Today, this blog features a retrospective in 2016 by someone who is not convinced that we have seen the worst yet. Perhaps, 2016 wasn't the nadir-year, but it sure as hell felt like it to this blogger. If this is a (fair & balanced) illustration of the importance of whose year is being gored, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
The Worst Year Ever, Until Next Year
By Jia Tolentino
TagCrowd cloud of the following piece of writing
A meme is currently circulating on Twitter in which people post two contrasting photos: one is “me at the beginning of 2016”; the other is “me at the end of 2016.” Popular entries have included a duckling holding a butter knife vs. a raven holding a serrated blade, a young Leonardo DiCaprio in “Titanic” vs. a frozen DiCaprio in “The Revenant,” and the Statue of Liberty as it stands currently vs. the decaying, beached Statue of Liberty from “Planet of the Apes.” Like all meme jokes, it stops being funny when you write it down. But you get it: the joke is that this year’s depravity has permanently embittered us. The joke is that 2016 was very, very bad.
It’s in the nature of years to feel exhausting in retrospect. The world is punishing; we have short collective memories and a cognitive bias that makes us recall bad events more vividly than good ones. The awful folkways of social media—which encourage us to call out bad things in dramatic fashion and then pretend that we’ve been helpful—have led to something of an annual conclusion. Google searches for “worst year ever” spike each December. Every year is the worst year ever, we’ve started to say.
But 2016 does seem to have earned some sort of special designation. Even before November, the year felt, to me, like a single sleepless night spent absorbing an interminable series of nightmares through my phone. There was Zika. There were terrorist attacks every few days, including the bombings in Brussels and the Bastille Day deaths in Nice. In June, fifty people were killed at a gay dance club in Orlando; in July, a single suicide bomb in Baghdad killed two hundred and ninety-two. David Bowie died, as did Prince, Muhammad Ali, Leonard Cohen. On July 5th, Alton Sterling was pinned to the ground and shot at close range by policemen in Baton Rouge; he had been selling CDs in a parking lot. On July 6th, Philando Castile was killed by police during a routine traffic stop in Minnesota; his last moments were caught on video by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who recorded Castile bleeding out as the hysterical officer berated her. On July 7th, during what had been a peaceful protest in Dallas against these unlawful police killings, five police officers were killed.
And then, of course—not that you’ve forgotten!—there was the election. The weeks since November 8th have resembled, in terms of collective psychology, the aftermath of a natural disaster—a demented, aberrant catastrophe that remains invisible to some and for others prompts nothing but glee. Hate crimes have increased; swastikas are blooming. Donald Trump’s election is a vindication of prejudice as a national foundation and a signal of severe global instability to come. The world is in poor shape to deal with a Trump Presidency. The North Pole, a week after the election, was thirty-six degrees hotter than normal. Venezuela has fallen; Turkey is a vortex of human-rights abuses; Aleppo is experiencing “a complete meltdown of humanity.” Power is accruing everywhere to the hard and heartless right
But it doesn’t mean anything to say that 2016 was the worst year ever. It’s a tic, or a token—a prayer that next year will somehow be better, which it won’t. The world remains continuous; nothing changes on any particular midnight, no matter how glitzy the countdown. John Oliver blew up a giant “2016” on his HBO show, and the gesture seems about as useful as the time he took the stage in front of a large, gilded “DRUMPF.” Presumably, the driving idea here is catharsis, but the word “worst” just invites even more depressing comparisons. Although it’s telling that we have to cite asteroids and epidemics to make recent events seem less apocalyptic, there’s no shortage of candidates for objectively worse years.
In 2013—the year of the Boston Marathon bombings and George Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict, as well as the year that was, amusingly, declared “the Internet’s worst year ever” by Salon—The Atlantic polled some experts about the matter. The worst year, one said, was sixty-five and a half million years ago, when the Chicxulub asteroid hit. Or 1520, when smallpox wracked the Americas; or 1914, when the First World War broke out; or 1918, when the end of that war was followed by the Spanish flu. Slate asked the same question this past July, and one historian suggested 72,000 BC, when a Sumatran volcano erupted with the force of 1.5 million atomic bombs. Another suggested 1348, the year the Black Death reached Europe; another suggested 1943, the deadliest year of the Holocaust; another suggested 2003, the year the United States invaded Iraq.
This year is not the worst ever. Steven Pinker has argued, in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature and elsewhere, that the world is actually growing less violent with time. What hurts so badly right now, I think, is this sense of unexpected retrenchment—the fear that decades of incremental progress will be rapidly eradicated by an empty-headed demagogue who appears to be doing everything on a whim. Perhaps 2016 feels so terrible partly because so many of us felt like we’d come so far. Two days after the election, Zadie Smith spoke to a crowd in Berlin. “If the clouds have rolled in over my fiction,” she said, “it is not because what was perfect has been proved empty, but because what was becoming possible—and is still experienced as possible by millions—is now denied as if it never did and never could exist.”
Hope is elusive, but it will return eventually. What I’m afraid of, this December, are the conditions that allow hope to take hold. I’m worried that the “worst year ever” feeling is half a condition of the Internet, of the way we experience the news as delivered through social media. Everything feels too intimate, too aggressive; the interfaces that were intended to cheerfully connect us to the world have instead spawned fear and alienation. I’m worried that this sense of relentless emotional bombardment will escalate no matter what’s in the news.
In any case, someone will tweet “worst year ever” every few minutes until 2016 is over, and then people will begin tweeting “worst year ever” as soon as 2017 begins. They will type “worst year ever” because of spilled drinks and late Ubers, a new Trump story, a new dispatch—if she miraculously manages to survive until then—from Bana Alabed, the seven-year-old girl in Aleppo who’s been tweeting, with her mother’s help, her fears of imminent death. There is no limit to the amount of misfortune a person can take in via the Internet, and there’s no easy way to properly calibrate it—no guidebook for how to expand your heart to accommodate these simultaneous scales of human experience; no way to train your heart to separate the banal from the profound. Our ability to change things is not increasing at the same rate as our ability to know about them. No, 2016 is not the worst year ever, but it’s the year I started feeling like the Internet would only ever induce the sense of powerlessness that comes when the sphere of what a person can influence remains static, while the sphere of what can influence us seems to expand without limit, allowing no respite at all. ###
[Jia Tolentino is a contributing writer for The New Yorker (online). Previously, she was the deputy editor at Jezebel and a contributing editor at the Hairpin. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Times Magazine, Grantland, the Awl, Pitchfork, The Fader, Time, and Slate. She received a BA (English, political & social thought) from the University of Virginia and an MFA (fiction) from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.]
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