departed.
Yes, in many ways 2016 was a very bad year, an annus horribilis.
But before 2016 is consigned to the history books, maybe a reclamation job on the past year is in order. Or at least some perspective.
First, there are other years in relatively recent history that leap out as being pretty horrendous. Of course, there’s 1968, the year that yielded thousands of deaths in Vietnam, the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and unrest on campuses and in cities. It’s also not too likely that anyone was clicking their heels in joy at the end of 1918, 50 years before 1968. The slaughterhouse that was World War I came to an end that year, too late for the thousands of soldiers who died that year and in the four years preceding. A flu epidemic that World War I helped kickstart killed somewhere between 50 million to 100 million people around the world, and infected at least 400 million more.
There aren’t many people left who have any recollection of the 1929 stock market crash and the dawning of the Great Depression, but the deprivation and uncertainty of those days was hardly the stuff from which dreams are made. The sweep of fascism across Europe, the Holocaust, the millions of casualties generated by World War II and the creation of the first atomic weapons in the late 1930s and early 1940s generated enough terror and dislocation to feed a million nightmares.
A recent article on the Slate website looked back on some years that, by any measure, were pretty disastrous. Take 1837, for instance. The U.S. banking system was in ruins, the slave trade was in full swing and Indians were being booted off their land. But then there’s 1348 – it was the year the Black Death took hold and killed a third of the population of Europe.
Historian Peter Frankopan pointed out that thousands died as a result of the Black Death every day and dogs “tore at the bodies of the dead that lay unburied in the streets. That, I think, is what hell on Earth really looks like – and I’d rather be alive in 2016 than 1348.”
And, it should also be noted that 1977 was packed with celebrity deaths, too. Groucho Marx’s death on Aug. 19, 1977, didn’t garner nearly the attention it otherwise would have because, just three days before, Elvis Presley met his end.
While there’s plenty of reason to look to 2017 with apprehension, there is also plenty of reason to be thankful and bullish about our prospects. The world is, overall, becoming a less violent, healthier and more prosperous place.
On the last day of his life, during an interview with the RKO radio network, John Lennon mused that “we’re going into an unknown future, but we’re still all here, and while there’s life there’s hope.”
Happy New Year, everyone.