It seems like we’re living through the worst year of our lives.
After all, with a global pandemic, a fractured economy, a divisive election, the death of George Floyd, urban unrest, racial tensions, wildfires, even murder hornets, who can dispute that 2020 has been rotten?
If not the worst year ever, it’s the worst going back to at least since … 2016.
That’s the year when we were distraught over another bitter presidential election, the Syrian refugee crisis, the Orlando nightclub shooting, the deaths of Prince, David Bowie, Philando Castile, Carrie Fisher, not to mention another batch of pestilent insects, Zika virus mosquitoes.
It was the sort of year that launched a raft of year-end thumbsucker articles and op-ed pieces with titles like “16 reasons why 2016 was the worst year ever,” “2016: Worst. Year. Ever?” “Why 2016 Seemed Like the Worst Year Ever.”
Well, here we go again.
As much as we might complain that 2020 is really the worst year, in the long scheme of human suffering over the ages, we ain’t seen nothing.
The roll call of awful annums should also include 1968, according to Bill Convery, director of research for the Minnesota Historical Society.
That was the year that we were rocked by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the year of the Tet Offensive and the My Lai Massacre and nearly 50 American soldiers dying every day in Vietnam. It was also the year when urban unrest over poverty, racial discrimination, police brutality and another bitter and chaotic presidential election led to protests and rioting in dozens of American cities. When Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush burgeoning liberal reforms. When another virus, the H3N2 “Hong Kong flu,” would kill a million people worldwide.
“Those were rough times,” Convery said. “It stands out in living memory as a terrible year.”
Or consider 1942, in the depths of a world war that was killing millions. That was the year of the Bataan death march, the deadliest months of the Holocaust and the beginning of the battle of Stalingrad.
Or imagine living through 1932, with the Dust Bowl, rampant homelessness and hunger marches amid the Great Depression.
Or 1919, with a deadly flu pandemic, anarchist bombings and widespread racial violence in the U.S. during a postwar recession.
Or 1862. Or 1863. Or 1864.
“Pick any year of the Civil War,” Convery said. “Each year saw some of the deadliest battles that Americans ever participated in.”
Other nominees for a dumpster fire Christmas tree ornament might be 1492 (a disaster for the Indigenous population of the New World), 1348 (the Black Death), 536 (global cold, darkness and crop failures thanks to ash from a massive volcanic eruption), or sometime about 66 million years ago when a mighty big asteroid hit the Yucatán Peninsula, wiping out the dinosaurs and about three-fourths of all life on Earth.
Worse for whom?
Of course, none of us were around for the Civil War. And that dino-killer asteroid sort of paved the way for us mammals to take over, so lucky us.
Which illustrates that bad years aren’t always bad for everyone. Your mileage may vary depending on the nation, city or individual or species. Hiroshima’s worst year, for example, is going to be different from Pompeii’s.
And you probably have to be Dutch to know that Rampjaar or “Disaster Year” refers to 1672, the year that both the French and the English attacked the Netherlands.
After enduring indignities that included a fire at Windsor Castle and embarrassing marriage problems, tell-all books and racy photos involving her children or their spouses, Queen Elizabeth II famously made a speech singling out 1992 as “not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure.”
She even called the year an “annus horribilis,” resurrecting the Latin term for “horrible year.”
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan used the same term to describe 2004, apparently recalling allegations of corruption in the U.N.’s Iraq Oil-for-Food Program, and violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Unfortunately, as soon as you say it couldn’t get any worse, it often does.
About two weeks after Queen Elizabeth gave her 1992 annus horribilis speech, Prince Charles and Princess Diana officially split up. Five days later after Kofi Annan’s gave his annus horribilis news conference in 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami hit.
Better than ever?
As awful things have seemed lately, many experts have been arguing that — at least until recently — humanity has never had it better. Believe it or not, we’ve actually been living in the best of times.
Citing global drops in extreme poverty, child deaths, illiteracy and disfiguring diseases, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof ended 2019 with an essay asserting, “In the long arc of human history, 2019 has been the best year ever.”
In his 2011 book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker argues we might be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence. His data analysis shows that rates of human violence, from murder to warfare, has generally declined over the course of human history.
Pinker reminds us that during the decades and centuries, societies and governments have banned the once common practices of legal slavery, torture, lynching, dueling, capital punishment and corporal punishment, while establishing rights for women, children, people of color and gays.
Anyone who thinks this is the worst year ever “must have flunked high school,” said Pinker in an e-mail.
“The rate of war deaths was 300 times higher during World War II, Jews were being gassed and shot by the millions, Japanese Americans were detained in American concentration camps, African Americans were in separate schools and restaurants, nuclear weapons were dropped on Japan, homosexuality was a crime, global poverty was massively higher,” he said.
The decades of slow, steady but often unnoticed progress has led Barack Obama in recent years to say that the world and the nation is better off in terms of crime, health, wealth, education, race relations or marriage equality than it was 10, 30 or 50 years ago.
“If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be — what nationality, what gender, what race, whether you’d be rich or poor, gay or straight, what faith you’d be born into — you wouldn’t choose 100 years ago. You wouldn’t choose the ’50s, ’60s or ’70s. You’d choose right now,”
“You’d certainly pick this decade,” Pinker said.
But “not this year — COVID will bring setbacks in poverty and life expectancy,” he added.
That’s a view confirmed by the Goalkeepers Report, an initiative by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to track and encourage global progress.
In its September 2020 report, the organization stated that after decades of worldwide declines in poverty and disease, “This progress has now stopped.”
COVID-19 and a world recession have halted improvements in a host of global developments, such as reducing child mortality, decreasing HIV cases and improving sanitation, according to the organization.
“This year, on the vast majority [of goals], we’ve regressed,” the Goalkeepers Report said.
So, yeah. 2020 may not be the worst ever. But it’s bad. It’s a setback.
As Convery puts it, “In the U.S., there are at least 235,000 reasons to consider this a terrible year,” he said referring to the number of people who had died of COVID-19 at the time.
But Pinker isn’t buying the idea that “every year has to be better than the previous one. That would be magic, a miracle,” he said.
“The real world always has ups and downs — how could it not? Still, on top of the pandemics and wars and riots, there has been a gradual trend to less poverty, crime, oppression, and warfare.”
We should remember we’ve been here before. And we’ve gotten through it.
“There are lessons in the past if we’re paying attention,” Convery said. “This is not Nanjing in 1937 or Warsaw in 1942. We still have it pretty good.”