What Kind of Year Has This Been?
It would be hyperbole to call this the worst year on record, and it is worth remembering that, for most of us in this country, our worst years are better than millions of others’ best. However, it would be short sighted to not admit that this was not an ordinary year, and this is not an ordinary time. People will study this year for generations. This year, more than bringing forth new challenges, revealed deeper troubles in our country, troubles that will be difficult to overcome.
With two months having passed since the election, it cannot be understated how abnormal and, in my view, troubling the events of this election year have been. I need not repeat everything I have found distressing over this last year. It would be incorrect to regard last year’s events as a more dismal “politics as usual.” Something truly historic happened, and in my view was a dangerous break from our political traditions, that was most distressing for what it revealed about us rather than what it revealed about our candidates.
Some, in seeking to reconcile themselves with the events of this year, have tried to turn the election into something that was an inevitable, perhaps even welcomed, new chapter of our history. I have read many articles reminding us that the election of Trump, while shocking, is understandable given the legitimate anxieties of working class whites. However, I cannot help but wonder what would happen if black Americans, who are severely more economically depressed than whites, dealt with their challenges by electing a black man who appointed black power figures to his administration, called for a registry for whites in order to vet them to ensure they’re safe, and who said “whites bring crime, they’re rapists, though some I assume are good people.” I suspect that candidate would not get far, given it is already controversial to even say that black lives matter.
This year did not play host to a debate over policy, or a clash over ideology, there was a moral element to this. Fundamentally, this election was a referendum on what it means to be an American: why does this country exist, why is this country great, and who does this country belong to. The two different answers to that reveal two Americas that seem vastly, perhaps irreconcilably, different. This difference comes not just from differing views on issues, but a differing view of history and reality. There used to be a time where we agreed on what ailed our nation, but we disagreed on how to solve those problems. Now, we do not even agree on what the problems are. There is a new sort of relativism that governs our debates. Climate change and crime rates are matters of opinion. With a President-elect who entered politics by peddling conspiracy theories, “fake news” has become mainstream. No longer do we all receive the same news and facts from a few newspapers or channels. Instead, we can retreat into our insular communities, where we read only what our friends share on social media, confirming our biases, and giving an article written by a conspiracy theorist the same platform as one written by a Nobel Laureate.
It wasn’t just the election that made this a distressing year. The refugee crisis, and the images of the genocide that strangled the streets of Aleppo, reminded us that our inaction and indifference is just as much a choice as action. The global retreat from one another, and surrender of reason to fear, with elections like Brexit, and the rise of authoritarian, nativist nationalism, should give anyone pause who can recall the politics that nearly destroyed Europe in the 1930s. Bombings in Nice and Brussels alerted us that the sort of violence we comfortably cordon off to distant and more troubled portions of the globe can occur much closer to home. In June, just a year after love finally won in our courts, a gunman in an Orlando nightclub shattered our naive but blissful assurances of peace. We lost fifty futures that night, and fifty people who were loved and needed. The fabric of our community, for both those who were gay and those who are straight, wore a little more thin. When this sort of violence is present, mindless but with definitive, destructive design and purpose, our whole nation is degraded.
In the midst of the tumult of this year, we lost the celebrities who gave us comfort, laughs, wisdom and hope. We lost those who we needed to raise our spirits after Orlando: musicians who brought forth love, like Prince, Cohen, and Bowie. Actors who moved us to feel deeply, like Rickman, Reynolds or Fisher. Those who made us laugh, like Wilder. We lost those who could give us hope during the most dismal of politics: athletes who gave us new measures of what was possible, like Ali, and pioneers like John Glenn, who reminded us that with hope and daring, we can even slip the surly bonds of this earth. We lost those who made us think, and those who gave us the courage to challenge our own prejudices, like Adams and Harper Lee. We lost giants in a year when we felt most scared and small.
If I could describe what I have been feeling in the last year, it is that I feel like I am living in history, but not a good chapter. This is no ordinary time. We are torn, not by two differing ideologies, but two different conceptions of what America is. On Election Night I saw weeping faces and heard choked voices of friends of mine, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community, who wondered if their country still had a place for them. I walked by Trump Tower that night, to see a sea of cheering faces, most of them male and white, but most believing with sincerity that their country had been saved. The young people I meet at Ivy league campuses, cadets I met at a conference at West Point and conservative students at my own college seem to engage with different realities. At my work, I receive phone calls from people around the country voicing their complaints on politics, and many of them seem to have different understandings of what our history even is, and who we even are. Conversations with family and friends over the holidays make me wonder how deep this gulf is and how difficult it is to cross. Facts are now opinions. We are retreating behind walls and closing ranks with those like us. Americans view each other with mistrust. Character of public officials no longer counts. Conspiracies have become mainstream. Aged prejudices have resurfaced. Misogyny, thin skinned bluster and crude bravado have been confused with rugged masculinity. Sexual assault has been reduced to “locker room talk.” Nationalism and even neo-nazism have reared their ugly heads. Violence tears at the fabric of our communities. The unconscionable has become conscionable. Up is down, and the bottom has fallen out. I’m reminded of William Butler Yeats’ words:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
That is what kind of year this has been. Anarchy. Not just anarchy of the political and social orders. Moral anarchy, the kind that makes us question if our fellow citizens have the same understandings of right and wrong. It is not the anarchy that yields protests or begets violence that is most disturbing, but rather it is the anarchy of thought and conviction that denies understanding why protests occur, cannot agree on who or what is to blame for violence, and that retreats into a comfortable and bitter isolation that is most distressing. Some people, such as those among the historically disadvantaged in our nation, such as African-Americans, or Native-Americans, may remark that, in some respects, none of these feelings of alienation in one’s own land is new. It is worth remembering that.
These are difficult times for our country, but I think that things can get better. We can ill afford apathy, nor can we afford an accommodating spirit that sanctions recent events as normal or acceptable, or that tells us to be silent in calling out what is wrong. However, I am convinced that we cannot afford the burden of hate. We must be filled with hope. I am not speaking of an idle optimism, or a fleeting fantasy. When I speak of hope, I mean believing that things can always be better and recognizing that we all have a moral obligation to work hard to make that so. We must work first by trying to heal our nation’s wounds. We heal these wounds, not by pretending our problems do not exist, nor by seeking to honor ourselves by finding blame in others, but instead by determining what these wounds are, and working with earnestness to stop the bleeding. We can only do this with good faith, and with a willingness to recognize the humanity in one another, and discover all that we share. Only then will our problems be less daunting.
In the end, the fear a police officer feels while on patrol is not too different from the fear a young black man may feel when confronted by an officer with a gun. The love a gay couple in Brooklyn shares is not dissimilar to the love between a straight couple in Alabama. The love of country felt by a Texan who wants to build a wall around America is not that far from the love of country an immigrant feels that drives them to risk their life to come and live in America. The fear of terror that a white person feels when they see a Muslim refugee is much like the fear of terror felt by that Muslim that made them a refugee. Imagine the heartbreak of losing a child, so you can know a bit better what it feels like to lose your child to gun violence, whether it be the work of a gang, a gunman, or even a police officer. Imagine what your Christmas would have been like if you were unemployed, and you may know the tip of the frustrations of the displaced, industrial working class. Imagine never having the money to ever celebrate Christmas, and with every holiday as a reminder of loved ones taken from you too soon that year, and you have a glimpse of what life is like for many on the Southside of Chicago, in the delta of Mississippi, in forgotten corners of Detroit, and on the desolate prairies of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
This is not to say that all people’s opinions are right in their own way, but rather that all people, even those who are wrong, are people, and that we owe it to them to find the good in them, to seek their better angels, to not give up on them, and to find grace and understanding in us. We should treat those we disagree with like family we disagree with; wrong, but never irredeemable. It is up to us to tap into what Marilynne Robinson called “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.”
Surely then, with that reservoir of goodness, surely then with that active hope, we can make 2017 better than 2016. Our lives are far too short, and the work to be done too great, to be stagnant in hate and distrust, rather than to move with hope. Next year, we are all going to have to do a lot better, but I think we are up for that task. I am reminded of another giant we lost this year, Donald Henderson. Few people know his name, but millions live because of his work. In 1967, he said he’s eradicate smallpox, a disease that killed 500 million people in the 20th Century, and untold hundreds of millions more in the centuries before that. Ten years later, smallpox was gone. It’s miraculous. The eradication of smallpox has been called the single greatest humanitarian achievement known to man, accomplished by someone who so few of us know, we didn’t even realize we lost him this year. Never underestimate your ability to make gentler and nobler the life of this world. Not with a world that can make someone like Donald Henderson. Not after doctors have just created a vaccine for Ebola this month. Not after peacemakers ended decades of war in Colombia this year. Not after NASA’s confirmation of the discovery of water on Mars, reminding us that we always can redefine the limits of what is possible. Not as long as we live in a world that painfully calls for change. The future is still our story to write.
That is where I am at the end of 2016. Troubled, but hopeful, more acutely aware of the challenges we face, and more convinced of our capacity to meet them. I hope we will learn from this year, that we can learn from how deep we can go. I remember Dr. King’s words the night before he died, that “only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.” As I look on the final night of this year, with darkness blanketing everything below me, I have no choice but to look up. When I do, I still can’t help but be awed by the stars.