ADVISORY! This is - even for an end-of-year tour d'horizon - a very long post. A packed lunch and a overnight bag will not suffice as sustenance. Survival rations and the wherewithal to construct a small polythene igloo are advised. You Have Been Warned! (*)
(The above title was one I had earmarked for this year's round-up early on in the proceedings and, as it is the only chance I will get to use it, I will stick with it come hell or high water.)
Hell and high water are probably the only two things which didn't happen in 2016, unless you were unwise enough to invest in a property built as a speculative venture on a flood plain, in which case console yourself with the thought that you may - just - have avoided getting the Inferno as well. Although that may be being held in reserve for next year.
The problem I face with this piece - somewhat unusually as these go - is not so much what to talk about with regard to the year which is now being expelled through the cloaca of history, but what the hell to leave out.
For 2016 has been what journalists and other purveyors of vapid cliché would call 'a momentous year'. Indeed, it has been a year of momentum (note the absence of a capital letter there; Momentum effectively fizzled out under the standard Brit Left contradictions, infighting and corporate media shit-flinging), and that movement has been mostly towards a planet-sized shit-pit. In fact, we may add a new term to the contemporary lexicon:
"2016 (twen'ti siks-tēn) v.t., to create a total mess out of something, esp. if done wilfully and without any regard to the foreseeable consequences; n., a total mess made unnecessarily out of something; adj. in the manner of a total mess. Examples of usage:
As a verb: "You're going to 2016 that window if you keep kicking the ball at it".
As a noun: "He poured a glass of water into his printer and made a complete 2016 of it".
As an adjective: "She pulled at a loose strand of wool on her sweater, and kept pulling until it was totally 2016'd"."
I have to start with myself, of course. And - slightly differently to previous years - there is an awful lot to write about. If I had thought that 2011, containing as it did the first real flare-up of my clinical depression, was about as much of an ordeal as it gets, then I had reckoned without what 2016 had to bring.
That I was in less than robust health going into the year is, of course, a given. And the fact that I broke a tooth (which I eventually had to have removed altogether) within twelve hours of its commencement was possibly - as I remarked at the time - an augury for what was to follow.
And so it proved to be. Whilst my dissolution into advanced decrepitude was fairly gradual to start with, once it gained momentum it hurled me down the slope into almost total incapacity with the sort of ruthlessness one would expect only from functionaries of the Department for Whacking the Proles.
I struggled on as best I could, of course; I'm a bloke, that's what we do. But when I began to suffer so bizarre a symptom that I was no longer able to wear even loose-fitting boxer shorts without making a squeaking noise (at both ends) when I tried to walk, then I had to take leave of absence from the pickle factory and try to get to the root cause of the problem.
That it was the pulmonary valve - a congenital defect which I had thought had resolved itself some years ago without intervention - seems obvious in retrospect, but the news still came as a blow. This Was Serious Shit.
Of course, as we are still living in a society which is so unthrustingly, non-entrepreneurially backward as to believe that the consumer-citizen is entitled to the health-care necessary for their continuing usefulness to the nearest profit centre, further investigations led ultimately to my spending a happy two weeks sixty miles away from home, friends and family; firstly and latterly, having my own personal swamp drained (the most embarrassingly affected parts had already retreated to their usual, comely dimensions after a course of diuretic pills); and inbetween times undergoing my first ever invasive surgery under my first ever general anaesthetic.
By the point of my admission to Manchester Royal Infirmary, I think I could be forgiven the opinion that - short of my memory-foam pillows developing permanent amnesia - there was nothing much more that 2016 could do to me.
And, in fairness, that is how it seems to have turned out. My recovery over the last few months has been slow, often frustratingly so, but more due to the necessity of getting over not so much the surgery itself as my wretched (and, I realise the more I look back on it, probably imminently terminal) state prior to it. Whatever cause for optimism I might have for the months ahead is, however, tempered by the knowledge that further - and far more extensive - surgery will be required before very long; and by the fact that I can now hear The Clock ticking its way down to The Bell which tolls for everyone.
Apart from my being restored to some sort of normal functionality (for, as ever, certain values of the term 'normal'), have there been any gains from all this?
Yes. Most emphatically, yes.
I mean, there have been the little things, the small ways in which my life has changed. My rediscovery of BBC Radio 3 is one example, as it was the only vaguely listenable channel available to me on the in-bed entertainment system provided to patients. Even this was not unalloyed however; whilst the bloke in the bed to my left was glued to the ridiculously over-covered event of David Cameron taking his last Prime Minister's Questions, the only succour Three had to offer was not only the equally over-exposed Wolfgang Amadeus, but his Missa Brevis to boot. There was my adoption of toast as my Breakfast Of Choice which, ever since my discharge, has at least released me from the bondage (as 'twere) of muesli which, whilst no doubt health-giving in a lentil-stew/hair-shirt sort of way, used to get seriously under my dentures. And I suppose I have to throw in my finally being brought reasonably up-to-date in technological terms by having a mobile phone. This was an absolute lifeline to me whilst stranded remote from my natural habitat, and has proven itself very useful since (I'm on a pay-as-you-go contract and - as I am highly unlikely to use its 250 minutes of calls in a whole year, let alone a single month - it means that I haven't made a phone call on my landline since the end of June). Trouble is, though, that I've caught myself behaving in some of the ways which have annoyed the hell out of me down the years when others have done it; and, given that I bought myself an .mp3 player recently as well, I could all too easily end up being one of those terrible hermetically-sealed people I have been pompously sneering at all this time.
But then there are the big - the important - things.
I have always been wary of the claims of people that some trauma, downswing or misfortune in their lives has led them to become 'better persons'; that, I've always felt, has been for others to judge and pronounce upon first. This does not preclude me from making that claim for myself, however, if only on the grounds that even I am aware of it having happened.
The love, support, encouragement and assistance I have had from so many people - family and friends, of course; but also colleagues, neighbours, professionals, and even those who are to all other intents strangers to me, such as my online correspondents - these have all been priceless, and their concern deeply moving. I have become a rather sentimental old Hector since, and have - as a matter of a subconscious shifting of gears rather than anything calculatingly deliberate - become more open to other people than I think I have ever been, and more empathetic (rather than just pathetic) and, I hope, understanding of others. Similarly, I realise more the truth of the old saying I picked up in Conamara thirty-odd years ago, "Ar ghuailne a chéile a mhaireanns na daoine" ("People survive on each other's shoulders"). None of this precludes me from being a grumpy goblin when (as they used to say in the Highway Code) conditions dictate, but then that's just me anyway, and to lose that capacity for occasional crabbiness would be to shed an integral part of my personality which is sometimes useful.
So, whilst it might have been a temporary relief not to have been around to have to write this scramble of impressions of the past year, I am really rather relieved to have the burden of it after all, and to be slowly but almost surely getting back to somewhere close to how I should be, all things considered.
So, what of the world beyond my gate in 2016 (the gate beyond which I could scarcely venture unaided for a large part of it)?
(Author's Note: the following paragraph has been re-written - and expanded - twicethreefourfive times in the last fortnight. This reflects what we've been up against).
Well, it has certainly been the go-to year for the deaths of the famous - even more so than 2006 was - and those departures have been particularly grievous ones in the world of entertainment. Music was particularly hard hit, almost as if music's Valhalla had been outsourced to G4S and their Valkyries put on zero-hours contracts with 'achievable but stretching' performance targets. We were scarcely through the second weekend before David Bowie had gone, to be followed as the year went on by George Martin, Prince, Dave Swarbrick, Rod Temperton, Leonard Cohen, Rick Parfitt and - most shockingly because of his age - George Michael; significant figures of nearly two generations of making music, swept from us as if by some celestial vulture capitalists looking, as ever, to hoover up the tastiest assets for themselves and simultaneously remove the joy from everybody else's lives. Laughter died on our lips with the appallingly-young demise of Victoria Wood, but her many and varied ways of amusing us will remain with us. The feisty, courageous, wise and hilarious Carrie Fisher was teleported to oblivion before the year was out, closely followed by her mother Debbie Reynolds. And two great figures in the global struggle for social and economic justice - Muhammad Ali and Fidel Castro - finally fell to the Great Opponent. We are diminished by the loss of all of these people and many others, less storied or celebrated, who have made our existence more tolerable, more humane, more hopeful.
Now we must, I fear, deal with the sordid reality of Politics As It Is Today in this most blessèd of isles. In this wise, 2016 has been a truly rancid year, with little to encourage anything remotely resembling optimism.
At its beginning, however, things seemed to be merely continuing where they had left off at the end of 2015: the ideological extremists who had formed the government of the Untried Kinkdom ploughed on with their slash-and-burn approach to the last remains of social provision, caring even less than before about the potential effects that their 'otherising' of those sectors of society deemed least able to fight back was having on the entirety of that society; the Parliamentary Labour Party - as befits Her Majesty's Official Opposition - was still expending its declining energies on undermining their democratically-mandated leader rather than on making a stand for anything remotely resembling a principle even of Social Democracy, let alone anything distantly approaching Socialism; and the semi-hinged acolytes of St. Nigel Of Broadstairs continued to be fœtid - sorry, fêted - in most of the press and by their unwarrented prominence on the BBC's game shows such as Question Time.
But the tail end of 2015 brought us an earnest of what might be to come when the European Referendum Bill became law after being assented to by a Scotto-German aristocrat just before Christmas. The referendum - having been put forward simply as a means of a weak party leader buying off the Dagenham Heathway tendency in his ranks (i.e. 'three stops beyond Barking') - was then to be rushed through by the end of June 2016, over the objections of the leaders of the three pretendy 'devolved' governments in Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff.
Looking back on the campaign now - although it was readily apparent to some of us at the time - it seems to have embodied Yeats' words in The Second Coming; not just those famous lines about the best lacking all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity, but also - although we had to wait a little while for it - that bit about the blood-dimmed tide being loosed.
When - in any campaign - the 'best' turn out to be David Cameron, George Osborne and that ultimate Blairite Alan Johnson, and when the 'worst' are serial dissemblers and self-serving shits like Farage, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson (who, because they 'give great TV', are thereby given an inordinate amount of print space by an overwhelmingly sympathetic press, and airtime by broadcasting organisations which seem in general to have abdicated any responsibility towards independent thought and reportage in favour of the double-two-finger salute - Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V - from press releases or the newspapers); when, as I say, this is the case, then the outcome is never going to be an uplifting spectacle.
The campaign on the 'Remain' side seemed unable to convince even itself of the importance of its case, and when the foremost faces and voices of that campaign were people who were reviled over a large part of the landmass anyway, and when this was combined with the lazy, patronising arrogance which so many of us have come to expect from the political class of today, an undesirable result became far more of a likelihood than it otherwise would have been. There was no drive, no passion, no conviction in any of it.
It was in all those areas that the Leave campaign - both the official part and its variously-allied appendages - excelled. Whilst it is a valid point that - partly for reasons I've already stated - they had a considerable advantage in getting their message across, it is even more valid to remark that they put it across with vigour, brashness and confidence. No matter that much of what they had to say was misleading, factually wrong or simply batshit; they knew their potential audience, and played with great effect on what was already known about the partialities and prejudices (or, as they are now known, 'genuine and understandable concerns') of their target demographics.
None of that, however, should be used as a way of excusing the braying viciousness, the outright mendacity, the dog-whistle xenophobia which was the stock-in-trade of the 'Leave' campaigners' pitch. Whether it was the infamous bus proclaiming that the (completely inaccurate) amount of money which we pure-hearted and trusting Brits handed over to the nasty Euro-wogs every week would instead be spent on our collapsing health service; or the repulsive doctored poster posed in front of by Farage which suggested that hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees were poised to swamp dear old Blighty to knock maiden aunts of their velocipedes; or whether it was the assertion that fifteen million Turkish rapists were just biding their time before they invaded Basildon, Benfleet, Boston and the virginal female populations thereof; the result - when addressing a public already misinformed, misdirected and inflamed by nearly three decades of press lies on the subjects of the EU and immigration alike - was always likely to be catastrophic.
It was already very apparent that - beside any consideration actually relating to the EU (or, indeed, foreigners in general) - there was a groundswell of dissatisfaction, distaste and disgust at the perceived 'political élite' of the land. Indeed, how deep that disaffection lay could be deduced from the outcome of the elections for the devolved bodies a few weeks before the referendum. These had seen the Labour Party in Scotland reduced to third place behind the Tories and a huge uptick in support for UKIP in Wales (a country which seemed - in that case and later on in the EU ballot - to have effectively voted itself out of meaningful existence as a distinct polity) which saw the return of such paragons of probity as Neil Hamilton to front-line political life.
It was very apparent, that is, to all except those heading up the 'Remain' campaign. These were indeed figures of the Establishment, self-insulated from the sentiments of all bar their fellow sociopathic obsessives. It was quite clear that Cameron, Osborne, Johnson (A.) and their colleagues felt that there was no way their team was likely to lose, and that the only action they needed to take to ensure victory was to talk down to people who had a far better idea of what was really going on than they did.
And so the scene was set for the nastiest political battle in living memory. Not only was there the torrent of rah-rah and exceptionalism being eructated by supposedly mainstream politicians; that led in turn to an upsurge of overt activity by the far right of England, who saw a good opportunity to make themselves seem relevant again. Although the 'respectable' part of the Leave campaign (that is to say, the bit not populated by Farage's Phalangists) sought - not always convincingly - to distance themselves from such manifestations, it could not - and should not be allowed to - evade its responibility for what happened, as it was the whole tenor, timbre and rhetoric of their campaign which was stoking up the blaze; a blaze which had the most tragic consequences when Labour MP (and 'Remain' campaigner) Jo Cox was murdered in the street by an unabashed neo-Nazi just a week before the vote.
(Just a couple of side-notes on that: the first reaction of the media scum who had given - and written - so much uncritical - nay, approving - coverage to even some of the wilder excesses of the Leave-ites was to claim that there was nothing political about Thomas Mair's action and that he was, of course, just mentally ill; and secondly, the notable absence throughout Mair's progress through the sequence of arrest, charge, trial, conviction and sentence of the use by those same media (and the supposedly more respectable of them) of the 't-word'. Despite his doing exactly the same things as some of our dusky-skinned fellow residents who revere the djinn-tales of a bent Arabian merchant, Mair couldn't possibly be a terrorist; after all, he was white and espoused opinions which were perfectly acceptable in civilised Britain...in 1936. In all the coverage of Mair's trial, no corporate or state media outlet used the 't' word to describe Mair; and when the Guardian and the Independent finally did - after his conviction - deign to use the word, they betrayed the very Truth itself by putting the word in quote-marks).
Great play was made of the out-of-touchness of the 'metropolitan élites', which seemed to go over remarkably well with people who did not seem for one moment to consider who exactly was telling them to rise up against said élites, namely, members of that same class (privately-educated, current and ex-Tories, ex-City wide-boys and long-time professional politicians). Similarly, there was a decrying of experts of all kinds - legal, economic, political - except, of course, of those few whose utterances happily coincided with the campaign line. In this - as in a number of other respects - the 'Leave' campaign was perhaps the first in these islands consciously to ape the strategies which had been used to great effect in the United States for forty years or more; the appeal to the fabled 'common sense' of the 'ordinary people' (including that group called 'the white working class', a term first deployed in the Nineties by overt neo-Fascists which - like other such phrases - has been so far mainstreamed by now that its bogus and ill-defined premiss has been utilised by politicians of most parties). That this line, too, was being peddled by those who only ever encounter 'ordinary people' when they serve them their drinks seemed to pass a lot of people by.
The whole atmosphere of the debate - augmented as ever by the full orchestra and chorus of alleged newspapers owned by dreaded foreigners, non-doms and other dodgers, creepy plutocrats or a combination of all of the above - was rendered toxic beyond the reach of all environmental protection legislation, and that poison spread throughout society in general. Nonetheless. the opinion polls right up to the last minute suggested a small but sufficient win for 'Remain'.
Some of us strongly suspected otherwise.
So, the way things were going with my own year, it shouldn't have come as a surprise when, in an access of insomnia and foreboding, I switched on Radio 4 shortly before 0430 on that Friday morning to be assaulted by that ultimate ass' jawbone Farage crowing about how it was 'our' country's 'independence day'. I switched off in despair and lay there realising that we in this god-ordained Realm were truly fucked beyond all redemption. And to reflect that - as in the independence referendum in Scotland in 2014 - the over-54s had decided that giving wing to their fear, ignorance and prejudice was far more important to them than the prospects for a future most of them wouldn't live long enough to see very much of. By doing so, they therefore took an almighty dump on their grandchildren's heads with a shout of triumph and a waving of three-coloured bog roll.
Such sentiments were not ameliorated by the looks to be found on the faces of the senior front-beings of the official winning campaign later that day. Boris Johnson was wearing his famous 'confused baby' expression (which I'm sure beyond doubt that he acquired after a bruising encounter with my mother during the General Election campaign of 1997), and Michael Gove looked as if his puppeteer had forgotten to use lube. It was clear that - all rah-rah aside - they hadn't really expected to win.
The fallout in terms of the world of formal politics was immediate, at least in the case of the Conservative Party. David Cameron, having proved his weakness in caving in to the swamp creatures on his back benches by granting the vote in the first place, showed his utter cowardice in immediately resigning (to be followed shortly afterwards by his departure from the House of Commons altogether for a life imitating his exemplar Cardinal Archbishop Blair in going around the campuses and think-tanks of the United States being paid enormous amounts of money for producing hot air).
What then followed might - had it not been so emetic - have been hilarious, a sort of remake of Carry On Cleo for the gig-economy generation: Johnson's long-held aspirations for the party leadership foundered when he was stabbed in the back by his erstwhile ally Gove; Andrea Leadsom (an obscure backbencher with the overarching ambition and vindictiveness of Christopher Grayling, but without the latter's incisive intellect) ran, but shortly afterwards ran away; and we were left faute de mieux with an anointed successor who had - at least, in theory - campaigned for 'Remain', but now found it conveniently easy to combine the footling self-righteousness of Thatcher with the dress-sense of Queen Victoria and - as we have since discovered to our ongoing cost - the delicate navigational skills of Boudicca. She also brought with her the same illiberal and vicious authoritarianism which had characterised the entirety of her six years at the Home Office. And so we have had the fulfilment of her greatest wish, the Snooper's Charter (officially the Investigatory Powers Act 2016) which will enable a wide variety of State bodies to invade everybody's privacy with no meaningful protection for the citizen-consumer; the proposal to lock large parts of the internet away from prying British eyes (under the pretext, of course, of 'protecting ver lickle kiddies!'); the introduction of a 'pilot scheme' which will require people to produce an officially-approved ID before they can exercise their right to vote (taking the lead from the Republicans in state houses across the US who have created a fake panic over 'voting fraud' to enable similar measures which - purely coincidentally, of course - most adversely affect the rights of those least likely to vote Republican); and the official adoption of a definition of anti-Semitism sponsored by a virulently Zionist private organisation which would effectively render all but the mildest tut-tutting criticism of the murderous and illegal conduct of the Self-Righteous State equivalent to demanding Sho'ah II.
As with the campaign itself, the mephitic exudations of 'Brexit' (and, whatever the opposite of a peerage may be, may it be reserved for the linguistically cloth-eared individual who came up with that appalling word) spread rapidly through what was once civil society. The brakes were well and truly off, and that sentiment of racial prejudice and sheer detestation of all perceived 'others' which had long lain simmering beneath the surface of (primarily) English society was given its full rein. Shit-heads of every shade of red, white and blue now felt - not entirely without justification - that they had been given dispensation to deploy overt hatred towards those who were not visibly (or audibly) 'one of us'. Verbal and physical attacks, some of them fatal, upon those deemed not to be pasty-white enough, or who were heard committing the heinous sin of speaking a language other than English in the street, or by being quite obviously 'foreign', increased by several orders of magnitude. The victims were not merely the Afro-Caribbeans and Asians, not even just the Poles or Romanians, but Italians and Spanish as well. Our 'society' became openly what many of us had suspected it of being covertly for some little time; a narrow, backward-looking, hateful and sneering polity whose contorted facial features were the gurning grimace of the tattoo'd football hooligan made national avatar.
What became clear once the radioactive dust had settled was that no-one - not even its most vehement advocates - had the slightest idea what 'Brexit' actually meant. The new Prime Minister sought to end all doubts by coining the Ourouborosian Humptydumptyism, "Brexit means Brexit", which succeeded only in ending all doubts that she wasn't up to the job. Her appointment of what became to be called 'The Three Brexiteers' (Atos, Pathos and Arsamiss; or, alternatively, the self-publicist, the self-enricher and the self-abuser) demonstrated either total incomprehension of what was required or a sense of humour as warped and convoluted as a Klein bottle. They didn't know what 'Brexit' meant either, and have spent the last six months trying not to find out, with every likelihood that their mission will continue into the distant future.
And what of politicians in general? Their conduct since the vote has - with a few honourable exceptions - been that of the spineless. With so narrow a victory for the isolationists, there has been a complete refusal on the part even of those most pro- continued membership of the EU to, if not challenge the numerical fact of the result, then at least seriously question the ethical validity of such a far-reaching decision being made on the basis of a slim majority. For all the screaming of the Mail- and Express-reading classes about the 17.4 million people who voted 'Leave', it has constantly to be borne in mind that 13 million people didn't vote at all, and that the result of the referendum was never going to be legally binding on Parliament - or on anyone else - in any case.
The fact that May tried to prevent Parliament even having a vote on triggering the invocation of the infamous Article 50, and that it took a couple of private citizens and their High Court action to prevent (at least at the time of writing) such a by-passing of democracy speaks loudly for the cowardice of politicians from all parties. Similarly, the fact that the High Court's decision resulted in a torrent of abuse and threats being made not only against the bringers of the action (one of them was black, the other was of Brazilian descent; what more do you need to know?) but against the judges who heard the case may be revealing as to how weak even the most passionate of 'Leave' supporters suspect their own case to be, something which may become even more obvious to them and to everyone else once the full consequences of the imminent national lemming tribute act become manifest even to them, although - given the sneering cries about 'Remoaners' from that sector of the population even six months on - I have my doubts that even that will shift them.
As time slouches on, and it becomes ever more readily apparent that ripping ourselves away from the most advantageous relationship possible with our neighbours and the world in general is A Bad Thing, the proselytisers on behalf of such national seppuku have been left with little more than rah-rah and flag-waving to seek to keep the ignorant sweet and the sceptical cowed. This extends as far as the Prime Minister herself who - on her recent mission to grovel to one of the numerous murderous plutocracies upon whose largesse the arms dealers' well-being depends - referred to a "Red-white-and-blue Brexit".
The trouble with that is that, if you vigorously wave a large flag over a cesspit, all you do is waft the foul odours therefrom over a broader area:
"Wider still, yet wider, may thy stench be set/God who made thee shitey, make thee shitier yet."
Putting out more bunting will not create a single job (except perhaps in Guanghzhou, where most of it is probably manufactured nowadays). The inevitable disillusionment which will be felt amongst the general population may in due course erupt into anger against not merely the customary targets described above, but against those very same tribunes of the people's colonic spasms who led them up the hill in the first place. In which case, it might be worth staying alive for long enough to watch it happen, although they may run out of lamp-posts.
But then what happened here in 2016 is merely the latest manifestation of the outbreak of chauvinist populism which has already contaminated other parts of Europe by the election or re-election of such as the racial chauvinist Orbán in Hungary, the Catholic theocrat Kaczyński in Poland or the avowedly Islamist Erdoğan in Turkey, and by the upswing in votes for their counterparts and equivalents in France, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. Everywhere, the neoliberal economic experiment has failed the vast majority of the population and, as the formerly 'left' parties (such as Labour, PASOK and PSOE) had eagerly co-opted themselves into The Project, that vast majority has seen no way to make their voices heard other than to support - with varying degrees of willingness - the alternatives offered on the far right, however closely linked those may be with the prevailing order anyway. From Ankara to Aarhus, from Białystok to Berwick-upon-Tweed, the Right has seen its chance and is taking it, rendering substantial parts of Europe nearer to overt and outright Fascism than at any time since the ousting of the Greek Colonels and the Estado Novo and the death of Franco.
And it has no more been recognised in the rest of Europe than it has been here that you do not - can not - defeat Fascism by appeasing it or by (however superficially) adopting its talking points or its rhetorical garb. You defeat it by fighting it and by not being afraid to put a countervailing narrative forcefully to those who find that of the far right attractive, even if that means you have to get somewhat in such people's faces. The cowardice of the so-called 'moderates'/'centrists'/'decent left' - whereby they are too scared to say emphatically what emphatically needs to be said - is a betrayal of all genuinely liberal and progressive intent.
It is not just in the democracies (quasi- or otherwise) of Europe where the nativist, exceptionalist, if-you're-not-with-us-you're-against-us paradigm has taken hold and is flourishing like bindweed. In Asia and the Pacific Rim, sectarian demagogues such as Modi in India, Abe in Japan and Duterte in the Philippines have all attained or consolidated their power by tough-guy imagery and appeals to sectional - and sectarian - interests, based not only on race but on religious allegiance as well.
And does anyone truly understand anything about what is going on in Syria? Is it really the case that the worst of those doing the fighting - who would be condemned by our leaders (and our leader writers) as 'terrorists' in any other context - are actually being assisted, funded and directed by those who claim to wish to bring democracy (of a certain stamp) to that land? And that it is the less worse (including the forces of what is - at least de facto - the legitimate government of Syria) who are instead being screamed at by our pols and pundits as being beneath our contempt? Is it truly the case that those whom 'we' are supporting are merely a rebrand of the organisation which committed atrocities on the North American continent scarcely a decade and a half ago?
There is a wider game being played here, of course. And that game is an updating or re-boot of the Cold War, as Russia's involvement in Syria - in support of one of its few ally/client states - is deemed to be evidence of Putin's dastardly intentions towards the rest of the Middle East and, indeed, eastern Europe. That such a claim is substantially nonsense is not, it seems, something which we are allowed to consider in public discourse. Leaving aside the hard practical fact that Russia's military resources are a tiny fraction of that of the old USSR - which would preclude any of the expansionist intentions ascribed to Moscow by our politicians, generals and media - Russia's response to a variety of provocations by NATO (that is to say, the Pentagon) has been remarkably restrained. Bear in mind that Russia - a country where the memory of invasion and occupation in the 1940s lives strong and deep - has in recent years been subject to The West (that is to say, the Pentagon) pushing military bases and their concomitant manoeuvres right up to its border; to the replacing of a democratically-elected (if bent) government in Ukraine by a US puppet with a praetorian guard of neo-Nazis and virulent anti-Semites; and to a general campaign of impugnation which seeks to place the blame for a bewildering variety of regional and global problems and events at the Kremlin's door.
Add to this the ever-continuing festering sore of Palestine, where the Israeli electorate has long been ahead of the curve in moving ever more towards ultra-chauvinst sentiment, and the world in general is a more dangerous place than it has been for over a quarter of a century, if not longer. It may only need one powerful idiot to - out of either ignorance or malign intent - press the appropriate button (either literal or metaphorical) to unleash a sequence of events which would take the planet over the event horizon to widespread oblivion.
Speaking of idiots pressing buttons brings me naturally to the year's events in the World's Greatest Democracy Ever™.
That the year's events in the Untied Stoats of Amnesia were going to be dominated by the presidential election campaign (which, in case you didn't know, always starts immediately after the end of the previous one) was, of course, a given. But there were other things going on which between them exposed the ever-widening chasm between what is always claimed for the US in its own self-regarding fabulations and the cold, hard, steel-tipped reality.
Some of them were overt, such as the continued slaughter of unarmed young non-whites by what Americans quaintly call 'law enforcement officers' in town after town, county after county, city after city from sea to plastic-polluted sea. What had begun - or, at least, had first come to blindingly-obvious prominence - two years previously in places such as Ferguson, Mo. was repeated with terrifying frequency in 2016, even in those parts of the US formerly believed to be more civilised than the Shit-for-brains South. Sure, that fine old Confederate tradition of nigger-wasting continued unabated in Baton Rouge, La., Tulsa, Ok., and Charlotte, NC to name but three; but no area seemed immune from tooled-up cops seemingly unable to either negotiate their way through a confrontation or even shoot to incapacitate rather than to kill, even at point-blank range when their target was lying unconscious on the ground.
And what was the near-automatic response of police departments and sheriffs' offices when people took - on the whole, peacefully - to the streets to exercise their Constitutionally-protected right to protest? It was to treat the protesters as being of that category of citizen nowadays called 'domestic extremists' or even 'terrorists' (a label which - as I have already suggested - is very selectively used, and is seldom applied to those who have far more cause to be so labelled than people with banners and the odd freelance lump of concrete).
No-one can deny that, in any properly ordered society, those tasked with upholding the law should be able effectively to protect themselves from those who are an imminent and active danger to them; but the culture of impunity, of the media narrative taking its lead from the often uncorroborated word of the cops and sheriffs involved, and of hyper-militarised policing in general simply and (in more than one sense of the word) fatally undermine the reputation of 'law enforcement officers' from the 49th to the Gulf. And yet, this is something that they - the cops and their Fraternal Brotherhoods - don't seem to be able to see.
There were other conflicts between the power of the State(s) and Them, The People. The most notable of these was the struggle of the Standing Rock Sioux nation in the Dakotas to stop the Energy Transfer corporation and other companies running a crude-oil pipeline under lands and waters which were theirs by inherited right (with huge cultural and religious significance) and which would suffer degradation and pollution as a consequence. The pipeline had originally been intended to pass close to the nearly-all-white town of Bismarck, ND, but the threat to the integrity of the city's water supply made that a non-starter. So, the route was changed in order that it would - just coincidentally, of course - jeopardise instead the lands of peoples who are - as they have been for three hundred years - counted as being of little consequence, easily shoved aside.
With all the corporate muscle which could be mustered - including cops both on- and off-duty (the latter serving as a well-paid goon squad for Energy Transfer and the other corporate and corporate-owned interests involved), the attempt was made to beat down the protestors, be they Native American or those of progressive bent amongst the dominant population. Not just beaten down, but also tear-gassed, attacked by dogs and - in a particularly cold part of the US at a particularly cold time of year - water-cannoned. Observers were also attacked, arrested, charged with spurious offences and otherwise maltreated.
These observers, let it be said, seldom included any reporters from the corporate media, whose near-total silence on the protests was quite remarkable. It was left to independent reporters and individuals using social media to get anything like a fuller picture to the world. It was not - and this is significant - until hundreds of military veterans turned up to protect the site and those protesting its desecration that the tone (if not the substance) of the stance taken by the State and the corporations changed, with the Army Corps of Engineers finally refusing to sanction immediately that part of the route and undertaking to conduct an assessment of the environmental impact (as if one were really needed).
There were of course dozens if not hundreds of other 'incidents' through large parts of the Land of the Penis-Substitute Fetish. Many of these involved the all-too-usual cases of white men fuelled by testosterone, artificial additives and a sense of grievance gunning down individuals or groups of people, often on the grounds of their race or gender identity. These were not described as terrorists either. But most of the fatalities involving firearms still concern either individuals who, out of a more general distemper - including outright psychiatric disorder - take it out on family, friends, neighbours, colleagues or just some poor random sap who happens to be in the way. And there were those most sad of instances where weapons had foolishly been left where children could access them (or, more mind-bogglingly still, where supposedly responsible adults had actually deliberately provided that access), with tragic consequences. Yet it is still a given that the people of the US are not likely any time soon to vote for greater control over possession of lethal arms.
And mention of votes for putting perilous weapons into the hands of the undertrained, the sociopathic and the immature brings me, with a sad inevitability, to the presidential election.
In the first few months of the year, it looked like a given that the Republicans were - even in the eyes of many Republicans - going to lose and quite possibly to a most humiliating degree. The assemblage of their prospective candidates resembled the occupants of not so much a clown car as a clown bus. The array of serial nonentities encompassed the entire range of the latter-day (no, wait, that was last time round, wasn't it?) GOP, from the boodlers straight from screwing up the economies of their states from the safety of their gubernatorial mansions, via the corporate puppets and public pietists, right across to the overt theocrats. And there was a multi-millionaire loudmouth with unfeasible hair (or, at least, with someone's unfeasible hair) and a following of equally voluble - and sometimes violent - fanatics.
That Trump was not - right up to the closing days of the primaries - taken particularly seriously as a candidate by the political establishment (even that of his own party) and the media may be ascribed to a combination of wishful thinking, élite insularity and denial. No, no, we were assured, Tribblehead could never - but never - become the party's candidate; the GOP's wiser heads would win the day to prevent the Party from being mocked from Galveston to the Great Lakes.
The only group of people - apart from the crowds which packed into auditoria and sports grounds throughout the land (and they were only 'deplorables', so who cared about them?) - who seemed to take Trump seriously were the Democratic Party. But that was only because they saw in Trump the ideal opponent; an infinitely mockable, shamelessly illiberal blowhard whose policy positions - in as much as they could confidently be discerned - shifted from minute to minute depending on his mood or his target audience. The Democrats clearly reckoned (and not entirely unreasonably) that Trump winning his party's nomination would render November's vote the nearest thing to a foregone conclusion.
However, they failed to take account of a couple of important points: firstly, that - for all his tendency to shoot off unthinkingly at the gob - Trump was a highly media-savvy candidate; after all, he had spent a lot of time in the preceding years working in and around television, and knew the tricks of it; and secondly, insulated as they were within the cosy confines of Beltway faux-liberalism, they failed, just as their European counterparts had already visibly failed, to take into account - or even recognise the existence of - a deep and turbulent dissatisfaction, bordering on outright disaffection, amongst the mass of the population, especially those parts of it which, in former times, might reasonably have looked to the Democratic candidate to speak for them.
It was this de haut en bas arrogance which led the Democratic National Committee - a body which in the previous three decades had successfully been captured by business interests and their lobbying groups - to assume that the shafted working class, the increasingly-precarious middle class, blacks, Latinos and women, would vote for any candidate that they put forward regardless. The idea that anyone in those groups would in any significant number not vote at all or even vote Republican seems never to have occured to them.
The DNC had a choice: they could run Bernie Sanders, a progressive radical (in Congressional terms, at least) who could speak over the heads of the Establishment and media to people - especially young people - who could be enthused by the possibility of a genuine change of outlook, if not necessarily of policy; or they could put forward Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had been on the inside track of high-level American politics since the days way back when her husband had been a mere governor of Arkansas.
It was surely a total inability to judge the public mood which led them - with the enthusiastic assistance of their friends and favour-coddlers in the self-described 'liberal' media - firstly to side-line Sanders by manoeuvering to slant or restrict media coverage of his campaign and boost Clinton's exposure; then to misuse the Party's own procedures effectively to block his candidacy and negate any enthusiasm felt by the (mostly) young activists who had been fired up by the promise of something different.
So - at a time when the groundswell of disillusionment with the existing political, economic and cultural order was audibly and visibly coming to the boil - the Democrats produced their 'winner' in the form of the ultimate Washington/Wall Street insider. The Bankers' Bitch. More of the same. Continuity Clinton. Moreover, she was someone who appeared incapable of even holding a positive vision let alone articulating it; someone who was far more at home making six-figure sums talking soothingly to Goldman Sachs executives than actually getting down to grass roots in Poughkeepsie, Pittsbugh or Portland.
It was this attribute which proved to be a fatal encumbrance to her campaign. She seemed utterly unable to communicate with those Joe and Josie Does whose votes she needed to capture, and gave the overall impression that she viewed them and their concerns with - at best - a swaggering insouciance. Trump, by contrast, was quite at home on the stump - albeit usually to an audience indulgently pre-inclined towards him. Which meant that, for all the obvious yobbery from his supporters, he came across as being 'genuine' (in that fake way which television created and has nurtured ever since). Despite the media coverage of his campaign tending to combine the extensive with the dismissive and censorious, Trump was creating a strong impression where it really mattered.
And then there was the question of Clinton's probity. The leaking (and, despite what has been claimed subsequently, there is little or no evidence pointing to Russian-inspired hacking; rather that they were leaked by a disgruntled insider) of e-mails showing the shenanigans in the DNC vis-à-vis the sabotaging of Sanders' candidacy, along with the pre-existing evidence of dishonesty and misdirection by La Clinton herself (including an extraordinary intervention - and then a retraction which suggested that he had been nobbled one way or the other - by the head of the FBI), were issues which played strongly with those who already viewed her with suspicion.
The torrent of media support for Clinton (the vast majority of the nation's newspapers publicly backed her, and most of the TV networks were - to greater or lesser degrees of overtness - sympathetic), and the attempts by her most vocal media supporters to 'shame' certain demographics (women in particular) into voting for her, merely added to the whiff of haughty arrogance which emanated from her campaign.
This, in the climate which existed by then, was never going to be a good move. And so indeed it proved.
As in Englandandwales, and as in Hungary and Poland before that, enough people were sufficiently pissed off with things-as-they-had-been to take the chance of electing someone who at least appeared to be against the élite, even though he was clearly a member of it himself. Trump fulfilled the rôle of Howard Beale in this sense, telling the neglected-feeling whites of America to stand up, shout "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!", and set loose their disaffection on the world.
Trump won. It cannot be gainsaid that he won. He won on exactly the same basis as Obama won, as both Bushes won, as Slick Willie himself won. As Jimmy Durante used to say, "Dem's der conditions dat prevail!". So the attempts at delegitimising Trump's Triumph by Clinton's supporters - and, let it be said, by self-described 'progressives' in general, both in the US and beyond - have to be seen as the desperate acts of blame-shifting and hypocrisy that they are. No matter that Clinton won more votes; that's not what counts, and if you don't like that outcome, then campaign to change the system accordingly. Otherwise, STFU.
The twistings and writhings of the defeated would be hilarious were they not so pathetic (although anyone with a strong working sense of Schadenfreude could still force a wry smile at the sight). If They, The People weren't to be blamed, then you could always blame it on the Russkies, like everything else (the sight of 'progressives' eagerly promoting unsubstantiated assertions bruited about by, of all people, the CIA is particularly toothsome). You could blame it on the media (a particularly silly notion, as I've already stated). You could blame it on an ever-widening selection of -isms. In fact, you could blame it on everyone and everything except your own arrogance and cowardice. And so you remain condemned to repeat the same errors next time around.
The fact remains as it is - uncontestable: after Bush 43 and Obama 44, we will shortly have Dolt 45 in the White House (or, at least, in his gold-plated New York apartments), being advised by the biggest collection of crooks, thugs, religious maniacs, environmental despoilers and ideological crackpots seen outside of the ranks of Scientology. This is what the US - and, by inevitable extension, the rest of us - will have to live with for the next four years. Unless Trump ends up getting impeached, in which case we'll be faced with the world's sole superpower being in the hands of Pence The Theocrat. Truly, every prospect pleases.
It would be remiss to pass along without making mention of the outgoing resident of the White House. Barack Obama was (and is) apparently personable, plausible (always one of the most important attributes in a politician) and had a self-deprecating style which didn't quite descend to the 'Aw, shucks!' level attained by Reagan foremost amongst others. His two terms were devoid of any personal scandal, and his immediate family caused admiration more often than embarrassment.
But he was, in the end, a Chicago Democrat machine operative, and this showed in his wretched attempts to put himself over as a president who sought 'common ground' with his supposed opponents. This led to his being not merely the first African-American president, but the first president ever to serve nearly two full terms as a lame duck. For, as Bill Maher correctly stated (and where are we when the most perceptive political observations come from comedians - Maher, Stewart and Colbert there, Boyle and Steel here?), when Democrats - especially with Obama's lieutenants being the likes of the infinitely-malleable Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid - seek 'common ground' with the GOP, they always seem to find it where the Republican was already standing. The old word for this - as Maher also pointed out - is 'surrender'.
So when, in his first two years, he had the votes in Congress to progress some meaningfully positive policies, he seemed psychologically unable to do so. After that, it was too late.
His presidency has been harmful in other ways, most significantly in the establishment in policy of the notion that the President - suitably advised, of course - has the right and the power to kill any US citizen anywhere in the world at any time, by unmanned drone or other means, without anything even approximating to due process. And - pace the Constitution and Bill Of Rights - the State has arrogated unto itself the right to snoop on its citizens' private communications without having to provide rigorous and specific reasons why.
Even more shameful has been his administration's determined and wilful hunting down of whistleblowers whose 'crimes' have been to reveal embarrassing and shocking truths about the illegalities of the Feral Government: John Kyriacou was imprisoned for the better part of two years for revealing that his country's government was an enthusiastic proponent of torture; Edward Snowden lives in perpetual exile in Moscow for providing clear evidence that the US spies on all of its citizens on a routine basis; Julian Assange sits in a room in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, facing fabricated charges of sexual offences in Sweden, a country which - if they ever got hold of him - would 'render' him to the US for publishing information which stands to the utter discredit of its régime; and, most shockingly, Chelsea Manning still languishes in a military brig after nearly seven years of a thirty-five-year sentence for giving clear proof of the US military's involvement in war crimes. And Guantánamo is still open for business.
And, of course, in foreign policy nothing of substance changed. The interference in the internal affairs of countries from Latin America to Africa and Asia continued unameliorated, with the catastrophic dismemberment of Libya (insisted upon by that Clinton woman again, an insistence to which Obama meekly caved) and the arming of Islamists in and around Iraq and Syria showing nothing more than a continuity with the Bush years, just like engineering the overthrow of democratic governments in Ukraine and Honduras were a tribute act to Saint Ron, and like the meek toleration - although with the occasional moue of distaste on view - of Israel and Saudi Arabia's grotesque inhumanity was a homage to every president since Truman.
In all these matters and more, Obama has been an weak, triangulating coward; in other words, a typical Democratic president of the modern era. That, alas, is likely to be his primary legacy.
After all the events I have described, we have seen the hand-wringing response of the liberal punditocracy, agonising about a supposed 'failure of liberal values', even to the point of suggesting openly and apparently without shame or irony that there was something seriously, inherently amiss with those values, and that the more inconvenient or irksome of them needed to be jettisoned and a more 'populist' agenda acceded to.
That, I would aver, is not actually what has happened.
There is nothing wrong with 'liberal values', if you define them as essentially formulations based around The Golden Rule: tolerance, diversity, mutual respect, fairness, economic and social justice; these are eternal values for any civilised society.
What has gone wrong is the political and moral failure of those who claim to espouse them actually to argue forcibly and cogently for them. There are always strong arguments to be made in favour of those values, but the meek selling (and 'selling' is most definitely the mot juste here) of the pass to the forces of global economic neo-liberalism by those who should have been most cogently critical of them has led to the poisoning of the image of those values in the minds of those who - although, if you asked them in detail, would strongly approve of most of them - feel that those values have nonetheless been used as tools for marginalising them. That the response of many in the bereft 'liberal élite' has been, in effect, to blame The People for being stupid, indicates that the greatest enemies to liberal values may be those who claim to champion - even to embody - them, a trahison des clercs for our times.
The media, having been little more than megaphones for - and stenographers to - that élite, must shoulder their own share of the blame for this outcome. They could only do that, however, if they gained a degree of self-awareness. There is little sign of their doing that. For example, in the aftermath of Trump's victory, and with various shades of the far-far-Right gaining not only confidence but cabinet positions, the inability of the captured corporate media to describe things as they are can be assessed by their using the terms to describe the ascendant extremists that those extremists use to describe themselves. Terms such as 'white nationalists' used to describe what in bald terms are simply racists, and 'alt.right' to delineate the position of people whom the John Birch Society and Ayn Rand might have had difficulty in accommodating; adopting these terms is an act of cowardice in the face of enemy fire, and the metaphorical equivalent of the firing squad should be deployed to remove all those whose idea of 'moral fibre' probably involves muesli and little more.
For the consequences are serious and sinister. We now live in a time where the considered views of people who have some idea of what they are talking about can be airily dismissed as coming from the inhabitants of ivory towers who have no idea what the lives of 'real people' are like; where a person's gut reactions or existing prejudices are considered more 'authentic' than any decision or view arrived at by a process of reasoned thought; and where the word 'expert' has now taken on the connotations of something-not-quite-rightness previously reserved for descriptives such as 'naturist'. The rectal cramps of exceptionalism, flag-waving, denunciation and rah-rah are in the ascendant, and no criticism may be brooked, as such can be deemed 'unpatriotic'.
I used to have some faith that intelligent human beings could - and would, nine times out of ten - claw themselves back from the edge of the abyss of ignorance and self-destruction. That faith all but vanished in 2016 and, for all the attempts of the brave few in all our societies not merely to resist but to strike back, I can see nothing but a crunch point coming, somewhere, somehow, possibly as soon as a few months hence from the time of this writing, which may well cast what is left of what we flatter ourselves is Civilisation beyond the point of no return and into outright - and terminal - barbarism.
Since I don't really want to end the year on a maledictory note yet again, let me share two of the rare highlights of 2016 with you. Happy New Year.
Update: Sheesh! I no sooner put that link in that the video gets pulled! The replacement isn't as good in quality terms, but it does enable some of us to savour the grief at greater length).