Yes, I know, downer of a title. Lets start with the good news: 2016 wasnt actually as uniformly bad as some of us made it out to be. The last remaining war in the Americas finally ended. Renewable energy overtook coal. The world tiger population rose. Giant pandas are officially no longer endangered; nor are humpback whales or green sea turtles. Ebola was eradicated from West Africa. World hunger reached a 25-year low. Equally good things may happen in 2017 or they may not.
The whole 2016 hates us meme got started on 10 January, when David Bowie died aged 69. Actually, no, make that 14 January, when Alan Rickman died, also aged 69, and people found the coincidence eerie. After that, whenever somebody famous died, the word was 2016 strikes again. 69 is far too young to die nowadays, of course; a few of 2016s victims were even younger, like Prince (57) or George Michael (53) or, when people had already started to say Thank God 2016s over, Carrie Fisher (60). But far more of them were in their 80s and 90s: Gene Wilder was 83; Leonard Cohen was 82; John Glenn was 95; Zsa Zsa Gabor was an incredible 99. Im sure every one will be dearly missed by those who loved them. But theres nothing inexplicable about dying at that age. Nor did it suddenly begin in 2016. Have we all so soon forgotten Terry Pratchett, Leonard Nimoy, and Christopher Lee?
So what happened, then? I can think of a couple of entirely non-sinister possibilities. One is that theres been no increase in the frequency of celebrity deaths at all, that they just happen to have fallen into a cluster as random events do. Itll be harder to quantify than you might think, because how famous do you have to be to count as a celebrity? Who decides? I would certainly want to include the great New Zealand singer-songwriter and television presenter Marcus Turner, a man whose wide circle of friends and acquaintances I was proud and a little overawed to inhabit, who died on 2 February a couple of weeks shy of his 60th birthday. But I didnt see him on the lists of 2016 casualties I pulled up from Google to write the previous paragraph.
Given the reputation 2016 now suffers, the temptation will be to count people as celebrities who happened to die in 2016, who we wouldnt have considered celebrities if they were still alive or if they had died in some earlier year. So there may be nothing in it at all. If, on the other hand, there really have been more of them dying lately, the other possibility is that theyre all getting old. The Baby Boomers who embodied the radical cultural shift of the 1960s were in their teens; the rock- and pop-stars who led it were in their 20s. Never trust anyone over thirty, remember? The Boomers themselves in their turn contributed to the wave of new stars as the 60s gave way to the 70s, which must have further swelled the number of stars merely because there were so many Boomers.
Its now the 2010s; the 60s happened fifty years ago. Plausibly, what were now seeing is that cohort of stars approaching their average life expectancy. (Perhaps Im over-fond of bitter irony, but I cant help smiling just a little at the thought that the Boomer cult of youth might have given direct rise to societys new-found consciousness of mortality.) If thats the case, then the frequency of celebrity deaths will certainly continue to rise over the next few years before levelling off at a new, higher norm. Get used to it.
The other shock 2016 brought, in two goes the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump is far more ominous. The soupçon of schadenfreude I confess I feel to think of the complacency of the neoliberals immediately beforehand dissipates when I remember that the Left was also completely unprepared for what should have been our fight to win. Were supposed to have the solutions to inequality, poverty, and corporate dominance, arent we? How did the fascists convince so many voters that bigotry was the answer? Important as these questions are, right now we need to contain the consequences. And whether or not my predictions turn out right in detail, its safe to say that those consequences are going to be negative.
If theres a sliver of good news, current indications are that I overestimated Donald Trumps intelligence considerably when I made those predictions. Impeachment might be an easy road after all. The cloud to that silver lining? Farewell, President Donald Trump hello, President Mike Pence.