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At Year's End

Thinking about this annus horribilus and what might come next.

December 20, 2017
 
 

I browsed through my blog posts to inspire a wrap-up. A lot about social media, fake news, and net neutrality. Some thoughts about libraries and their place in democracy and in higher education. A few book reviews, a few thoughts about scholarly publishing. In other words, yammering about the same things as when I first started blogging here in 2010.

This surprised me. It hasn't been a normal year. I called my senators and congressman more in its first few weeks than I had in my entire life. I sent emails and signed petitions. I marched. I despaired. I raged. I felt that sense of sudden unreality over and over when hearing the name of gaudy hotel chain prefaced by “President.” I’m growing numb, though every day seems to bring a new insult to our collective dignity, a new crisis, a new fracture in our society that seems irreparable.

Yet our lives go on. Congress probably will reauthorize section 702 of the PATRIOT Act so the mass surveillance that Edward Snowden unveiled can continue. Facebook, Google, and Twitter will continue to gormlessly promote lies and polarization to sell ads. The term paper still doesn’t work, but we’ll keep assigning it. Big publishing will behave badly and profitably, and good books will keep making it to the market and into my hands. Right now we’re busy marking papers and grading tests. We’re thinking about the syllabus for spring, even if we won’t write it until after the new year. We’re fixing broken links and putting dinner on the table and taking the dog to the vet. Those months of unreality have become so routine they are our new reality. But not a new normal. 

We can still be surprised. We saw the phrase “climate change” deleted from government websites, but hearing that CDC officials were told to avoid touchy phrases like “fetus,” “vulnerable,” and “science-based” in budget documents was still a shock. Really? Has it come to this? It already had. It seemed pretty weird that among the millions of comments submitted to the FCC on net neutrality some two million were fakes, using stolen credentials. That makes it seem slightly less shocking that the department of Health and Human Services is simply deleting ones it doesn’t like. It seemed stupid to keep attacking a health care bill that became popular once people saw the Republican alternative, but that was just a harbinger. Pleasing donors and placating the president matters more than what the American people want, and so we have a tax bill that includes huge benefits for the ruling class, drilling on arctic lands, and an improvised explosive device that will try to destroy the health care program that was too popular to replace. Next, they’ll move on Medicare and Social Security, which think I heard Paul Ryan call “welfare reform” this morning.

Yet life goes on. The people brought in to dismantle the agencies they lead are finding they are made of sturdy stuff. Committed public servants, those that are left, continue to do their work, defending the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic, doing their jobs in spite of it all.

This has been a strange year, but also one that didn’t come out of nowhere. As baffled as we were at first by Trump, he’s simply the once and future king of insecurities and hatreds that have a long history in this country. The populist revolt has been placated by race-baiting rallies and a retro motto of champagne wishes and caviar dreams. A glamorous black-gloved hand clutches a sheet of freshly-printed currency. Whiteness has been restored to the White House. Hate crimes are up, but only because the hate that was always there has been let off the leash. We’re on the brink of nuclear war (my childhood nemesis) while still fighting one that is only slightly younger than the millennium. We neglected to fund a critical health program for children as we found the time to cut off foreign aid and access to birth control in the name of life. But then, we’ve allowed a fifth or more of our children to live in poverty for decades. We fought off some stupid provisions in the tax bill that would have made graduate training impossible, but that’s a small triumph in a higher ed system that for years has been treating faculty as bit players in a gig economy. 

We have a lot of work to do – the everyday work that has to go on and the longer-term work of addressing the problems that got us to this moment in our history. I wish us all a better new year. 

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