Terrorism, Brexit, celebrity deaths, Zika: It was, we thought at the time, history’s nadir.
“Is 2016 the Worst Year in History?” a midsummer story on Slate.com that year asked, and surveyed historians on the question. I mean, David Bowie died. Does it get worse than that?
How naive we were. Because unless you were in fact David Bowie, it turns out that it does get worse. Much worse. No sooner had 2016 ended than in staggered 2017, muttering, “Hold my beer.”
Maniacs are gunning down ever larger crowds of people for mysterious reasons, or no reason at all. An alarming percentage of the country’s famous men are, it turns out, perverts. Freakishly powerful hurricanes are ravaging the country and the world. Donald Trump is the honest-to-God president of the United States and appears to be picking a nuclear fight with a lunatic. And there are literal Nazis marching in the streets.
Ah, to be (20)16 again.
But 2017 has been such an unrelenting calamity that it’s hard to find evidence that anybody even remembers these complaints about 2016 — complaints that started well before the presidential election, by the way. It’s as if you ate a very bad oyster, remarked upon its powerful badness, and then ate another oyster that was much worse, so much worse, in fact, that you forgot the first oyster was even bad.
That Slate story — in which the historians interviewed chose a variety of other years as history’s worst — was published in July 2016: The year hadn’t even gotten that bad yet! Brexit had been, uh, Brexited. Prince had died. David Bowie had died. And a gorilla was assassinated at a Cincinnati zoo. Beyond that, the terrible toll of violence was, sadly, reflective of much of human history.
By the time Buzzfeed weighed in (“Guys, It’s Official, 2016 Is Actually The Worst Year,” Nov. 9, 2016), it was at least a bit more clear that the bad news from 2016 would have lasting ramifications. The Syrian refugee crisis had become an unthinkable human rights catastrophe. Trump’s impending presidency was a terrifying prospect, particularly for many people who were poor and/or nonwhite. Leonard Cohen had died.
In December, when a New York Times op-ed asked the same question (“2016: Worst. Year. Ever?”), the comparisons had gotten fairly grim. In his search for years worse than 2016, the author Charles Nevin identified the Toba supereruption 75,000 years ago, the Visigoths arriving in Rome, and the biblical fall of man.
“The year Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden could not have been an easy one,” Nevin wrote. So we’ve got that going for us, I guess.
Reading these pieces today involves working yourself into an ever-more-maniacal state of laughing incredulity. That? That’s what we thought rock bottom looked like? Back then, people were posting comparison photos on social media to show how the no good, very bad year had aged them. “Me at the beginning of 2016 vs. Me at the End of 2016,” the tweets announced, above photos of “Titanic” heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio vs. “Revenant” Leonardo DiCaprio. Or how about a smiling Tiger Woods holding up a golf trophy vs. a blitzed Tiger Woods in a booking photo?
How would you even update those memes now? After Charlottesville and Las Vegas and Hurricane Irma and the president’s Twitter account and the regressive dismantling of the American tax and health care systems and one prominent man after another turning out to be terrible? The best thing that has happened this year involves Alabama only barely declining to elect a guy who may well be a child molester to the Senate.
If you were happy Tiger Woods in early 2016 and sad Tiger Woods in late 2016, you are now whatever bloody fragments were removed during his last back surgery.
Of course, these are artificial benchmarks. Nothing profound shifts when the calendar rolls over again, and the world will still be good and bad — and frustratingly indifferent to its own goodness and badness. But thanks to the Internet, we hear about the world’s many ugly bits more readily and fully than we ever have. (Oh, and we’re apparently working toward ruining the Internet, too, by the way.)
We pile every distant, terrible train derailment and wildfire and shooting rampage into our collective consciousness like sin-eaters, wolfing everything down and storing it like fat. And working off that extra emotional weight isn’t easy. Pretty soon, everything seems terrible.
But 2018 is right around the corner. It couldn’t be worse.