“1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure.”
—Queen Elizabeth II
Nearly three decades ago, the British monarch demonstrated her countrymen’s typical talent for understatement when she expressed her feelings about the year. In 1992, the queen saw one son separate from his wife, a scandal blow up about the soon-to-collapse marriage of another son, the suicide of her nephew, the divorce of her daughter, the release of compromising photos and conversations of various members of her family, and a devastating fire at Windsor Castle. “In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents,” she said, “it has turned out to be an annus horribilis.”
Well, the year 2020 saw 1992 and said, “Hold my beer.”
This year, which still isn’t over, has seen the worst public health crisis in a century, revelations from Bob Woodward that the president willfully misled the country about the severity of the coronavirus, widespread racial unrest, extremist violence in several cities, an economic shutdown that has led to mass unemployment, a looming depression from unpaid rent and small business collapse, incendiary exhortations from the highest office in the land, and massive wildfires that at one point made San Francisco’s air look like it was a Martian windstorm.
And now at Thanksgiving, we are expected to reenact our annual tradition of expressing gratitude for a year that most people would delete if it were an app on their phone. Frankly, there have been times this year that it looked like when late November came around, we would have nothing more to be thankful for than that we are not turkeys.
But let’s try.
TURN THAT FROWN UPSIDE DOWN
Only Pollyanna would look at myriad bad things that have happened this year and deem them to actually be good. But any realist can still be heartened by and thankful for some good that came about during or even because of these events, even if it was only lessons learned.
The widespread shutdown of our economy has left millions unemployed. Many businesses were forced to close because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting shelter-in-place orders. Estimates vary on the percentage of those closed businesses that will never reopen, but all of the estimates I’ve seen are still very large. That means lots of people who will never get their jobs back, small business owners who are wiped out, cities and states squeezed for tax revenue right when the need for municipal services is at its height, a looming foreclosure crisis that could make the Great Recession seem like the golden age, and the acceleration of the retail apocalypse that has fattened the wallets of digital billionaires.
I don’t see anything to be grateful for in that. I am, however, hopeful that out of the depths of this despair will come the will to address some of the ways that the economy has gotten seriously out of whack in recent decades. The wild boom-and-bust, winner-takes-all, regulation-is-for-suckers attitudes that have come to dominate our economic and political worlds have long been defended with the claim that sure it’s unfair and risky, but it’s the best way to let people rise to the top from lower levels. But our economic and political systems have been captured by interests that pay generously to buy the legislative votes to ensure the people on top stay on top. It’s been many years since we were surpassed by other countries in terms of economic mobility, of being able to “make something of yourself.” More focus on the have-nots is long overdue, and maybe we’ll see that in the next presidential administration.
Or consider the widespread racial unrest we’ve witnessed. Good people might well have been surprised and disgusted to learn just how many people still hold blatantly racist views and do blatantly racist things, but as I wrote here last month (“The human race,” October 2020), we also saw lots of people, organizations, and companies make commitments (and in many cases start delivering on them) to address systemic racism. A solid majority — nearly 60 percent of Americans, according to an August poll from NPR/Ipsos — says that racism is baked into the economic, governance, and educational systems of this country. I for one am grateful that this is being recognized, and that that recognition isn’t just on the Left. It’s Left, Center, and even many on the Right. The size of the problem that needs to be addressed is huge, and the solutions offered will be varied, but knowing that so many people actually recognize will be helpful in coming up with the plans to fix it.
OUR CRAZY YEAR
It’s hard to joke about such serious things as economic collapse and racial justice. Luckily, this year has been so mind-bogglingly awful, there is much to rue on a lighter note.
Halfway through the year, actor Jamie Lee Curtis tweeted “In case you thought 2020 couldn’t get any worse, Merriam-Webster just officially recognized ‘irregardless’ as a word.” Someone responded with “You might as well go ahead and pronounce the ‘l’ in ‘salmon.’ Nothing matters anymore.”
I’m grateful for Jamie Lee Curtis.
I am also grateful that this presidential election, which began somewhere around Nov. 10 of 2016, is finally going to be over this month. The old phrase “it’s all over but the shouting” was made for this. Regardless of who wins the presidency, there will be much shouting and pouting by the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Democrats and others opposed to Donald Trump have long wished to convince independent voters and “undecideds” of the errors of Trump’s policies. But what seems to have come through as analysts and pollsters have talked to those targeted voters late in the campaign is that they are simply exhausted. Exhausted by the president’s incessant crisis-manufacturing. Exhausted by the sometimes hourly changes in policy. Exhausted by the scandals. Exhausted by the constant personal attacks. Exhausted by the vitriol. In 2016, those undecideds broke heavily for Trump in the last days of the campaign. This year, they are reportedly breaking “bigly” for Biden. Again, it’s not out of a love of Joe Biden’s policies. It’s because he’s boring. Donald Trump probably hammered the biggest nail in his own political coffin when he dubbed Biden “Sleepy Joe.” Voters heard that and said, “Thank God; I want boring.”
And if none of that makes you grateful, then note that astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson says there’s still a small but real chance that an asteroid will strike Earth the day before Election Day.
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