The Biggest Worries of 2016

An empty dining room decorated in an opulent European style.

Optimism is to be cherished, but, given the state of the world, it may be a foolish indulgence.  The times call for levelheaded engagement, not the dreamy complacency that optimism breeds.  Faith in our political system, in the American people, or in the capacities of elected leaders: faith like that has yielded small rewards lately.  The glue of trust that valorizes American government is disintegrating.

That the US has fallen into troughs of mediocrity before (think of the Gilded Age culture Mark Twain pilloried) is one of the few thoughts that consoles me.

Our national capacities matter more then ever, given the dire condition of the world, our institutions, and many of our communities.  What can we bring to 2016’s daunting prospect, a prospect defined by several cosmic and worrisome possibilities?

1. World War Three?

If it breaks out, it will be a war like no other, as was also true of World Wars One and Two.  In fact, it may already be underway.  We may not know it, simply because we are in the same situation as those who lived through other world wars. We watch as an unconventional conflict erupts and spreads in a fashion that the world order is unprepared to protect itself against.  In Syria and with the Islamic State, aggressors are working with playbooks that defy borders and prevailing conceptions of war and nationality.  As in previous wars, the Middle East’s war-within-a war has geographic and strategic traits that have already begun enmeshing a widening set of parties, both psychologically and militarily.

2. The decline of national sovereignty

World order as we know it is based on the concept of the nation-state: that states and powers have boundaries, and that, within those boundaries, all are subject to a nation’s laws.  The international order and our concepts of war are built on the notion that nations are sovereign.  In the many parts of the world, the concept of the nation-state has allowed humans to live peacefully under the rule of law.

These days, the integrity of the nation-state and the inviolable nature of national sovereignty are losing salience.  A host of contributing forces, both economic and geopolitical, was strikingly evident in 2015.  While Greece’s economic crisis exposed the mutual discontents inherent in the great experiment known as the European Union, its member-states are increasingly fractious, as the incidence of terrorism and a massive influx of refugees from war-torn and dysfunctional parts of the world have highlighted their loss of internal control.

Global mobility has increasingly challenged the static bulwark of the nation state, but the world’s leading powers have also rained insults on its integrity. Whether it’s Russia in the Ukraine, or the US in Syria, the superpowers frequently allow their desires to override their respect for the sovereignty of nations that they dislike.  Their increasing resort to overt and covert interventionism mocks the concept of national sovereignty.  Even changes in technology–such as the increasing sophistication of air-to-ground warfare–have made it easier to ignore and violate the clear boundaries that formerly protected nations from one another and impeded a general descent into war.

3. Witchy weather

Climate change, global warming—call it what you will, it’s a major worry.  Unbreathable air; murderous landslides; droughts and forest fires; glaciers melting, oceans rising.  Whether you’re a scientist or a believer in the Biblical end-time, you may agree (while wearing shorts in winter) that ‘Old Mother Nature’ is trying to tell us something.  Resource exhaustion is how a planet’s inhabitants typically do themselves in.  With omens like this, why worry about bombs?

4. The twin bankruptcies of Chicago and Illinois

Chicago and the State of Illinois are bankrupt already.  They just haven’t admitted it yet because of the shame.  The most powerful people in our state, especially the state legislators and Speaker of the Illinois House, Mike Madigan, will be remembered as the people at the helm when the ship went down.

Poor governance alone is to blame for Chicago and Illinois’s difficulties, for, ironically, both are richly endowed entities, with great human capital and masses of valuable resources and assets, including some of the world’s most productive farmland.  Illinois has one of the largest GDPs in the country, but it is saddled with a growing and inescapable debt load consisting chiefly of unmet pension obligations, the legacy of decades of corrupt and self-interested leadership.

The collapse of a major American city and its state AT THE SAME TIME has no precedent in US history.  History will remember and damn the leading politicians who for decades have written bad laws and abused the people’s trust.  Hold on to your hats, all Illinois!  2016’s going to be a bumpy ride.

5. A Donald Trump presidency

Beyond the well-aired controversies that Donald Trump inflames, his ascendancy portends chaos in the political realm.  Not only does Trump’s unwelcome prominence prove that the Republican National Committee has lost control of the party; it also shows the degree to which both parties and their personnel have lost touch with the sentiments of the electorate.  Whether Trump can convert viewers into votes remains to be seen, but if he polls well, we’re going to find out what happens when a candidate upends an entrenched national party.

Image: Carol M. Highsmith, Marble House, Newport, Rhode Island,
from this source.

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Ready or Not

Puck Christmas 1899 (Courtesy Library of Congress)
The new American girl glides into a new century on the 1899 cover of Puck magazine.  She holds onto her hat, her skirts flapping and duster billowing out behind her, a measure of her velocity.  She smiles in a frank and carefree way, as Puck pushes her from behind.

Frank Nankiwell‘s marvelous drawing captures the freedom and athleticism that the American girl of this era was enjoying.  Though her clothes look constraining to a modern eye, in relation to fashions that had come before, her garb was practical, masculine, and revealingly form-fitting.

In the Gay 1890s, as horizons for women broadened, their increasing physicality prompted dramatic changes in the clothing they favored.  Women began wearing shirtwaists and belts borrowed from men’s fashions.  Their bell-like skirts hugged their hips and thighs, before flaring out dramatically above the knee.  The length was short enough to reveal ankles and leave feet more free.  So dressed, the American woman moved faster and more freely, increasingly visible on skates, on bicycles, and in automobiles.

Image from this source.

A Working Holiday

Map of US Territorial Acquisitions (Credit: National Atlas of the United States via Wikimedia Commons)

New Year’s has often been a working holiday for American statesmen.  More than a day of moral resolution, January 1st marks the anniversary of several bold, ambitious actions that have opened new eras and horizons for Americans as a people.

1. SCOUTING THE WEST

New Year’s Day in 1803 found Thomas Jefferson secretly laying the groundwork for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, a scheme that had to be covert because it proposed scouting out vast tracts of land that at the time belonged to other countries.  The French lands now referred to as the Louisiana Purchase would not belong to the United States until the spring, while the Oregon Territory would remain the property of England for many decades.  Yet Jefferson was undeterred in his determination to familiarize himself with, and strengthen American claims to, these unknown neighboring regions.

So he began crafting a confidential message to Congress, describing the possible benefits of reconnoitering these lands and asking for an appropriation of the $2,500 necessary to supply the journey.   Congress looked with favor on his request, thus inaugurating a initiative that pioneered knowledge of the West’s lands, resources, and native peoples.

A map from the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Courtesy of Yale University Library via Wikimedia Commons).

The government was rewarded with a treasure-trove of maps and documents that facilitated its later dealings with, and gradual displacement of, native American tribes.  Today, we tend to discount the expansionist ambitions that motivated Jefferson, instead lauding the Expedition as an early model of the many progressive scientific projects and surveys the US government would subsequently fund.

2. FREEING THE SLAVE

Sixty years later, President Lincoln spent New Year’s Day greeting callers to the White House and putting his signature on the final version of his Emancipation Proclamation, which was sent out over the telegraph wires later that day.  Not unlike the Lewis and Clark expedition, Lincoln’s statement had had a long fruition, with earlier drafts of the measure being floated and discussed the previous fall.  Lincoln’s determination to associate the waging of the Civil War with the moral cause of ending slavery marked a tipping point in the long struggle to secure for African-Americans personal freedom and civil equality, a struggle begun decades earlier and continuing on for more than a century, even down to today.

Watch meeting in Massachusetts

The executive order, which famously declared the freedom of all slaves held in rebel states, was on display at the National Archives in Washington yesterday, on the occasion of its 150th anniversary.  Though limited in its scope and practical effects, the proclamation spelled liberation for a people who had suffered oppression since colonial times.  Lincoln’s deliberate blow to slavery paved the way for its complete and permanent abolition, accomplished through the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

3. WELCOMING THE IMMIGRANT

Finally, on New Year’s Day in 1892, the first immigrant (of some 16 million) passed through the doors of Ellis Island.  It is commonly said that “American is a nation of immigrants,” but the establishment of Ellis Island and other formal points of entry gave that rite of passage a dignity and regularity that was previously missing.

Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, 1905 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Located near the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island bestowed welcome and the necessary paperwork on immigrants who had previously been less distinguishable from American citizens.  At a time when many born Americans went through life without the legal documentation of a birth certificate, Ellis Island conferred a bureaucratic identity on the newly arrived, routinizing a more paper-bound and legalistic conception of Americanness that is with us still.  Today, however, Ellis Island stands as a cherished symbol of the rational means the government employed to bind its disparate population into one people.

May these complex and impressive projects inspire today’s political leaders to lift up their sights and grapple bravely with the issues confronting the nation now.