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2016 – Year of Complacency


[Thanks so much to Erik for his kind intro and the rest of you for your welcome messages. For the record: anti-ketchup, all the way. Don’t get me started on mayonnaise.]

This we know: 2016 was awful. But now that the year has turned, it’s time to start figuring out what exactly made it so awful.

My first attempt at an explanation: 2016 was a year of complacency.

Just after the longest night of 2016, Steven Pinker tried to convince us that things actually weren’t as bad as they seemed. Some of what he said is worth considering (not just because he wrote before Carrie Fisher died, which clearly brought the year down considerably further):

Look at history and data, not headlines. The world continues to improve in just about every way. Extreme poverty, child mortality, illiteracy, and global inequality are at historic lows; vaccinations, basic education, including girls, and democracy are at all-time highs.

War deaths have risen since 2011 because of the Syrian civil war, but are a fraction of the levels of the 1950s through the early 1990s, when megadeath wars and genocides raged all over the world. Colombia’s peace deal marks the end of the last war in the Western Hemisphere, and the last remnant of the Cold War. Homicide rates in the world are falling, and the rate in United States is lower than at any time between 1966 and 2009. Outside of war zones, terrorist deaths are far lower than they were in the heyday of the Weathermen, IRA, and Red Brigades.

And therein lies the problem: peace and prosperity have made us complacent (“us” here being a Western and predominantly white elite). 2016 brought some resounding rejections of things whose importance we couldn’t be bothered to remember.

For someone who spends a lot of time thinking about Europe in the twentieth century, Brexit (and other anti-EU movements in Greece, France, etc.) was baffling. The European Union has its faults, to be sure. But no matter how annoyed you are about the disappearance of incandescent light bulbs (or real issues, like a flawed asylum system), you have to admit that none of those compare to the horrors of the Second World War.

The EU was brought into being because over thirty-two million people died in Europe in WWII. Thirty-two. Million. Sure, it’s great to travel from Paris to Brussels without showing a passport or changing money, but the real benefits of the EU should still be measured in human lives. We can—and should—change imperfect systems (slow and ugly as that process can be). But blithely trashing the thing that finally broke an entire continent’s regular cycle of bloodshed makes no sense—unless we recognize that the Brexiters had forgotten too much. Genocide, atrocity, and the deep deprivations of the home front are hard to remember—harder still after decades of domestic peace.

Similar arguments can be made about other 2016 decisions. Nationalist retrenchment and anti-trade-ism take root in the comfort of taking technology for granted—of forgetting the role that globalization played in creating the smart phone from which you launch your Twitter rants. Anti-migration policies and xenophobia thrive when we lose sight of how and why people traveled in the first place (we asked them to come—sometimes we forced them). Nuclear disarmament looks like weakness only as long as you’ve forgotten the visceral fear of mutually assured destruction.

We’ve spent a lot of time post-Brexit, post-Trump victory, talking about those who have been left behind—those who haven’t shared in the benefits of the past few decades. But there aren’t enough of the left-behinds to explain the national votes in the UK and the US. Without ignoring the real pain, fear, and anger that exist, we also have to recognize that there are swathes of folks who decided that better wasn’t good enough, that turning back the clocks was the easy answer, and that unmaking the past-half-century could come without cost.

So, let’s make 2017 a year of remembering. Let’s pause, look back, and try to recall just how bad things have been. Let’s learn from the struggles and the costs of social, economic, and political progress. Let’s refuse to be complacent and realize what got us here.

In that spirit: what exactly should we keep in mind? What are the moments (or movements) we should reflect on as we face the world in the new year? What do we need to remember?

Leave your suggestions (for topics, for sources, for analyses) below.

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