Two thousand and twelve was going to be the year when the world ended, according to some people who misinterpreted the ancient Mayas. The world was similarly going to end in 1999, according to some people who misinterpreted Nostradamus (not that you can actually interpret him properly). The same year was also going to witness the Y2K computer apocalypse and the consequent collapse of the modern society. The world didn’t end then, but now many people wish it did in 2016.
Has 2016 really been a singularly horrible year? As far as I can see it, this assessment rests largely on two facts: 1) Trump was elected the President of the United States, and 2) a seemingly unusually high number of talented and much loved celebrities passed away over the course of the year.
No one is fortunately claiming – at least not seriously – that 2016 was a particularly bad year on the account of the general amount of mortality, tragedy and suffering, for to do so would be both hysterical and ahistorical. The year was bloody indeed if you lived and died in Aleppo, but it does not compare to, for example, 1944 when large parts of Europe and Asia-Pacific were turned into charred slaughterhouses. Or 1918 when not only millions died in the trenches but tens of millions were carried off by the Spanish Flu pandemic. Or even 2004 when a quarter of a million people perished in the Asian tsunami on Boxing Day.
Indeed, in terms of natural disasters worldwide, 2016 has been a comparatively good year. In fact, according to the OFDA/CRED International Disaster Database, this year saw only half the number of natural disasters as 2015 (200 versus 394). Deaths from disasters are also well down from last year.
No statistics on casualties in conflicts are yet available for 2016, but I suspect that war deaths are not significantly better or worse than the previous few years, with the usual suspects (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya) sadly accounting for the overwhelming bulk. Economically, what I have previously called the Great Malaise continues – it is not as bad as at the height of the Great Recession but not as good as during the boom years; it’s simply wearing, in part because it’s difficult to see the light at the end of the stagnation tunnel.
In many other ways, there has actually been plenty of good – and therefore often under-noticed, under-reported and under-appreciated – news over the past twelve months, some of it listed in the article appropriately titled “99 Reasons 2016 Was a Good Year”. A lot of the items are a typical leftie feel-good drivel (and despite that the first comment under the piece reads: “really easy for a straight cis white guy to tell everyone why it was actually a good year. you don’t live in our dark reality”) but plenty of positive developments in anyone’s books there too. As someone who put together “Good news from Iraq” throughout 2004-05, I know how real and prevalent the “if it bleeds it leads” bias in the media is, quite apart from any ideological agendas that might also skew the coverage. A similar sentiment to “99 Reasons”, by the way, is expressed in this Facebook rant, which by now has been shared over 50,000 times:
How you perceived the 2016 political developments largely depends of course on your pre-existing political views. If you are an anti-establishment populist, 2016 has been a truly fantastic year, with Trump, Brexit, and nationalism on the rise across continental Europe. If you are part of “the establishment” and “the elite”, or part of the left, whether of the crazy Bernie or the corrupt Hillary variety, 2016 has on the other hand been dismal. Not surprisingly, one of the most Googled sentences in California this year has been “2016 worst year ever?” California, after all, is the state that voted so heavily for Hillary it would have given her the presidency but for the existence of the Electoral College. No wonder it now sports a growing secessionist movement.
Personally, I did not support Trump during the primaries (Marco Rubio was my sentimental favourite) or during the actual campaign – though neither did I support Hillary, finding both candidates very unappealing. But many of my friends cheered Donald on, just as many others (and most of the American centre-right pundits and commentators I follow and respect) found the whole 2016 contest bizarre, ridiculous and depressing. Now that Trump has won, I wish him – and pray for – all the best, but I would have preferred almost any other Republican in the White House come January 2017. Still, half the people disagree with me on that.
Politics aside, we also have the case of much loved celebrities dropping like flies all through the year (with three days to go, will Carrie Fisher really be the last victim of 2016?). Yes, there have been a lot of them, but have there really been more of them than in, say 2015, or more of the “better quality” celebrities?
To the first question, BBC says no; to answer the second one you will have to bear with my rather unscientific research. Below is my selection of who are think were the most remarked upon of this year’s dearly departed – and next to their names, my attempt to find a comparable death in 2015. I know that my matches will be controversial; while it is said that we are all equal in death, we are clearly not all the same:
Alan Rickman – Wes Craven
Antonin Scalia – Fred Thompson
Boutros Boutros-Ghali – Helmut Schmidt
Umberto Eco – Ruth Rendell
Harper Lee – Günter Grass
Nancy Reagan – Mario Cuomo
George Martin – James Horner
Muhammad Ali – Yogi Berra
Elie Wiesel – Oliver Sacks
Tim LaHaye – Jackie Collins
Gene Wilder – Christopher Lee
Shimon Peres – King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia
Leonard Cohen – Natalie Cole
Fidel Castro – Lee Kuan Yew
John Glenn – John Forbes Nash Jr.
Zsa Zsa Gabor – Maureen O’Hara
Richard Adams – Terry Pratchett
Carrie Fisher – Leonard Nimoy
As you can see, there are three names left off the list: David Bowie, Prince and George Michael. This year has indeed been hard on famous rock and pop musicians, and 2015’s Demis Roussos, B B King and Lemmy from Motorhead, as important and famous as they were in their own ways and genres, simply do not compare. On the other hand, 2015 has been harder on former politicians, sportspeople and prominent writers than 2016, but these are not popular culture icons, hence the popular culture doesn’t care.
Again, this is my subjective take on it – I’m happy to take your comments about those much iconic, much loved, and much mourned I have omitted from my list, though I bet I could find the 2015 “twins” for them too. So why this perception of 2016 as the decimator of the loved and the famous? Partly because we increasingly live in a media and social media echo chamber which amplifies every event – or series of events – like celebrity deaths; we are constantly bombarded by the avalanche of text, photos, gifs, videos, memes that repeat the message ad nauseam. And partly because in the world of a 24-hour news cycle we have increasingly short memories. How many of the 2015 departed did you remember without my prompting above?
In conclusion: while the politics this year seems to have been particularly messy and ugly, its outcomes have been largely unsatisfactory (read: horrifying) to those who produce the mainstream media, entertainment and popular culture, i.e. precisely those with the largest megaphones to proclaim their judgment about the year that was. And yes, three particularly well liked and respected musicians died well before their time. But all this taken together, is not, in my humble judgment, enough to condemn 2016 as annus horribilis; if not the worst ever, then perhaps the worst in a living memory. Our living memory just ain’t what it used to be, thanks to the education system and the media, which dumb down the younger generations in particular, and deny them any sense of context and perspective to make proper big picture judgments about the world.
Lastly, let me add that people can have very personal and subjective reasons for hating 2016. As Adam Smith wrote of an average man, “The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.” It’s not that we are necessarily selfish and uncaring, but it’s only natural that our own misfortune or that of our loved ones and friends will affect us and impact on us more than the death of a celebrity or violence on the other side of the world (“What’s Aleppo?”).
In that regard, I do have a bone to pick with 2016. While this cannot be measured in any satisfactory way, it does seem to me that a particularly large number of people I know and care about have had a tough time this year: for health reasons, including a very significant spike in cancers and cancer scares for people only in their 30s and 40s, in business and at work, and in personal life. I’m pretty sure that it is just a coincidence and no fault of the stars (celestial, not celebrity ones) or of a particular combination of four digits. But as many people have by now joked, I will certainly be one of those who stays awake until midnight on 31 December, not so much to welcome in 2017 but to make sure that 2016 is finally dead an buried.