Anno Domini 2016: The Year of Salvation and Crisis

New Year’s Day has dawned, so I suppose a retrospective is in order. Here goes…

For me, personally, 2016 was the Year of Salvation, in several ways.  We added a beautiful, happy, and fiercely intelligent baby girl to our family, who has transformed our lives profoundly. Every day is a revelation and a blessing, and I am continually amazed at how becoming a parent changes one’s perspective on life. But some things remain the same: I’m already planning her training–swordfighting, karate, jui jitsu, archery, survival skills, etc.

In the mean time, my wife is as awesome as ever. I can teach and write and blog, and change a diaper, and I can make a good omelette. She can teach, tutor, parent, cook, budget, write academically, write creatively, and turn out an amazing number of stunning fiber arts crafts pieces, all in the same week. And she is tremendous fun to be around, as well as being extremely patient with her worse half (anyone who knows me knows that patience is next to godliness…). In August we moved to Richmond, Virginia, and are just privileged enough to start creating the kind of life we want, and to help others more than we have been able hitherto. Charity, kindness, and generosity are going to be more important than ever this year, I suspect.

Professionally 2016 was a year of recovery. I landed a full-time job after a grueling year on the adjunct circuit. While I don’t have the horror stories that others do,  it took a tremendous toll, particularly in the spring of ’16 when I had 175 students in three locations, plus job apps, plus scholarship because “publish or perish.” Sleep and good food were the first things to go, naturally, but just as bad was a growing sense of alienation from my profession. Getting a permanent position in May, at a great school in a fantastic location, was a true deliverance, relief, and vindication all at once. In the mean time, I was privileged to teach some absolutely phenomenal students in the spring semester, at SUNY New Paltz. My affection for that university is very strong: they are an example of how to treat adjuncts. Meanwhile, I have been clearing my to-do list, and since I’m at a teaching school I am increasingly free to research and write about whatever I wish–a very invigorating feeling.

2016 has also proved crucial for my religious beliefs and philosophical thought. After about six years of disillusionment and a kind of soft “moral agnosticism” I rediscovered (and am rediscovering) my faith and what Wedgwood called “the moral center.” I look forward to continuing in New Year. At the same time,  I also came to the realization that I am neither a progressive nor a conservative, though I agree with both persuasions from time to time. This process was rather coterminous with my reading and meditation on faith, morality, and ethics, and I’ll blog about it in 2017. But it was liberating, and will I think make me a better historian and better citizen, though it will doubtless cost me friends.

Anno Domini 2016, therefore, was a very positive year for me personally.

There was also a lot of crisis, however, in my profession, culturally, and politically.

Medieval studies was rocked by relentless agitation, from those who gave offence and those who were quick not only to take offence but to insist that others be as offended or as scornful as they were. Shibboleths, manifestos, declarations of principles, and virtue signaling basically took over social media. Much of it, it must be said, of rather dubious quality. But at least now I know that my medieval studies is, as one prominent scholar put it, bulls***, because I don’t research the right kinds of questions. The two most recent items, to close out the year, are an Anti-Authoritarian Academic Code of Conduct and a mostly-serious proposal to include scholarly citation gender equity in AHA guidelines. I will return to this topic at a later date.

Speaking of codes of conduct, the election produced major fissures in the historical profession, as hundreds of historians signed on the Historians Against Trump letter, prompting a discussion about precisely what kind of moral authority and public function that we have. I don’t think the discussion produced much tangible, except a huge dose of scorn and shaming. The whole year has helped to discredit historians as public intellectuals, in my opinion, particularly after the election when historians like Timothy Snyder and Victor Davis Hanson are getting far too much play. These are all topics I’ll be covering in the new year…

And, well, there’s the election itself, which has thrown people into a tailspin. We seem caught between partisans of globalism and nationalism, and at the extremes between Fascists and Stalinists. I have never seen such nastiness, viciousness, rancor, spite, logical fallacies, condescension, and an eager desire to lap up whatever slops the media produces, provided it backs up your own point of view, as in 2016. I indict progressives of this as much as conservatives, or whatever far left/right group your persuasion is. Except libertarians, you folks were about the same as always…

The new style of propaganda didn’t help either: several people have remarked that the new propaganda doesn’t rely on spin or twisting facts, instead it overwhelms you with quantity, so that you don’t know what to believe, and you either give up or stay in your camp. Both sides had their version of this, and the Russians seem not to have helped. At the same time, people’s capacity for self-deception seemed to grow beyond all proportion, whether it was pro-Brexit voters believing preposterous claims or Clinton supporters believing that the emails were “just emails.” The net result was an increase in overt racism, xenophobia, concupiscence, schadenfreude, dishonesty, and paranoia.

American influence in the world has declined drastically, which on balance is a bad thing (except when it isn’t–my radical friends can’t seem to agree on that). At the same time, Americans of all stripes seem both badly out of touch with the world and unwilling to listen to those who are in touch (and no, I don’t mean Mike Flynn, who scares me). Most people, for example probably missed that the Arab world’s reaction to Trump was “big deal, Hillary was going to bomb us anyway.” And reactions to Russia go from embarrassingly cheerleader-esque to theater of the absurd. Meanwhile, how many people know that Nairobi, Durban, Lagos, Accra, Kampala, and other African cities are beehives of tech, investment, and innovation, or that Brazil has had a comprehensive and working environmental conservation plan in place for a few years now?

Public discourse is at an all-time low, if it even exists. My confidence in the future of the Republic is not very high, to be honest. We seem incapable of discussing economics, Islam, the environment, refugees, immigration, or social issues with anything like an even keel or a willingness to read or listen to anything that contradicts our own views. Multiple times over the last few days, I’ve seen people write “I got (x-pages) or (x-minutes) in, and then I stopped because he said x.” People, for the love of all that is holy, we have got  to do better in 2017. Meanwhile, we have a President-Elect who quite openly sees the world in terms of winners and losers, tends to view things as a zero-sum game, and seriously needs to get off Twitter. And an outgoing President who more-or-less redefined “executive overreach,” which his successor will now have at his disposal. Yipee.

So the world enters 2017 in crisis. We probably aren’t alone in the universe, or so they said the other day, and we certainly are an infinitesimal part of it, but I hope and pray for a better year, for peace, friendship, understanding, and caritas to win through.

Happy New Year!