With the passing of Carrie Fisher — one more blow to our collective psyche — it is easy to think 2016 has been the worst year ever. Not by a long shot.
Consider just a few awful years:
- 1347: The Black Death, which would claim about 50 million lives in the next few years, begins.
- 1814: The British burn Washington.
- 1861: An early defeat for the Union at Bull Run signals that there would be no quick end to the Civil War.
- 1918: The slaughter in Europe continues in the form of trench warfare, punctuated by use of chemical weapons. Meanwhile, the flu epidemic, which would eventually kill 675,000 Americans (roughly the same as the Civil War) and infect about one-third of the world’s population, breaks out.
- 1929: The stock market crashes, and we are sent spiraling into the Great Depression that will not fully abate until the ramp-up to World War II (which will kill more than 60 million people).
- 1941: Speaking of world war, Germany bombs Britain and invades Russia; Hitler begins mass extermination of Jews, the disabled and other “undesirables” — and then the United States is attacked at Pearl Harbor.
- 1968: Assassins kill Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Riots rage across the United States. North Korea seizes the American surveillance ship USS Pueblo. The Tet Offensive begins.
- 1973: America signs an agreement to leave Vietnam (in defeat). The Watergate scandal is in full swing. Vice President Spiro Agnew is forced to resign. Israel is attacked in the Yom Kippur War and teeters on the brink of destruction. OPEC retaliates with the oil embargo, sending gas prices soaring.
We’ve had years (1941, 2001) in which the homeland was attacked. We have experienced years in which the president was assassinated (1865, 1881, 1901, 1963). We’ve lived through years of Jim Crow, the AIDS pandemic and economic recession.
So, do you feel better about 2016? In all seriousness, some cultural icons did pass away, but there is no world war or untreatable epidemic threatening one-third of the planet. We held a peaceful election in which there was virtually no inkling of fraud. A peaceful transition is underway to a president of a different party. Unemployment is at 4.6 percent, wages are slowly rising and we are growing, albeit sluggishly.
Part of the collective shudder we are experiencing is the fear of the unknown — 2017:
- Will Donald Trump be a madman, setting off wars and eviscerating American institutions, making bargains with the Russian devil at the expense of allies? (Maybe he will be not as horrible as we anticipate and/or Congress will be more resolute than it now appears in checking him.)
- Will the Islamic State be eradicated, or will the war drag on? (A final push to free major cities in Iraq does seem within grasp.) Will the Syrian bloodbath, President Obama’s moral stain, ever end?
- Will right-wing governments take hold in Europe, tearing at the fabric of Western democracy and Europe’s alliance with the United States? Perhaps Europeans will take a deep breath, realize the consequences of descent into nationalistic, nativist politics and correct course.
You are thinking, “So things could get a lot worse?!” That’s about right. But those stunned and dismayed by Trump’s election, Russia’s mendacity, Republicans’ spinelessness, Trumpkins’ (some, certainly not all) overt racism and anti-Semitism, and Democrats’ disarray should remember that we remain in control of our own destiny. We have agency. Americans can protest, organize, vote, petition their government, contribute in the private sector, educate our fellow citizens and work for causes and candidates at the local and state level.
To be sure, 2016 was pretty rotten, but by no means the worst year in history, not even recent U.S. history. Surely we can individually and collectively strive to make 2017 as painless as possible, no?