The thing about an annus horribilis is that eventually it's supposed to end. Yet this has not been the case with 2020, which incidentally, according to the Chinese calendar, was a Year of the Rat, proving that the universe can be just a bit too literal sometimes. Dashed were the hopes that 2021 would be a fresh start, that the endless problems of 2020 would dissolve into the ether like so much smoke at a mostly peaceful protest.
Instead this year began like it was going to be even more 2020 than 2020 was. Six days into...
The thing about an annus horribilis is that eventually it’s supposed to end. Yet this has not been the case with 2020, which incidentally, according to the Chinese calendar, was a Year of the Rat, proving that the universe can be just a bit too literal sometimes. Dashed were the hopes that 2021 would be a fresh start, that the endless problems of 2020 would dissolve into the ether like so much smoke at a mostly peaceful protest.
Instead this year began like it was going to be even more 2020 than 2020 was. Six days into 2021 and we’d already suffered an event so jarring that it’s now denoted by just a date. January 6 saw the Capitol building stormed by a joint force of QAnon message board moderators, Viking shamans, and dudes who had only just gotten back from that two-for-one camo sale at Cabela’s. It was a striking flare-up of violence, a callback to the riots of the previous summer that had seen so many of America’s inner cities torched.
January was thus a dark month, especially for those of us who knew people inside the Capitol, who didn’t know for hours whether they were okay. That unease lingered and set the mind adrift: was more carnage imminent? Were we about to see that civil war that so many had spent the Trump presidency chattering about? How deeply stupid would that civil war be anyway? The Antifa Airborne clashed with the Fighting Frogs today as President Lin Wood ordered in the Space Force…
Mike Lindell, that MAGA generalissimo by way of shouting about pillows on television, headed to the White House to suggest Donald Trump declare martial law. Social media was buzzing about coups, revolutions, traitors. The left was threatening to fight back, defend their own. That distinctly 2020 combo of steampunk politics and sub-Celsius IQs seemed to have encroached onto a new calendar year.
And then, all at once, quiet. Joe Biden was sworn in as president amid a Capitol building surrounded by the T-Rex fence from Jurassic Park, while the January 6 idiots were rounded up by the same blue they’d once backed. This was when the crying began. Capitol rioter Daniel Rodriguez, asked by an investigator why he’d tased a police officer, sobbed, “I’m sorry. I know he’s a human being with children.” The unrest of 2020 had always been shot through with the cavalier fantasies and ridiculous delusions of the internet; now those fictions were running headlong into the consequences of the real world.
Joe Biden, meanwhile, spent much of 2021 slipping on banana peels and trying to pass it off as rhythmic gymnastics. Spring brought gas lines and inflation and crime, the 1970s without the gnarly sideburns. Hot Vax Summer was canceled as the delta variant made itself comfortable. The troops finally left Afghanistan, yes, but not before the Taliban had occupied Kabul, driving home just how little progress we’d made in that country. Pressed for answers, Biden’s Democrats seemed unable to do anything except spend money, and even then their Build Back Better package ended up in the Senate’s legislative graveyard.
2021, then, really was like the 1970s, in that it felt like a collective hangover, like we were too ensnared in entropy and sclerosis to solve our own problems, or even grasp what the solutions should be. We couldn’t beat Covid with masks; we couldn’t whip inflation with government dollars (huh?); we couldn’t remake Afghanistan into a Madisonian democracy; we couldn’t even keep Kim and Kanye together for the love of God. Zoom in the lens and you saw more quarantines, more canceled plans, a collective sick-day sigh as we sprawled back on the couch and flipped on episode 724 of the 42nd season of Friends — again.
That isn’t to say 2021 was all bad, of course. We managed to annoy the French, which is always great fun. The judiciary held up well: our juries put away some bad guys and acquitted some not-so-bad ones, while the Supreme Court looks poised to strike down the most heinous legal precedent of the 20th century. And it’s worth emphasizing that the worst many of us had to endure this year was another socially distanced brunch. I don’t mean to downplay the very real grief of this pandemic, but the Black Death this is not, and we should be grateful for that.
Marking a bad year should always be a comparative exercise, and so it is that we turn to the historians, who say the worst year in human history was not 2020 but 536 AD. That was when the world literally went dark thanks to a mysterious fog that researchers now attribute to a volcanic eruption in Iceland. This caused temperatures to drop, which caused crops to die, which caused mass famines. Not long after came the first bubonic plague, which wiped out between one third and one half of the population of the Byzantine Empire. It’s difficult to overstate the immense human suffering of this period; there wasn’t even a new season of Emily in Paris to provide consolation.
It might be small comfort to note that our own challenges aren’t nearly so severe, but it should at least put things into perspective. And if 2021 was the hangover, perhaps 2022 can be the year we buck up, wolf down the greasy breakfast, and stagger courageously down to the car with giant coffee thermos in hand. Omicron is looking relatively mild, after all. Contra the Faucian doomsaying, there is reason for hope.