The world in 2016
‘Demons of which ye know not . . .’
It seems the world is spinning faster. In 2016, decades of history were compressed into weeks, months into days. It was as if there was some cosmic foot on the accelerator.
In fact, the world is slowing down. Scientists reported this month that records of lunar and solar eclipses carved in clay tablets and written into dynastic histories show the speed at which Earth spins has slowed 1.8 milliseconds per day; in 2½ millenniums the deceleration adds up to a time discrepancy of seven hours. But, as Einstein suggests, as we slow down, time speeds up.
Not history, of course, except infinitesimally. If we see history accelerating, it is a construct of our minds, a response perhaps to our bewilderment, an inability to comprehend the arrival of what Indian writer Pankaj Mishra has called the age of anger. “What used to be called ‘Muslim rage’, and identified with mobs of brown-skinned men with bushy beards, is suddenly manifest globally, among saffron-robed Buddhist ethnic-cleansers in Myanmar, as well as blond white nationalists in Germany. ”
And it was also manifest in June’s Brexit vote. Asked in 2015 whether he could see a case against the referendum he had promised, British prime minister David Cameron suggested all too prophetically, not only of Britain and Europe but of the forces that would elect Donald Trump: “You could unleash demons of which ye know not”.
‘Nigel Farage’s vision’
In the latter respect, he was right. And we too will bear the burden for a very long time.
Trump was, as one commentator put it, “the biggest political earthquake of our times”, but not the epicentre of this and related tectonic political movements. More a symptom.
But what is striking about 2016 is the extent to which such events are interlinked, tied together, history marching in step across the world. Most of them are expressions of a spreading, universalised sense of what Mishra calls “ressentiment”. There has also been an angry determination to kick back, however irrationally, against “the system” and the elites who run it.
We are struggling, as we throw up our hands in despair, to understand the faultlines in our global society in this post-truth age, the causes of the irresistible, onward, march of populism, the rise of the left-behinds, nationalism and Islamophobia, and their creature, the rise and consolidation of strongman autocrats: Trump in November to the most important post in the world; a reinvigorated, confident Putin a sweeping parliamentary win in September; Erdogan asserting his power by using his response to an half-hearted coup in July to sack and arrest many thousands; in May the election in the Philippines of grotesque Trump caricature Rodrigo Duterte (“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” Donald Trump boasted. Duterte has boasted that he has done precisely that. And continues to do so.)
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The year did see important setbacks for Islamic State, with the recapture of Fallujah. But there was a heavy price that will continue to be paid: in response to the reality of ground lost in both countries, IS has used its foreign fighters to sharply step up its war on their home countries attacks in Burkina Faso, Turkey, Pakistan, the US, Belgium, Egypt, France, Germany …
And the wars continue to drive the desperate migration trail. A record 5,000 migrants are believed to have drowned in the Mediterranean this year, following two shipwrecks last week. Some 358,403 migrants and refugees are estimated to have entered Europe by sea in 2016 up to and including December 21st.
To return briefly, however, to Albert Einstein. One hundred years after he predicted the existence of gravitational waves, scientists in February finally announce they had spotted these elusive ripples in space-time.
Twin detectors heard the gravitational “ringing” produced by the collision of two black holes about 1.3 billion light-years from Earth. An important vindication and a major advance for science.