It was a shitty year. An annus horribilis if you like. 2016 started off with the death of David Bowie and got steadily worse. To make an arbitrary pick, we lost Umberto Eco, Marvin Minsky, Prince, Bob Ellis, Muhammed Ali, Bill Mollison, Fidel Castro and Leonard Cohen.
We have entered the death zone of twentieth-century achievers and must become accustomed to seeing a constant stream of checkouts. Alan Rickman, George Martin, Ronnie Corbett, Gene Wilder.
We might have expected to see Clive James, Jimmy Carter and Sean Connery go too, but thankfully they didn’t. On the other hand Henry Kissinger got through the year unscathed; even Hell baulks at opening its gates for him.
The death of famous people is a cause for melancholy, where it doesn’t engender a little schadenfreude. But 2016 was also a year of huge political upheavals and realignments.
In June Britons decided not to be part of Europe, tugging their island away from the mainland with an engine fuelled by xenophobia and supercharged by the gutter press and far-right politics. The latter even solemnised the ceremony of Brexit with the blood of murdered MP Jo Cox. The braying windbag Nigel Farage took credit for the vote and sought further fame by crossing the Atlantic to kneel before the Flim-Flam Man.
In this year we have finally understood how the lizard brains have outflanked and outmanoeuvred humanity. Rich and powerful politicians and businesspeople rail against ‘elites’ who are oppressing their freedom, white males who have never experienced racial prejudice for one second of their lives are claiming they are victims of intolerance, while tolerance itself is sneered at as ‘political correctness’ and civil rights are suddenly ‘identity politics.’
The enlightenment project begun two hundred and fifty years ago seems to have been derailed. Science is no longer shared and tested knowledge, it is just a question of opinion. Truth is not a matter of rational discovery, it is a matter of who shouts loudest. Extreme views grow within internet echo chambers and are never subject to examination. False news is manufactured to serve an agenda of hatred. The modern concept of universal human rights is withering under the attack of an ancient and fearful nationalism that cannot abide human diversity.
And the Flim-Flam Man. Who could have foreseen before this year began that they would witness a fantasy screenplay unfolding before their eyes in the most powerful nation on Earth? The show-business chancer, full of chutzpah and glibness, the snake-oil salesman, with his guile and falsehoods, the consummate liar without a shred of conscience, alternately threatening and ingratiating – the Flim-Flam Man who emerges from reality TV and finds himself spinning the biggest scam of all time, a scam so vast and unlikely that he himself can hardly believe he’s pulled it off.
Imagine, hypnotising a nation, persuading a great military power, the great military power, to open itself up to a greedy sociopath and his gang of orcs. The Flim-Flam Man himself may be in it for the money, but those around him intend to rip out the nation’s heart, its decency and what’s left of its institutional stability. Already the coming government is being stacked with Wall Street crooks, racist psychopaths, climate-change deniers, misogynist Christians, environmental vandals, homophobic bigots and other creatures that make Henry Kissinger look like Nelson Mandela.
Yes, of course it’s true that this would never have happened if the American working class had not been cheated, scorned and then ignored by the globalising corporations and their compliant political parties.
The system of tax cuts for the rich, privatisation of state services and demonisation of welfare spending, which has been embraced by most western industrial countries since Reagan and Thatcher, has concentrated wealth at the top of the social pyramid while destroying the employment and prospects of those at the bottom. In America, particularly since the crash of 2008, that destruction has begun to affect the middle class too, so there is any amount of anger and despair waiting to be harnessed by the right political operator. Just like Germany in the thirties.
This survey of 2016 must now stop before it Godwins itself. The year could hardly have been worse (we haven’t even mentioned wars and natural disasters), so by a hopeful interpretation of the law of averages, 2017 is bound to be better.