Was 2016 the climax of this horror story, or just the prologue?
Photo via Wikimedia Commons user Anthony Quintano
Welcome to "How Scared Should I Be?" the column that quantifies the scariness of everything under the sun, and teaches you how to allocate that most precious of natural resources: your fear.
A lot of stuff happened in 2016 to make people feel shocked, frustrated, and generally sad: The early deaths of celebrities like David Bowie and Prince, the horror show of American politics in action, the much more horrific horror show of global politics in action, a Star Wars that was just OK, an intractable humanitarian disaster in Syria that just won't seem to end, and more. So we at VICE, as well as a lot of other publications, coped by personifying the year as a nasty villain we could hate. It's handy when your villain is a year, because years have short lifespans—rarely more than 365 days. But right as a year dies, a new year tags in, and we all have to hope it will be friendlier.
So here comes 2017, a fresh year waiting to announce its alignment. Will it be a plucky underdog hero like Jyn Erso, a Walter White-style antihero, or another all-out Voldermort?
I'll start with some very bad news: in 2017 the number of celebrity deaths might be just as high as—if not higher than—it was in 2016.
No, there's not some kind of antibiotic-resistant form of bacteria affecting only celebrities. But according to the organizations that most closely study celebrities—British broadsheets and tabloids—there are only a handful of ways to explain the spike in celebrity mortality. It could have been a statistically inevitable clumping of individual random events, or it may be that there are just more aging celebrities than there used to be, and more celebrities in general for the Grim Reaper to cull from.
For now this is just a hypothesis, (How the hell do you measure it?) but it makes sense when you consider how many new ways there are to be famous. Christina Grimmie, a singer who died in 2016 largely rose to fame as a YouTuber. So when you consider that the movie, TV and music stars of yore are all still vulnerable alongside an ever-expanding crop of celebrities from podcasting, YouTube, and Twitch, it's safe to say celebrity obituaries will continue to be a booming industry in 2017.
But while celebrity deaths are a bummer, they're not consequential in the same way as politics. I turned to historians to figure out how we should feel about a year in which Donald Trump—a temperamental and chronically dishonest billionaire who preaches authoritarianism, and has nationalistic fans—will assume the most powerful office in the world, while his political party controls all three branches of the federal government.
"We should be absolutely terrified in 2017—perhaps more than at any other point in the 20th century," said Robin Kelley, historian of social movements in the US at the University of California Los Angeles. Conservative agendas in the past, he explained, have been kept in check by "countervailing forces pushing, for example, to extend the welfare state and implement some elements of social democracy." He pointed to expansions of welfare that happened under Eisenhower even though he was a Republican as an example. Today, Kelley pointed out, movements toward social justice "have all been vilified by a white majority and even some so-called liberals as the problem."
Kelley wasn't the only historian who seemed seriously rattled by the rise of Trump. In fact, every historian I contacted was deeply concerned about Trump's potential to make 2017 suck for Americans. The uniform intensity of their fear surprised me.
"The short answer is we should be very scared," according to historian and Barnard College history professor Premilla Nadasen.
Nadasen, whose focus is on issues affecting domestic workers, particularly women and minorities, pointed to the rise of the alt-right as a potential source of horror in the coming year. She acknowledged that individual alt-rightsters are often just internet trolls—something alt-right founder Richard Spencer has acknowledged—but Nadasen worries that "they still preach hatred and, in some cases, genocide."
Miguel Abram La Serna, associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill said something similar. 2017 could be the year America turns to "a culture of bigotry, and I think once that Pandoras Box is open, it's really difficult to close," he told me. "As historians who have seen and studied these things before," he explained, "we can see the cycles of history swinging back toward hyper-nationalism and anxiety about the other."
Graphs courtesy of Steven Pinker
But media commentator and author Dan Gardner pushed back against this a bit. Gardner is the author of Future Babble: Why Pundits Are Hedgehogs and Foxes Know Best a book about why we should be skeptical of people who predict stuff. "At every moment people feel like this is bigger and scarier than ever before," he told me, but he added that such a perception is nothing but "an optical illusion," caused by a phenomenon known as hindsight bias—a tendency to see the problems of the present in contrast to a perfect past that was never real. Most people forget on any given day that they "should be very very thankful for their good fortune," according to Gardner.
When I ran my question past cognitive scientist and psychologist Steven Pinker, he expressed a sentiment similar to Gardner's, telling me by email "I'll send you some graphs that might calm you down." To a large extent, his graphs (above) worked as advertised. One showed an astonishing turn toward relative global peace within my lifetime, with a small recent surge in war deaths caused by the Syrian Civil War. Another showed that democracy is kicking autocracy's ass.
But another of Pinker's graphs (above) made me feel less calm. Yes, terrorism outside of the Middle East seems to be trending downward generally, and as I've written before, dying in a terror attack is vanishingly rare despite a small recent spike in US terror deaths (and a big spike in Western Europe). But the graph also confirms that rates of terrorism are erratic, and can shoot up seemingly overnight, and when terrorism shoots up overnight, that means more than injury and death for those unlucky enough to be involved. It also means panic in the streets, and politicians on TV demanding bloody revenge.
In short, if the trend toward more terrorism continues, even if you're one of the lucky majority who aren't injured or killed, the consequences could—to say the very least—make 2017 really suck.
That may be one reason why Gardner told me that even though his job is usually to tell people everything is almost completely OK, the coming year is looking uniquely scary. "It is an unusually uncertain and scary time," he told me. But he immediately added, "That does not change the fundamental fact that we are the healthiest and longest-lived people who have ever existed, even though Donald Trump is about to become president."
Final Verdict: How Scared Should I Be of 2017?
3/5: Sweating it
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