As 2016 comes to an end, it looks like a watershed year for violence, upheaval, and loss. Even those on the winning sides of pitched political battles like the US presidential election and Brexit are ready to put the vitriol that marked so much of this year to rest.
Before we close the door on 2016, we look back at some of the powerful writing that came out of the year’s tragedies and conflicts. Here’s some of the best of the current-events writing we read on WordPress over the past 12 months.
Race Relations and #blacklivesmatter
Look for an upcoming collection of our other favorite writing of the year, as well as posts highlighting the best of the year in poetry, art, and photography.
The spotlight on race relations and police violence in the United States that intensified after the Ferguson, Missouri, demonstrations of 2014 didn’t dim in 2016. Writing on her blog Everything Is Fine Here, Maggie’s post “It’s not getting worse. It’s been there all along.” reminds us that racism, both personal and structural, is a long-term, deeply entrenched problem; the hashtag might be recent, but the severity of the violence and discrimination is not:
And that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s not our fault. We weren’t there. We didn’t make anyone pick cotton, we didn’t make Rosa sit at the back of the bus, we didn’t sic dogs on people, we weren’t holding the fire hoses, we didn’t draw neighborhood borders, we didn’t deny people mortgages based on the color of their skin, we never lynched a black man. So, I mean…it’s not our fault.
Except we’ve let it continue. Don’t give me this “everything is equal” mess. It’s not. It’s not even close.
In “For Alton. For Philando. For All.” Stacia Brown mourns two of the black men shot and killed by the police in the US in 2016 while trying to balance the reality of racism in the US with the belief that progress is possible:
We have always longed to live, and this country has long been ambivalent about that yearning. But we owe to Alton and Philando, we owe to ourselves and our children, what we have ever been owed: some semblance of life, the inordinate idea that, as long as we draw breath, that life can still improve. Against odds, in spite of history, alongside the omnipresent ache of injustice. We have always longed to live and we only can do so by reaching for one another, through melee and misty eyes, reach though our arms tremble with fear, adrenaline and rage, reach and fill the empty arcs of our own arms.
Her grief, despair, and hope meld into a steely commitment that’s as well-written as it is inspiring.
2016 also brought the unexpected losses of influential cultural figures that left many of us reeling. Carvell Wallace’s stunning tribute to Prince, “Prince Can’t Die,”shows us how, to so many, he was much more than a musician. His existence, like his one-time name, was a symbol — of possibility, of acceptance, of belonging:
To say he lives on in his music is not enough. Better to say that we live on through his music. All I know for sure is that there is a part of me that is totally unafraid to imagine and feel and make things up; a part of me that fills to the point of breaking just by the way the third note of a triplet seems to bend, causing the whole song to sigh; a part of me that cries by candlelight and makes flirty eyes with myself in the mirror. A part of me that would be afraid of what you think of me, if I weren’t too damn beautiful to care. A part of me that can never be killed, because I’m too great to ever truly die. I learned that from listening to Prince alone in my room. I learned it from holding my mother’s hand while his music vibrated through her body.
International Conflicts & Politics
The United States certainly held no monopoly on discord. As more and more people fled the ongoing violence in Syria, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders nurse Ali Criado-Perez reported from refugee camps on the Turkish border. The Ground Truth Project put faces to the news stories with a lovely but bittersweet series on Ahmed Sheikho and Mohammed Al Rashed, best friends from Aleppo who made it to Istanbul and later Germany, and tried to rebuild their lives and the Syrian sweet shop where they’d once worked.
“One of the stores was near the crossing that divided the government forces from the revolutionary fighters,” Rashed said. A main avenue in Aleppo, the street was once alive: the sound of kitchen fans hummed through open windows as women at home cooked and chattered, the scent of garlic, coriander, cinnamon and cumin wafting through the air. But after the battle for Aleppo began in 2012, the avenue became a line of demarcation. “The smell of death, the smell of sorrow, the smell of blood overwhelmed your nose,” Rashed said through a deep sigh.
In the Southern Hemisphere, life for most people in Venezuela gets harder and harder as resources become increasingly scarce. Novelist and former resident Joel Hirsh laments the nation’s gradual (and very public) deterioration in “The Suicide of Venezuela.”
To watch a country kill itself is not something that happens often. In ignorance, one presumes it would be fast and brutal and striking — like the Rwandan genocide or Vesuvius covering Pompeii. You expect to see bodies of mothers clutching protectively their young; carbonized by the force or preserved on the glossy side of pictures. But those aren’t the occasions that promote national suicide. After those events countries recover — people recover. They rebuild, they reconcile. They forgive.
No, national suicide is a much longer process — not product of any one moment. But instead one bad idea, upon another, upon another and another and another and another and the wheels that move the country began to grind slower and slower; rust covering their once shiny facades.
From central Asia, Michael Hobbes of Rottin’ in Denmark offered this essay on the nature of dictatorships, cleverly told via a series of photo captions on images he took while in Tajikistan:
“It’s easy for me to forget that power does not only rest on force, but also on lies.”
Meanwhile, the EU convulsed when a majority of voters in the United Kingdom approved Brexit. In the run-up to the vote, Brighton resident Neil Schofield reflected on the pro-Brexit economic arguments — in his view, a bill of goods.
The idea that the dismantling of workplace rights, consumer legislation, environmental standards and human rights legislation that remains at the heart of the Brexit agenda will leave the people of the Rhondda, or indeed those of London or Manchester or Glasgow, more empowered is a fiction that becomes more ludicrous every time one considers it. Strip away the sonorous rhetoric of nationhood and bogus history, and you have the neoliberal project at its purest and most explicit; the subjugation of the political, and especially democracy, to the financial interests of an unaccountable elite. Behind every populist assertion of Britishness stands a smiling Old Etonian with an offshore account.
The US Presidential Election
The UK isn’t the only country coping with the aftermath of a divisive election — fallout from the 2016 presidential race in the US continues to land daily, while the world wonders what will happen when President-Elect Donald Trump actually takes office. In Real Life, Nathan Jurgenson’s “Chaos of Facts” chronicles the campaign season and the media’s role in the rise of Donald Trump.
When politicians are concerned mainly with producing an “image” — not with what world conditions are actually there, which are heavy and can only change slowly and with great coordinated effort, but with what you see, what they want you to see, what you want to see — they are dealing with something that is light, something easily changed, manipulated, improved, something that flows from moment to moment. Trump appeared to understand intuitively the logic of lightness, that a candidate need only provide an image of a campaign.
On Shakespeare Confidential, John Kelly tries using a longer historical (and literary) lens to understand the election’s outcome — the Bard, and his understanding of human emotions and reactions:
If only they could see what they were doing, all the suffering, all the loss, all the grief, all the blood and gore would have been avoided. I would never act like that, we tell ourselves as Lear roves the heath and Macbeth talks to imaginary daggers. This is not what I would have done, we say as Leontes, foaming with self-feeding, despotic jealousy, justifies his anger.
In the mainstream media, much ink was spilled trying to understand the Rust Belt and Appalachian whites who are assumed to be Trump’s voter base. Elizabeth Catte had some choice words for much of that coverage and the stereotypes and simplifications in which it trafficked in “There is no neutral there: Appalachia as mythic Trump Country.”
For a genre of work that aims to deconstruct the political mindset of a particular kind of white voter there is surprisingly little discussion of race or whiteness-at-large among these pieces. In the “Trump Country” genre, the reader rarely hears non-white voices and is left to assume that these silences are artifact of a racially homogeneous white “mountain” society. They are not — rather, they are the product of the conscious choices of authors to exclude their perspectives. This allows writers to take advantage of another flawed assumption about Appalachia: that race relations in Appalachia are fundamentally different than in other parts of the United States due to Appalachians perceived isolation from racial and ethnic minorities.
Finally, in light of Trump’s victory and what that says about race and racism in the US, Sam Adler Bell penned his devastating piece, “The Uses of Patriotism.” Is it possible to critique white supremacy without critiquing America itself (or vice versa)?
Kneeling during the anthem conveys something more specific than opposition to racism alone. It suggests that anti-blackness is inextricably embedded in the rituals of American nationalism, that nationalism itself is synonymous with a project of racial control. Kaepernick made this most explicit in a now-deleted social media post the night before that first pre-season game in Santa Clara. Kaepernick retweeted an image juxtaposing the Confederate and the American flags captioned “The fact that you really believe that there is difference in these flags means that you’re ignoring history.”
Ironically, racists tend to appreciate this fact. They understand, if not always consciously, that whiteness and American-ness are “fiercely paired.” It’s why they adorn their movements in the stars and stripes. Why they question the patriotism of those who criticize the racial status quo. Why they believe Obama was born in Kenya, that Colin Kaepernick is a Muslim.
If there’s something contradictory about being a white supremacist and loving America, the people who chanted U-S-A while Donald Trump insulted Muslims and Mexicans haven’t gotten that memo.
2016 certainly brought many more conflicts, tragedies, and losses — unrest in Turkey, ongoing ISIS violence, David Bowie, South Korea’s political crisis, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests — so we hope you’ll use the comments to share the posts that spoke to you.