“When I was 17, it was a very good year.”
In October, scientists from Caltech announced that they had detected gravitational waves resulting from the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago. While such phenomena is predicted by the theory of relativity, it remained unobserved until just a few months ago. A small group of mammals looked upon the nature of reality itself, cataloging events that predated the existence of mammals by roughly a billion years. Not bad for a species only a few hundred years removed from the geocentric model of the universe.
Down on planet earth, things were looking up as well. Global poverty is currently at its lowest level in the history of the species, and violence of various forms, in the aggregate, is likewise in decline. The World Health Organization this past summer stopped an outbreak of the plague in Madagascar—a disease that once ravaged the wealthiest nations of the earth effectively staved off in a country with a per-capita GDP of $405 per year—and unveiled a new vaccine that may end cholera worldwide for good.
On the local front, American equity markets boomed, the unemployment rate declined to its lowest level since the Clinton administration, and the poverty rate likewise fell to its lowest point in a decade. Throw in the enhanced lifestyle wrought by improvements in the quality of technology and decreases in its cost, and there are few if any periods when it was better to be alive than 2017, and few places in which to be so other than the United States of America.
This is, of course, to take the aggregate—residents of Syria have seen easier years, as have residents of West Baltimore—but if placed behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance and asked to pick which moment I might be randomly deposited somewhere on planet earth, I would pick none prior to the present.
This, however, turns out to be a controversial opinion. Instead of these highlights, we hear endless chatter about how America is in the clutches of a venal man-child with authoritarian tendencies—never mind that he has, as of yet, done little not to be expected of a mainstream Republican (discounting all the bluster and babble). The earth is dying, or so we are told by residents of the world leader in carbon emissions reduction. Look at the wreckage of Houston, the sweaty torch-wielders of Charlottesville, the corpses in the shadow of Mandalay Bay—tragedy enveloped us these past twelve months.
Take, among the most breathless examples, the following from Jezebel: ”Shut Up Taylor Swift, Everybody Hated 2017.” Swift—who for reasons beyond my comprehension, serves as a sort of political Rorschach ink-blot onto which millennial writers continually impose their own anxieties—posted earlier this month a thank-you to her fans, explaining that “I couldn’t have asked for a better year.” Given Swift’s current popularity, and the finical rewards accruing from such, one imagines she did indeed enjoy her most recent trip around the sun. But this anodyne acknowledgement of personal good fortune enraged some. How dare a pop singer suggest she’s satisfied with her life “while the rest of us suffered nightly panic attacks.” That the posting coincided with Swift’s birthday made no difference to the author, since “on my birthday I blacked out and cried and Taylor should have, too.” It is enough to make one pause and wonder if the author is in need of professional evaluation, but the intent is to refer to an experience ostensibly universal, since “it’s hard to imagine even the happiest of life circumstances trumping the total trash storm that otherwise constituted this particular orbit around the sun.”
The only belief more destructive than that “the personal is political” is its inverse: that the political is personal—that one’s own worth and happiness follows the election returns or the news wires. Politicians thus become avatars of individual well-being, and public policy infects daily routine, whether or not the policy makes any actual difference to one’s circumstances. This superstition is not limited by ideology, but endemic to the polity. “Of course I can’t find a job, what with Obama in the White House”; or, “I cannot feel safe in a country where Donald Trump is president.”
The truth is much more mundane: very little of what happens inside the bounds of Interstate 495 matters much to the daily lives of most people. Discrete events affect discrete groups of people—say, the children of illegal immigrants who wish to remain in the country—and we should be concerned for their plight, but we do them no great justice by indulgence in hyperbole.
2017 was a year of great noise and confusion. I myself indulged from time to time in the revelry of the absurd, be it the incompetence of the current administration, or the consternation and narcissism of its critics, or any number of sundry inanities. It can be good fun at times. Yet while sardonic laughter has its place, it likewise has its limits.
If one judges a year by a survey of its worst headlines, no year will survive that standard. One hears millennials’ wistful talk of the 1990s, what with its economic dynamism and peaceful interlude between the threats of communism and jihadism— the years of Columbine, Oklahoma City, impeachment, Yugoslavian genocide, the Asian Financial crisis, the Rodney King riots, and the Battle of Mogadishu. This is not to pick on my own youth; we could take any period. The 1980s had Iran-Contra, HIV, Black Monday, and a threat of constant death so normalized it made for television entertainment. The 1970s: stagflation, oil embargoes, Watergate. The 1960s: Vietnam, more riots, assassinations . . . . Hell, the sainted 1950s, our most common candidate for lost halcyon days, was the dawning of the cold war, the era of red scares, the time when children were escorted to school by armed guard and civil rights protesters were met with dogs and fire hoses. Nostalgia is a false god.
The point is not to wallow, but to maintain perspective. There is always bad news in the world, and in the country, and to expect otherwise is to fall prey to a utopianism that will consistently disappoint. Thomas Sowell writes about what he terms the Tragic Vision—the understanding that humanity, with all its flaws and foibles, will forever fall short of our noblest intentions. Christianity validates this understanding via the doctrine of original sin, while the more materially minded among us get our confirmation from the recognition that we are but poorly evolved apes, bearing, as Darwin put it, the indelible stamp of our lowly origins. One could look upon this with despair, but the more productive route is that of Camus’ Sisyphus, who bears his boulder with a smile.
So chin up. Perhaps we live in what the apocryphal Chinese aphorist referred to as “interesting times,” but in all likelihood some young buck a few decades from now will bemoan his present moment, reflecting wistfully on how much less stressful things were when he was growing up in 2017. In the meantime, as the champagne sizzles in your glass this New Years eve, think of the scientists at Caltech parsing the shape of time itself, when their ancestors, not so very long ago, could only stare at the stars in wonder.