Do you remember when 2016 was “the worst year ever,” and we looked forward to the possibilities offered by 2017? Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, and Carrie Fisher all died in 2016, in what seemed like quick succession. It was an incalculable loss of great artists, heroes, voices of liberation, models for how we can be better than we are. It felt like a body-blow and, as the new year began, we somehow forgot that that Donald Trump would soon be inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States – or maybe we deluded ourselves that it wouldn’t be that bad.
That is the that kind of thinking that consoles us on the morning of this new year, as we nurse our hangovers and try not to think about just how bad the next twelve months can possibly be, if we don’t do something different.
Next year is going to better, right? It has to be; that is the subtext of all of our New Year’s celebrations, the toast and kiss that ushers out the failures of the year past, tears off the last leaf of the calendar, and invites in the new year as a blameless infant full of possibility. The coming year is new, unblemished, unencumbered by the failures and horrors past. It will be better this time.
Yet, 2017 brought new horrors: catastrophes and atrocities that seemed all the worse in dark times unrelieved by the lights extinguished the year before. My New Year message on the cusp of the year just passed articulated what many of us – I would venture, all of us – were feeling after 2018 followed on 2017: “Maybe I’m a realist. Maybe I’m a pessimist. But I look forward to the coming year with great trepidation.” That sense of foreboding was warranted, it turns out; 2019 was a monstrous year.
Looking back from the perspective of the first bright morning of 2020, it is so difficult to review all that was bad about the last year, let alone recall what was good. It was a year of unrelenting, oppressive violence too frequent and pervasive to easily disentangle in discrete incidents. The genocidal orgy in the Middle East ground on. The Assad regime murdered more Syrians while Turkey, Russia, and the United States dickered over their imperialist ambitions and killed some more. More than 12,000 Yemeni civilians have died since 2016, obliterated by the Saudi bombers of “Operation Restoring Hope,” and the robotic killing machines of the United States Air Force. The Israeli bombing of Gaza, and Hamas militants’ rocket fire at Israel became so casually continuous that it is no longer possible to wonder “who shot first?” We are left only to ask how many children, mothers, fathers lie dead or dying in the rubble.
We might already have forgotten the hundreds of civilians brutally murdered Nigeria’s Kaduna State in February, or the hundreds more killed in the Sri Lanka bombings at Easter. These are just two incidents among so many around the world that have complex histories and motivations, but heart-rendingly simple results: broken bodies and bloody corpses.
In the last year, we stood as mute witnesses to massacres in Christchurch, New Zealand, Gilroy, CA, and El Paso, TX – all motivated by a bigotry. As a Jew, I have felt the walls of peril press in ever-closer, as one antisemitic slur, desecration, and violent attack follows another. 2019 was the year that I went Yom Kippur just having learned of the shooting in Halle, Germany; it was the year of the attack in Jersey City, a city I love, and the rising antisemitism through the week of Chanukah that reached a crescendo this past weekend in Monsey, NY.
The trail of so much of this inevitably leads back to Donald Trump. Perhaps he is not the cause of the hate metastasizing throughout our communities and countries, but he is certainly its festering symptom, and he legitimizes it with every word and action. This administration will remain a problem for future historians to analyze and unpack: How did such a manifest swindler, with few qualifications and so little intelligence, remain in office for three years, let alone get elected in the first place?
The abominations of this presidency piled one upon the other, from the consolidation of a racist immigration policy, to an endless march of scandals. What hopes there were that the mad king might finally be restrained were endlessly forestalled or dashed. The long-awaited Mueller Report, released in April, contained damning revelations that would have compromised any other administration, but the Special Prosecutor declined to give his conclusions the force of law, and William Barr spun them into a “nothingburger.” The year ended with an impeachment in the House of Representatives that seems destined to a quick death in the Senate.
For all of his incompetence, mendacity, and depravity, the president and his collaborators have an amazing ability to inoculate him from any consequences. His crimes are manifest yet a dependable 40 percent of American voters enthusiastically support him regardless – or perhaps because – of his assaults on democracy and common decency. To them, he can do no wrong.
All the while, the planet was on fire. This was the year that 253,214 acres of California’s forests were reduced to ash; when more than two million acres of the Amazon burned – continue to burn – while Brazil’s tinpot Trump looks on in mild amusement. These fires, caused by slash-and-burn capitalism and seemingly irreversible climate change, portend the coming environmental apocalypse. As the year ended, Australia was ablaze. Yet the images we have all seen of the flaming hellscapes driving refugees to the sanctuary of the sea now somehow seem normal.
On the first day of the new year, I find myself thinking of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, who is blown into the future by the storm of progress with his gaze turned toward the past. “Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.”
For all of our good wishes and optimistic hopes for 2020, we face the debris piling up behind us. We know nothing of the coming year, but one of the lessons of 2019 is that it will be a year of struggle, heartbreak, amd violence. A new leaf on the calendar does will not halt the momentum of history.
In 2020, we may well face the very last chance to save our planet. It could offer very last opprtunity to rescue what remains of American democracy and civil society, and chart a path toward something better. Migrant children will languish in cages; the lands of the First Nations will be despoiled by white corporate greed; thousands will die and millions be displaced in wars around the world; men of violence will come for the Jews, the Muslims, LGBTQ people, and then they will come for others; black men will be gunned down by the police.
But the other lesson of 2019 – the greater lesson – is that we can fight back. Hundreds of thousands of Americans stood up to the criminal administration in Washington this summer demanding an end to migrant detention and the American concentration camps, and the demonstrations continue. Jews, Muslims, Christians, and people of all beliefs locked arms in mutual respect, and declared that we will suffer this tide of murderous hate no longer. Greta Thuneberg and Autumn Peltier ignited a youth rebellion against the forces that are destroying our planet, and the greed and apathy that have allowed it to continue.
Then, Thuneberg sailed across the Atlantic, and stared directly in the eye of her foe and said: “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
Perhaps 2020 is the year when we begin to turn the doomed ship of our our country, indeed our planet, and 2019 hinted that it just might be possible. But if we are going to turn it around, we need to face what is coming and steel ourselves to the inevitable hardship and commit ourselves to sacrifice. We will, as one of my friends said today, fight with ferocity.
And we will heed the words of Antonio Gramsci: “I want every morning to be a new year’s for me,” he wrote in 1916. “Every day I want to reckon with myself, and every day I want to renew myself.”
Photo © Peter Parks/AFP