A Bad Dream for a New Year
The Dream of Reason Brings forth Monsters, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, 1799
by Jesse Miksic
It turned out 2016 was not just a “terrible year.” Like most conventional wisdom, that chestnut turned out to be bunk.
Rather, 2016 was the last year we saw traces of reality, even just in the rear-view mirror. It was the last year of Obama, our last social progress guy, our last international cooperation guy, our last respectable-conduct-in-the-public-eye guy. It was the year that saw some limited success from protest (the rerouting of the DAPL), the year that people were forthright about race and violence. It was the year that Colin Kaepernick’s displays of disobedience sparked genuine conversations. It was a year when some people could insist that certain lives mattered, and their struggles made for sympathetic news.
What we didn’t realize was that, in 2016, the rational bubbles in global politics and economics… the narratives that made sense, that gave some warmth to universalist and altruistic and aesthetic principles… those were gasping their last gasps, shivering their last shivers as they prepared to implode. We didn’t realize that from that moment onward, a sort of depraved incoherence would take permanent root in the bedrock of reality.
In 2016, something decided to change… some Rubicon was crossed, some tenuous line was finally scrubbed away. Whether rationality was the disease or the treatment, nobody could say, but that was the year when it stopped being effective.
We’d seen the signs, but we’d misread them. All the deaths… those weren’t just an incidental knot of celebrity misfortune. All those people were signifiers, signs pointing toward a rational, hopeful order, future-directed, interdependent. Muhammed Ali was the warrior of peace, Leonard Cohen was the poet of the dispossessed, David Bowie was the dream at the margins. Prince was the healing power of love and sensuality. Carrie Fisher was the empress emerging from the fire, forged and tempered by its heat. Their deaths, all falling within one anxious solar cycle, were the cries of warning from an afflicted future,
Trump, Brexit, Putin, and Assad. Those were the big geopolitical triggers that were about to set history’s course. How could you make sense of any of them? Each of them represents, in some fashion, a triumph of “reality” over intelligibility. Assad and Putin were petty, ruthless dictators, standing squarely on the wrong side of history, but suddenly in charge of the future. Whatever their moral baggage, they were vindicated by their stand against those diffuse evils that we called terrorism. Brexit and Trump, meanwhile, turned populism against liberal democracy. They signaled the reign of a new tribalism, linked appropriately to the ascendance of a new global authoritarianism.
That was 2016, and it was only the beginning.
After 2016, heroism became garbled and buggy. Was it heroic to be ascetic and non-violent? Or was it heroic to be infinitely principled and reactionary, now that principles were all being burned on the trash-fires of history? Compromise became dangerous and counterproductive, because 2016 had proven that impulse and misinformation and sabotage were more effective than forging alliances and making commitments. Nobody was willing to fight for anything anymore… we all just fought against things. So the European Union unraveled, and the American consensus unwound. Terrorists became freedom fighters, and WE became the terrorists, and we lost track of whether freedom was the shock of liberty or just the consolation of uninterrupted daily life. More fires burned in California, we made earthquakes in fracking country, hurricanes lapped at the east coast like undisciplined pets.
After 2016, those of us who weren’t cut out to be heroes just had to retreat. As the seasons became surreal, rationality lost its promise of sanctuary, and we couldn’t all be George Michaels or John Glenns. Some of us had to look closer to home for our solace… we had to step back from the grand arcs, now reduced to rubble, and just focus on the empty back-roads behind our parents’ houses. We had to salvage our tiny fetishes, our heirlooms, our kids’ homemade Christmas ornaments, our comic books and mixtapes and favorite belt buckles, and we had to save them by throwing them into the ocean, or hiding them under rocks along mountain paths. We had to scratch our first loves’ names into the basement walls of our childhood homes.
Meanwhile, America changed for the worse. Democracy spoiled into a one-party authoritarian government in perpetual war against populist discontent, defended and escalated by a reactionary anti-authoritarian militia. The rest of the world saw similar breakdowns — proxy wars over resources, economic perma-crises and crypto-insurrectionist pseudo-states — and it became bitter, and tumultuous, and bewildered and violent.
It was cowardly, these things we had to do. We couldn’t all be fighters. We sometimes just had to remind ourselves that we were here, creating little sparks of meaning in an era where meaning was collapsing.
If only 2016 had been the utmost disaster that its critics believed… if only it had been rock bottom. In 2016, we learned that the future was a stranger breed of creature than we’d ever imagined… and that it was finally time for its generosity to run out.
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