2016: A year of profound change

The Grim Reaper won no fans in 2016 by taking Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, and Leonard Cohen. Photos: Wikimedia commons; Leonard cohen photo: Takahiro Kyono

When the time comes to put on a silly paper hat, blow into a toy noisemaker, and raise a glass of champagne on New Year’s Eve, will you be doing it to celebrate the end of a wonderful year or to welcome what you hope will be a much better 2017 after a bad 2016?

The year did see some major high points. For the first time in
our history, a major national party nominated a woman to be
president of the United States.

The Nobel Prize in literature was given to Bob Dylan. Our cosmic horizons were expanded by major missions to Mars and new unmanned craft throughout the solar system.

But there were many low points that will make many people feel that they can’t be done with 2016 fast enough.


On the political scene, 2016 saw the strengthening of power by authoritarian, populist-nationalist governments in Russia, Turkey, Hungary, the Philippines, Thailand, and China — and in November, Americans finally decided to join the party. The election of businessman and television personality Donald Trump to the presidency shocked Democrats across the country. It also shocked Republicans across the country. It shocked America’s allies around the world. Perhaps the only person who wasn’t shocked was Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is widely believed to have made good use of his KGB experience to deploy skullduggery to undermine Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Surprise or not, the election took the wind out of a lot of San Francisco residents. The implications of the national election for this city could be considerable. Trump rode a wave of right-wing populism, lambasting immigrants in general and Muslims and Mexicans in particular, threatening sanctuary cities such as San Francisco with the loss of federal funds, and, once he was elected, filling his cabinet with strongly anti-immigrant figures. One estimate is that San Francisco could lose up to $1 billion a year from the federal government, but CBS San Francisco political analyst Melissa Caen told a recent town hall meeting that the actual figure if Trump tries to carry out his threat is likely to be much smaller, due to the structuring of funding, contracts, and other bureaucratic matters. Never before have liberals loved bureaucracy so much.

Many San Franciscans are also worried about discrimination, racist violence, intimidation, and the rollback of civil rights. Those are all causes that have long been identified with this notoriously liberal city, and the support that Trump received from white nationalist groups has stoked those fears. The Board of Supervisors and Mayor Ed Lee have made clear their intention to fight any threats from the Trump administration; the city was even considering setting up a special legal team to defend its immigration policy and local immigrants.

In other local politics news, San Franciscans decided you can never be too young to vote, so 16-year-olds were given the right to vote or, if they follow the example of their elders, the right to stay home and not vote but to complain about politics anyway. Statewide, voters approved a proposition to make recreational marijuana legal, which was a self-serving move that will help many of them weather the next four years.

At press time, San Francisco election officials were still counting thousands of late-arriving ballots for three supervisor seats, and the results of those races could tip the balance of power back in the moderates’ favor. With the failure of Proposition D, an attempt to weaken the mayor in the eternal twilight struggle between moderates and leftists on the Board of Supervisors, Mayor Ed Lee retains the power to appoint the successor to supervisors who leave office mid-term. So even if the election results don’t tip the balance, Lee could still change the calculus by appointing a moderate to fill Jane Kim’s seat if she succeeds in beating fellow supervisor Scott Wiener in the race for state senator. (At press time, Wiener had declared victory, but Kim had not yet conceded.)


Back in June, comedian Chris Rock tweeted a photo of Muhammed Ali and Prince with the words “I wish this year would stop already it’s just too much.” Ali and Prince both died in 2016.

We should have known that the year was going to be a rough ride right at the start, when the legendary David Bowie died on January 10, 2016. Throughout the year, he would be joined by local favorite Paul Kantner, Merle Haggard, Maurice White, Sharon Jones, Leon Russell, and Glenn Frey, among others. Just when America decided it would rather follow fake Facebook news posts than genuine news, PBS Newshour’s Gwen Ifill left us for good. Former 49er Bob Harrison passed away, as did former Giant Jim Davenport. The world of film and television lost Kenny Baker, Doris Roberts, Alan Rickman, Robert Vaughn, Gene Wilder, Anton Yelchin, Garry Marshall, and many others.

The death of singer Leonard Cohen toward the end of the year was greeted with repeated airing of his big hit “Hallelujah,” whose sad, sweet lyrics encapsulated the grief that millions felt not only for Cohen but for 2016.

There was positive news from the land of science, however; self-
driving cars continued to conquer the world, even with the setback of accidents involving Tesla cars in self-driving mode. Automation took further leaps, however. Bay Area writer Robin Sloan has put forward an idea to use artificial intelligence to help writers finish their works. And three decades since it was invented, a Rubik’s Cube was finally solved in less than a second by a robot. That gives the ‘bot plenty of time to help me finish writing this article.


In 2008, British author Tom Holland examined the state of Europe as it approached the year 1000. In The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West, he recounted how Europe was weak, fractured, surrounded by hostile nations, and having a crisis of faith. For millions of people, the millennium was supposed to herald the return of their savior, but when that failed to happen, the continent’s people and leaders and institutions had to reorient themselves to that fact and try to change their lives themselves. A.D. 1000 appeared for many of them the worst of times, but Holland points out that we can see now that it was an important time in which many of the seeds of Europe’s rise to global prosperity and power were sown.

So in future years, people might well be looking back at 2016 and 2017 as the time when America undertook a serious rejuvenation of its democracy, its media got refocused on facts and real news, and its economy was retuned to help everyone. David Bowie will still be dead, but maybe your lifelike David Bowie household robot will sooth the hurt.


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