2016: My annus mirabilis; Earth’s annus horribilis

A parody of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
From: www.telegraph.co.uk

A year ravaged by war, demagoguery, fear, lies, and anger which make any progressive question the basic decency of mankind? Or a brilliant year of excitement and success, albeit one in which I peaked in my excessive consumption on New Year’s Eve Eve? Perhaps some Dickens would be apt to describe 2016: “It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness”.

If the world is driven by divine providence, and 2016 was a grand experiment to simulate whether we can function alone, humanity has singularly failed. Tolerance and inclusivity seem to have been repudiated in the rise of the populist “alt-right”. This new, intangible buzzword seems to cover anything from mild irritation to vicious racism and ignorance. We have heard no end of the symptoms of an alarming new politics, yet if we look to the popularity of the National Front in France, the Law and Order party in Poland, or Frauke Petry’s AfD in Germany, 2016 appears to be merely the beginning. On 4th December, Austria narrowly avoided electing (for the second time) a neo-Nazi, Norbert Hofer, as its President. And that is just Europe.

Clearly, there are numerous omens for 2017. The “post-truth” world (another for 2016 bingo) will continue to perpetuate with the inauguration of President Trump. Merriam-Webster’s word of the year is, presciently, “surreal” - this phenomenon will forever confound historians. Us Britons will finally discover what triggering Article 50 means… or not. Probably, as Chief EU Diplomat Sir Ivan Rogers has estimated, the outcome of Brexit will remain elusive for ten years. It is testament to the inadequacy of Her Majesty’s Opposition that the Prime Minister can continue to govern, unelected, with so little substance. Jeremy Corbyn languishes in the face of rightist news sources which prioritise “fake news” over measured analysis. Meanwhile - as the recent tragedy of Aleppo has shown - a combination of Islamic State extremism and a ruthless dictator declaring war on his own people will continue to cause horrific damage to the people of Syria. In moving into Europe for refuge, they seem only to stoke nativist sentiment.

Nonetheless, I refuse to believe 2016 is the beginning of some downward spiral. Seemingly inexorable trends do not last; note in the US a wave of reformist optimism ushered in by Barack Obama’s election in 2008, yet dashed by the mid-term Tea Party reaction of 2010. The American example suggests that the current level of status quo resentment has swollen since the financial crisis of 2008; eight years later, economic recovery seems to have failed to touch working-class communities across the developed world. But when 2.9 million more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump on 8th November, it is evident that the current tide could easily shift.

That said, it is essential first for “haves” and “have-nots”, “liberals” and “conservatives”, to reformulate areas of agreement, without condescension or one side applying the brand of racism or xenophobia to the other. Career politicians have reached the stage where what they utter is a falsehood before the words are even spoken. 2016 is a warning siren to clean up their reputation. I think British MPs probably do deserve a £1000 pay rise, but do the majority of Britons have any trust in a Parliament that embodies the Establishment? Democratically-elected politicians must persuade electorates that experience breeds trust, not the rhetoric, for instance, of a reality TV star with no perception of the reality of government.

I am worried about the perceptions of my own generation in 2016, too. There is a reason why “Millennial” has become a pejorative term – disturbingly, we have obtained a “snowflake” reputation. In the face of greatly augmented obstacles for students and an exceptionally competitive employment market, this is unjustified. However, it is not helped by demonstrations of innocent entitlement and the censorship of anyone with a potentially offensive viewpoint. Don’t get me started on the NUS. Brexit is blamed on elderly citizens who, ill-informed as they may appear, consistently exercise the right to vote, unlike the 18-25 age group. We must have a second referendum, or a 2017 general election, because politicians – unbelievably – exploited the honourable intention behind the democratic system and lied to the electorate (of course I sympathise; this is an enormous issue in itself). The crux is that campaigns championed by progressive generations simply don’t feature in the mindset of those abandoned economically. They have turned away from the left because they prioritise minority interests, rightly or wrongly. I am not surprised that Sanders supporters turned to Trump.

But enough of politics; let’s talk about me. Other than failing to get a summer job and thus attracting the ire of my mother for three months, my 2016 has been endlessly enjoyable and quite successful. (If you’ve taken the time to read this, I must have done something right.) I have survived four terms at Cambridge, braved the nightclub Life at least as many times, and spent far more money than I actually have - a CamCard hides a multitude of forays to the college bar. Seriously though, I have loved the university experience. In particular, I relish the daily possibilities for spontaneous ventures, crammed into an eight-week term which actually pressurises me to do some work, too. Will I ever get this experience again with a professional career?

If 2016 has lacked geopolitical sanity, at least it has provided endless light relief in the realm of sports and entertainment. Rather than repeat my veneration of Sir Andy Murray, I’d mention the Rio Olympics, which proved again the uniting power of sport, while Team GB won a record 67 medals. Television shows like The Apprentice and The X Factor may continue to prove that contrived drama rather than talent enhances viewing figures, but Britain has produced an Oscar-winning Best Supporting Actor this year (Mark Rylance), and one of the best series I can remember with the BBC’s ‘The Night Manager’, featuring two Selwyn alumni. Continued cuts to this extraordinary broadcasting company are nothing short of a scandal, especially if it means less Clare Balding or Carol Kirkwood. But clearly, there is still reason for college and national pride, regardless of the state of the world.

2016 was a step in the wrong direction, 2017 may be another. Still, there is every reason to be optimistic; for every Marine le Pen, there’s a Justin Trudeau. For every Paul Hollywood (I always knew he would be a traitor), there’s a Mary Berry. I’m still suppressing the unfathomable reality that at least 14,000 people took it upon themselves to write in the name of a dead gorilla, the social media sensation Harambe, for US President. Still, documenting 2016 having spent the year in a perennially rewarding, privileged bubble, I can have my cake and eat it; perhaps we should spare a thought for those who can’t.