There’s a tendency in some of the reviews of 2016 which are finding their way online to praise the year as a great one. It’s the usual form of contrariness to the oft stated maxim that 2016 has been such a terrible year, and it comes from the right of the political spectrum of course. Because it has been a good year for “right-wingers”, no doubt about it.
But of course 2016 is neither a terrible nor a great year. It is a year the memory of which is entirely dependent on the individual living it. Citizens of Aleppo, or Syria generally (other than its wretched president) haven’t had a great year. People who have suffered family or close friend bereavements haven’t had a great year. On the other hand, weddings and births will have continued to bring pleasure to many too. In a more general sense, citizens of western democracies are likely to have had a better year than the citizens of poor authoritarian countries such as Russia.
The purpose of a brief blog review therefore can’t possibly be to provide some sort of neat summary of the year. What it can do is see what the year has left us politically, and whether it provides any signs of what is to come. Which is a bad statement to make of itself since if it has done anything I guess 2016 has at least thrown up the frailty of political punditry, which has mostly been wrong even from those who may have ultimately been delighted at what has happened.
2016 hasn’t quite been the triumph of democracy that some of its enthusiastic backers are now proclaiming. Yes, the Brexit referendum encouraged lots of people to vote – a good thing – although it provided its victors with a narrow enough margin – a mere 4% of the turn-out – to maintain the divisions that the campaign itself exposed. In America, the scene of that other great democratic cataclysm, the ‘populist’ victor has turned out to be not quite so popular after all, winning his presidential election with a popular vote that trailed nearly 3 million or so behind the loser. So democracy isn’t a winner here.
A certain loser could be liberalism. Liberal nostrums have received a bashing, no doubt about it. Liberals have been damned as establishmentarian and elitist as the newly resurgent right marauds its way across the landscape. But even here the rhetoric disguises the reality. There can be few more elitist people than the billionaire victor of the American presidential election, living in his gold trimmed penthouse in New York. As if to perpetuate his elitism, his cabinet is packed with more billionaires than any cabinet in American history, his defence policy will be overseen by generals and his foreign policy by the highly elitist – and undeniably well connected – chief executive of an oil company.
In Britain, the apparently non-elitist Leave campaign was spear-headed by public schoolboys (an Old Etonian and an Old Alleynian at the two campaigns’ respective heads) and received the support of the majority of the establishment print media, edited by wealthy mandarins working for putocratic foreign-based owners for the most part. The populist leader of the right in France, meanwhile, inherited her party from her father. Elitism is very much in vogue, and it is on the “populist” right as much as anywhere.
Truth took a knocking though. The Brexit campaigners paraded promises that they forsook on the day after their victory, one of their key campaigners disparaged “experts”, while the American president-elect continues to deal in fantasy even after his victory. Facts and rational argument took back seats to fiery words, the more outrageous the better. The reward for the fantasists has been great indeed, with one of the most prominent even gaining a $250,000 book deal from a once reputable publisher.
Internationally, Russia’s leader has played a poor hand with shrewdness, bloody-mindedness and considerable success. The murderous thug who leads a regime of torture in Syria and has presided over a villainous civil war looks as if he has won through. The president of Turkey has turned himself into a virtual dictator with little consequence as yet, firming up his odd foreign alliance with that other clever dictator in Russia. The current president of America, a beacon of liberalism, leaves office with the possibility of his legacy being burned by his successor, while the Chancellor of Germany, who welcomed immigrants to her country so fulsomely, may yet be undone by the next election.
Lost of celebrities have died, but then there are lots more celebrities around. Celebrity culture took off around the 1960s, so it may not be surprising that its older personalities are starting to fall away. Its younger personalities have never been noted for lifestyles that promote longer living either. 2017 is unlikely to see much of a change from that. Meanwhile, as we mourn celebrities, unsung heroes will also pass away. Dr Donald Henderson, who eradicated smallpox, died in 2016, receiving a public encomium finally via twitter at the end of the year.
In sum, the year has been messy and provocative. As such, it stands little different from either its predecessor or, in all likelihood, its successor. The means of the mess may change, but the broad thrust of flawed humanity making its ever populous way in a world it can’t mould or understand remains similar.