Monday, December 28, 2015

Looking Back at 2015

To paraphrase Queen Elizabeth II's famous 1992 Annus Horribilis speech, 2015 is not a year on which much of the world will "look back with undiluted pleasure." Undoubtedly, the year has had its better moments, which each of us can look back on and cherish. For example, in my own personal life, I had the happy experience of participating in two very positive and fulfilling gatherings, which were distinctive to this year. 

The first was a community retreat on the Jersey shore in observance of the Year of Consecrated Life. It was well attended by almost the entire order and was widely welcomed and well received - largely, I suspect, because it gave us a chance to focus on how we live as Religious in the Church, rather than focusing as we so often do on the work we do for the Church. The second was my 50th High School Reunion in New York, which was less about the present and the future (as the Jersey gathering was) and more about memories, positive and negative, and bringing appropriate closure to that formative experience we shared back in what now seems like another world, but which was nonetheless so decisive for each of us.

But, back to the bigger picture, both national and global, it seems safe to say that 2015 has not been one of human history's better years. I seldom agree with NY Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat's partisan conclusions, but I frequently find myself agreeing with much of his analysis of where our society has been and where it seems to be headed. In yesterday's NY Times Sunday Review, Douthat persuasively makes the case that something significant has changed in 2015. In his column "Cracks in the Liberal Order," Douthat argues that the hitherto stable-seeming "architecture of liberal modernity" suddenly seems much more vulnerable. The year 2015 has been, he suggests, "a memento mori moment for our institutions - a year of cracks in the system, of crumbling firewalls, of reminders that all orders pass away." 

Making my own list of such challenging moments of this year, I started with the terrorist events in Paris that bookended the year - the Charlie Hebdo shootings on January 7, followed by the multiple November 13 attacks. Islamic terrorism hit the United States too in San Bernardino, along with the more common gun violence that is killing our country and will keep on doing so until the evil of private gun ownership is exorcised from our society (which it surely won't be  any time soon.) As Pope Francis said in his New Year's message: "Sadly, war and terrorism, accompanied by kidnapping, ethnic or religious persecution and the misuse of power, marked the past year from start to finish."

One catastrophic component of that has been the continued displacement and dislocation of so many civilians, thanks to the ongoing Syrian civil war (itself one of the many calamitous consequences of that tragically misnamed "Arab Spring" and of the world's disastrous refusal - dramatically demonstrated in the fall of 2013 - to intervene in that war). The photo image of that 3-year old drowned boy became the most famous frame of this very long film of migrants and refugees pushing their way into an indifferent and increasingly unwelcoming West, with a chain of consequences yet to be fully fathomed.

Finally, of course, there is our pathetic political campaign, which in almost every way has hit new and newer lows. For decades now, our superficial news media and an uncaring electorate have been turning the political process into some sort of competitive reality show. And now just the right demagogues have come along to manipulate and use that to their advantage, further degrading not just the political process but an entire society.

Way back when I was an academic, I theorized how capitalism undermines human solidarity by diminishing our "capacity to care." Pope Francis employs the concept of indifference - referring in his New Year's message "to indifference to one's neighbor and to the environment," which he identifies as "one of the grave consequences of a false humanism and practical materialism allied to relativism and nihilism."

In the short-term, of course, Douthat is likely correct that it remains wiser "to bet on the current order ... and against its enemies and rivals and would-be saboteurs." But that turned out to be true as well in 1968,  a single year that even more dramatically defined the end of an era. True, at the end of 1968, Humpty Dumpty seemed to have been put back together again with the election of Richard Nixon. But the Nixon years and the decades that followed demonstrated further how fragile and superficial that rebuilt Humpty Dumpty really was.

Our institutions and our political culture have proved amazingly resilient these past 50 years as the very fabric of Western civilization and its most fundamental institutions have been attacked and undermined, mostly from within the West itself.  But however resilient our institutions and our political culture have been thus far, these repeated blows have done more than merely make a crack or two. We do ourselves no favors by downplaying the enormity of the crisis in which we find ourselves.

Nonetheless, the Catholic tradition has long been to give thanks at the end of each passing year and then to turn the calendar's page and invoke the Holy spirit upon the new year. So, later this week, a Look Ahead to 2016.

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