Last year certainly had its share of big moments. Here are five of the most important global stories, in my view, to cross our news streams and how they were related:
1) The year of Trump
He is everywhere, and in the 24-hour news cycle, he has become boringly predictable.
But, in a fundamental—and glaringly crude—way, Trump is a lens through which to view our world over the last year.
He embodies the rise of the political and social right. He zealously flirts with dictators. He is unabashedly xenophobic and enthusiastically foments anger among his base against foreigners, just as he repeatedly attempts to seal off America’s borders. He pulled the US out of the COP-21 Paris Agreement, believes climate change to be a Chinese-concocted hoax, and promotes coal. And of course, he is the figurehead for the endemicity of sexual assault, particularly by powerful men against vulnerable women.
A man who openly brags about grabbing women by the pussy—his word—and has mused publicly about having sex with his own daughter is now president of the most powerful nation ever.
He was elected after this was known. Now that says something about our times.
And make no mistake. Trump is president. He won the election. Sure, the howlers can talk of Russian involvement, of losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. But right now, he is the winner.
Politics is greasy and Trump is a master Greaser. The very notion of fake news, for all its perversion of rational thought, has been genius in the will to power.
Despite being unpalatable to the Trump-despisers on CNN, CBC, and among most of small “L” liberal North America, the Trump-Bannon strategy has been remarkably effective in the face of seemingly insurmountable barriers. True, Trump arrives on the scene when white America is frothing at the mouth and ripe for the legitimization of extremism. But, undeniably, he rose to the top when many thought such a feat impossible.
Whatever one thinks of the man, ultimately it is not so much what Trump has accomplished—or not accomplished—that matters.
Instead, Trump is important because of what he represents. He stands for an atavistic ignorance that always lurks outside the gates of civilization—akin to Beowulf’s foe Grendel—only interested in ruthless self-preservation and self-advancement, at any cost.
Ironically—or perhaps not so—it is the same mindset that drives the barbarism seen in the likes of ISIS in the once great civilization of the Levant.
In any event, American voters, or at least—and let’s be blunt here—the white electorate in the US, feel desperate enough to identify with this mentality, even if many of Trump’s supporters will unequivocally suffer from his policies. His magnetic hatred is—to the hurting base—enough.
People are on the move as never witnessed before.
The overall number of international migrants in 2017 was estimated to be 258 million. Much of the displacement was involuntary. Reports from all corners of the globe reveal horrific stories of people—mostly women and children—fleeing unimaginable atrocities.
By the end of last year (the most current figures available), 66 million people were forcibly driven from their homes. Given countless more recent reports from regions all around the world—coupled with stagnating resettlement programs in host nations—on the eve of 2018, the number is almost certainly higher, and likely drastically so.
New crises in the past twelve months have propelled this trend. Ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya by the Burmese government, led by Aung San Suu Ki—the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former darling of the West—has sent 655,000 people across the border to Bangladesh since August, over half of whom are believed to be children.
In Yemen, where the Canadian-backed Saudi Arabian military smashes villages, over 2 million people are currently displaced.
Meanwhile, ongoing conflicts around the world continue to propel migration. Asylum seekers from Africa and Asia escaping persecution are still arriving by sea in Europe. Numbers may be down, but still more than 170,000 survived the perilous ocean journeys this past year.
Here in Canada, almost 46,000 asylum claims were made as of November 2017.
While Canada has largely been buffered from migrant crises in the past, it would appear that as more and more people flee their homes for a better future, the social geography of all rich countries faces a radical reset, whether we like—or are prepared—for it or not.
3) Climate change
Crazy wildfires in BC and California. The most expensive hurricane season ever faced by the US, the same storms which levelled several Caribbean nations. Ongoing droughts in Africa, Oceania, and North America. Amidst it all, the world got hotter again.
This past year is one of the top three highest temperature years recorded. This should be frightening to us all. There is a tipping point. Some argue that we have already surpassed it. At some point—perhaps pragmatically, perhaps terrifyingly—the conversation will have to shift from prevention to mitigation.
NASA predicts that warming will produce still worsening droughts and wildfires, more severe storms, and rising sea levels.
The chain reaction at that juncture becomes obvious, an effect we already see in parts of the world: increased food and water shortages; destruction of housing, communities, and agricultural land; and, worsening heath impacts, especially for children and the elderly.
The consequences go far beyond “environmental” concerns, to put it mildly.
The #MeToo movement confronted head-on the uncontested access by powerful men to women’s bodies throughout much of North America and Europe. High priest after high priest fell in 2017—starting with Hollywood Grand Mullah, Harvey Weinstein. Following Weinstein, the impact quickly and persistently spread outwards.
In some ways, #MeToo is the wealthy—though no less valid--response to a misogyny known all too well by underclass women. In Canada, Amnesty International estimates that Indigenous women are murdered at rates 4.5 higher than other Canadian women—likely an under-count, considering that these calculations ignore the scores of Indigenous women that remain missing and unaccounted for.
In much of the world over, women remain in desperate circumstances. United Nations figures suggest that 35% of women globally are the victims of physical and/or sexual violence.
To make matters worse, the playing field is absurdly uneven from the outset. Worldwide, on virtually every metric, women fare worse. Lower pay, more unpaid work, less access to education and health care, greater rates of malnourishment, etc. etc. etc.
From an international perspective, perhaps the high-profile nature of #MeToo allows the door to open on broader issues of gender inequality around the world, whether with respect to sexual violence, physical violence, or the violence of poverty and exclusion.
In so many cases, these factors are intimately entwined. If #MeToo maintains momentum in the coming year, these broader issues will likely rise to fore. In some instances, they already have.
5) The rise of the right
In the global crucible of discontent—as the haves increasingly outdistance the have-nots—xenophobia and racism, under the guise of populism, are flourishing.
Nowhere has this been more alarming than in Europe, where the brutality of fascism still remains a living—albeit fleeting—memory. From the UK to France to Austria to the Netherlands and beyond—even Germany has not been immune—the right-wing has made inroads previously unthinkable in the post-WW2 era.
And of course, there is Trump and his bizarre brand of rich-kid-cum-populist. Across the pond, his friend, Vladimir Putin, continues to confidently embrace the strongman image and its attending methods.
Elsewhere, similar trends are unfolding—a difference of degree, not kind. The 2010 Arab Spring has been either crushed—or in some cases supplanted, as in the case of Egypt’s el-Sisi—with autocracy.
Where resistance to the status quo remains, it is dominated—at least in the Muslim world—by a theocratic fascism in the form of ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or al-Shabaab in East Africa, to name just a few of the main players.
Outside of the Middle East and Central Asia, leaders like the Philippine’s Rodrigo Duterte and India’s Narendra Modi, have no qualms with rallying mass support for policies that blatantly contravene basic human rights principles. And remember, both men are democratically-elected.
And that’s the point. Populism, nativism, and fascism cannot exist in a void. It is easy to cast a loathsome gaze on a leader one despises. It is a far more complex exercise to comprehend why seemingly ordinary, decent people support their platforms.
Linking it all together
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of these stories are the threads that weave them together. While on an overlying layer, Trump embodies them all, the underpinnings are plaited in deeper, and ultimately darker, more pernicious factors.
Climate change will only compound migration. Migration in turn will embolden extremism.
The issue of sexual assault—and the broader discussion around gender inequality is ultimately underpinned by power. Patriarchy maintains that space where women remain vulnerable. In different forms, this is as true in the dressing rooms of Hollywood moguls as it is in refugee camps on some liminal borderland or in the withering fields of the drought-ridden sub-Sahara.
At the end of the day, when you look at these stories, there are lines in the sand. Events like the election of Trump and the Brexit vote are broad, global statements. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with what happened in such instances, we can make no mistake of their preternatural basis.
In an era of click-bait and instant gratification, a sea-change may be hard to apprehend. But there comes a time when people will hit the barricades. The mass migrations we are witnessing is one such revolution. So, too, is the rise of the right and populism everywhere, whether ISIS, Trump, or Modi. The question is whether the perfect storm of anger and hate on one hand, and apathy combined with willful ignorance on the other, will rise to the fore, or whether the winds blow us in a different direction.
Right now, it’s pretty windy out there.