The whole world has become a bleaker place.
The historian in me is conscious that it takes time to truly judge events, developments and trends, that one should be cautious in labelling or applying large-scale significance to things – even more so in our networked world of continuous instant analysis and a plethora of post-factual multiple-choice realities.
But there is a large part of me which suspects that when, somewhere around the middle of this century, enough distance has been reached for considered reflection, historians will identify this year as a turning point. And not in a good way either.
2016, the year the old models of rationality failed? I believe this view to be eminently possible.
This is neither the time nor place to go into the whys and wherefores, to apportion blame and responsibility. Even as I write this, here in Germany people are trying to come to terms with the awful attack on the Christmas market in Berlin.
Faced with Brexit and Trump, with the horror of Aleppo and the terrorist slaughters in Brussels, Orlando and Nice (to mention just a few), with the manipulation of an inept coup attempt in Turkey to dismantle that country’s democratic infrastructure and the continuing rise of populist, revanchist, nationalist quasi-fascism in various EU countries (and you may extend this list further as you wish), can anyone deny that our world is not in a good place?
Well, of course they can, just as they can deny climate change, or that Trump lost the popular vote in the US presidential election, or that Russian troops have been substantially involved in Eastern Ukraine since 2014, or that the earth is round …
In the course of this year, Yeats’ The Second Coming (written almost a hundred years ago) has become almost a cliché, it has been quoted so often. That doesn’t make it any the less true, less prophetic.
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” who can argue with that? “The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity”: what a perfect description of the American election spectacle we have just viewed! I fear that the rough beast has successfully completed its slouch towards Bethlehem and that its birth will have bad consequences for us all.
What can I wish us all then for this Christmas and for 2017, as we approach the end of this difficult year? Hope?
Certainly hope, for without some kind of hope for the future we are nothing. But I wish us more than just Pandora’s only remaining gift. In the wake of the year we have experienced, I wish for us all, and the societies in which we live, a greater reliance on rationality.
Let us not surrender the world to those who shout most loudly and emotionally, and instead stand up for our right to have our societies and cultures managed by reason and clear arguments based on facts and logic rather than on lies and emotional manipulation.
And I wish us civility, respect, and gentleness in all our dealings rather than the boorishness, bullying and bad manners which have proved so horribly powerful in the past year.
Keep well, my friends. And even when things are at their worst, when we feel tempted to despair, let us remember the famous story of Mullah Nasrudin. Perhaps the horse will really learn to sing.