Friday, December 16, 2016

2016 a dystopian year

Slate magazine asked back in July whether 2016 was "the worst year in history". Given the events of history, this was rather an exaggeration. But while 2016 has not been exactly one of the best years on records, it it certainly isn't the worst either.

However, 2016 has been a year that may prove pivotal in the course of history. The UK voted to leave the EU, a complex divorce that may take years to negotiate. Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in an unexpected victory. Europe's migrant crisis grew, Pokemon Go became a sensation and Deutsche Bank faced a fine of up to $14bn. All the while, oil prices plunged and surged while the British pound tanked.

Bad years on record

For the inhabitants of London 1665 and 1666 would probably top the list of particularly bad years, what with the Black Death and the Great Fire of London. For New Yorkers, 2001 is marked as probably one of their worst days in living memory, and 2015 is probably considered to be rather dire as far as Parisians are concerned after the dreadful terror attacks that brought carnage to the streets of the French capital. The Nice terror attack in 2016 however topped that.

It is all a matter of perspective, and where you are sitting at any particular moment. Sitting thousands of kilometres away from a marked event in history might make one feel somewhat insulated. But events halfway round the world can influence and change so many things.

The Great Fire of London changed the face of Britain's capital. Residential housing reduced significantly with the rebuilding of the city. But construction techniques improved and most buildings were brick built.

While calamitous, the Great Fire of London also helped to kill off some of the black rats and fleas that carried the plague bacillus, the Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Death, and which had been known in England for centuries.

Plague had been around in England for centuries but in 1665 the so-called Great Plague hit the country – though it was Stuart London that took the worst of the plague. The plague was only finally brought under control in 1666 when the Great Fire of London burned down the areas most affected by plague – the city slums inhabited by the poor.

The plague which had spread from central Asia had itself created a series of religious, social, and economic upheavals, which in turn had profound effects on the course of European history.

The 9/11 attacks while only affecting a few cities in the US changed world politics and the social order. It precipitated war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the consequences which continue until today.

And the terror attacks across Europe throughout the following years, and culminating in the attacks in Paris and Nice has resulted in a reevaluation of how Europe controls its borders and immigration.

Political turmoil of 2016

While 2016 might not seem, on the face of it, to be the worst year in history, politically it has arguably been a game changer.

Britain's EU referendum divided a country after a little over half the voting electorate expressed a desire to leave the European Union.

Meanwhile Donald Trump's victory in the United States has been seen as a backslide towards far right politics which has also divided the country.

Meanwhile there is a growing fear that the far right across Europe will capitalise upon these events. The French far right candidate, Marine Le Pen, has seen Brexit and the Trump win as "a sign of hope" for France [CNN].

One of the country's leading philosophers says France may follow America's lead by electing National Front leader Marine Le Pen as its next president because people have lost interest in whether politicians tell the truth.

"If Trump is possible, then everything is possible," Bernard-Henri Levy, who was once hailed in France as its greatest living public intellectual, told the Telegraph. "Nothing, from now on, is unimaginable."

While the Remain camp Britain's EU referendum campaign could be accused of exaggerating the risks of leaving the EU, the Leave campaign could be rightfully accused of outright lies from promises of an extra £350 million for the NHS to untruths concerning some EU rules [bendy or bunches of bananas for example - BBC] and questions over whether Britain could still remain a member of the Single Market [BBC].

Trump, too, put forward impossible promises. Much of Trump's campaign rhetoric  might have been what people wanted to hear but it was also undeliverable. The Mexicans could never be coerced to pay for the wall Donald Trump said he would build between the two countries. His plan to bar Muslims from the US "until we know who they are" was unworkable from the outset. And already his plan to jail Hillary Clinton for her 'crimes' appear to have been shelved despite the slogan being such a crowd pleaser.

"The people listen less and less to policy and they even seem less concerned about whether the candidates are telling the truth or not," Levy reiterates. "They are more interested in the performance, in the theatrical quality of what is said than whether it is true. And as we know, a fascist can put on a very successful performance."

And it is a new rise of fascism that many people now fear.

Rise of fascism

The last wave of fascism led to probably the worst conflict the world has seen. And with the likes of Le Pen gaining ground the fear is Europe could once again tear itself apart.

In the lead up to the EU referendum former PM David Cameron said, "Can we be so sure peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt? Is that a risk worth taking [by a vote for Brexit]?" [Mirror]

It was a line of argument that afforded Cameron much criticism and ridicule. The assertion did bring some serious debate [Guardian]. But in general, Britain's decision to leave the EU as being a trigger that could set the ball rolling down a path to war was generally met with ridicule.

But with a Brexit win, a Trump presidency and questions over the future of Europe hanging in the balance, things don't seem quite to certain. There are contradictions over globalism as Britain claims it will lead the world in trade whilst Trump appears to be painting a picture of increased protectionism. A split of Europe would also bring about similar protectionist values.

These are things seen in the 1930s which also saw currencies fall and later led to conflict. Putting these risks aside however, 2016 has not been a good year on many other fronts.

Terrorism, war & natural disasters

Europe experienced terror on a scale it hadn't seen since the 1970s. In March 30 people were killed in attacks on Brussels Airport [2016 Brussels bombings-Wikipedia]. Then came the horrific murder of 86 people after a terrorist drove a truck through a crowd in Nice commemorating Bastille Day [2016 Nice Attack-Wikipedia]. The Orlando nightclub shooting in June was just one of many massacres in the United States [2016 Orlando nightclub shooting-Wikipedia].

For those living in South America the biggest threat came from the Zika virus, locust swarms which plagued Argentina, and record droughts in Brazil. Meanwhile in the Middle East the carnage continued with the death toll in the Syrian Civil War mounting day by day. There appears to be no end in sight to the conflict which has precipitated the biggest refugee crisis for more than half a century and seen more than 300,000 people killed.

Meanwhile the Islamic State inspired Boko Haram insurgency continues.

Celebrity deaths

For those of us not buried in politics and news, 2016 had many sad moments as we saw the death of people many of us had grown up with.

The year started almost as badly as it ended as it was announced that David Bowie had passed away. The pop world was shaken again after Prince died in April and in November Leonard Cohen passed away.

The world also lost sporting champion boxer Muhammad Ali died in June and the veteran actor Gene Wilder who passed away in August.

Magician Paul Daniels and comedians Ronnie Corbett, Victoria Wood and Frank Kelly also left us just when we perhaps needed a little light relief from all the troubles in the world. And Comic Relief was left without its long-time host Terry Wogan who died in January.

Not the apocalypse, quite yet

So was 2016 a bad year or not? Celebrities of course die every year, after all none of us are getting any younger. But perhaps the passing of certain icons may feel more tragic than the passing of others.

The Syrian conflict is horrific. But even since the end of World War II hardly a year has passed without there being a war or conflict. The US alone have been involved in countless military operations including the Korean War, the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, the Vietnam War, attacks in the Dominican Republic, Lebanon and Grenada, as well as the major operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq [Infoplease].  

For most Europeans and those in the free West, war has not been that close to home, although there has been a growing and ongoing terror threat from both domestic and foreign terrorist groups. As such many feel insulated from such conflicts to the extent that even politicians often appear clueless. Who could forget the response from Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor and Libertarian Party presidential nominee, when asked about the Syrian civil war. Johnson revealed a surprising lack of foreign policy knowledge when his asked "What is Aleppo?" during an MSNBC interview [NYT / MSNBC-video].

What is different about 2016 is not the number of conflicts, disasters - natural or man-made, or celebrity deaths. 2016 is marked by the swing from moderate or liberal politics to one of intolerance, xenophobia, racism, insularity and protectionism. In this regard 2016 has indeed been a bad year. What remains to be seen is whether this trend will continue into 2017 or if rational behaviour develops to turn the ship around or at least weigh anchor and take stock of the direction we have decided to sail.

tvnewswatch, London

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