It’s become clear during this summer of discontent that 2016 is a terrible year. Climate change continues apace with June temperatures again breaking records, and the most shocking thing is how little we’re shocked. Far Right nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise in Europe and North America, creating an uneasy early 1930’s mood. Gun deaths continue unabated in the United States, as a carnival buffoon hijacks the party of Lincoln with racism and conspiracy theories. And high profile cases of people of colour killed by those in authority are almost-weekly reminders that systematic racism is alive and well.
The internet, while giving platforms for those who couldn’t previously get their voices heard, has also splintered the media. Different sections of the population literally believe different ‘facts’. Public distrust of everything from newspapers to governments is high. As the institutions that supported our parents and grandparents’ generations dissolve, social media further segregates Millennials, allowing us to share photos but not genuinely connect with one another.
And yet, 2016 may also prove to be one of the best years of my life. Going back to school for PR paid off and I have a new job at a company I can see myself staying at for awhile – for the first time in my life I have health coverage! I have a wonderful boyfriend with whom I’ve started looking for apartments. I have supportive and loving family and friends. I live in a city that, not without its problems, has events to go to every weekend, new restaurants and different neighbourhoods to check out, and in which my boyfriend and I can publicly hold hands with comfort.
The future is bleak. The future is bright. It really depends on the day.
Only a handful of months ago I wasn’t doing so well. I was stressed at work and developed an ulcer. I first had an ulcer in undergrad during a bad break up. It’s one of the only times of my university years I’m not nostalgic for. A lot of my anxiety came from entering a new career at age 30. Sure, I had journalistic skills that helped me advance, along with plenty of life experience, but I wasn’t easy on myself. I agonized about making mistakes. I felt like things should come more quickly than they did. I worried that, after so many years working at cafes in my twenties, I wasn’t cut out for a more grown up job.
When I wasn’t at work, I craved comfort. I had dinner with my parents a lot. I curled up in my room watching old TV shows on Netflix. I read books mostly about the past – histories of Druids and Celts, Barbara Pym novels, Old Hollywood biographies.
I have always been retro with a keen interest in the past, but in 2015/2016 my nostalgia changed, tinged with a bit of sadness. It became wrapped up in my memories of my childhood and missing my grandmother, who passed away in 2014. I listen to my iPod at work and whenever the theme song to ‘Pleasantville’ would come on, my eyes would mist up with tears. I have a collection of John Williams soundtracks, and the right combination of his movie tunes (for instance, the theme from ‘Jurassic Park’ followed by ‘Home Alone’) did it as well. And don’t even get me started on the Vera Lynn/White Cliffs of Dover songs I have, which remind me not so much of WWII, but of my grandmother, of course, ands summer nights of my childhood listening to the radio on the porch of my cottage.
As you get older, tears start to symbolize a different kind of sadness from when you were a kid – a sentimental emotion, happy memories tinted blue.
As a history person as well as a progressive, I’m not naïve about the past. I don’t actually want to live there. My life, as a gay man in an interracial relationship who enjoys all the benefits of a multicultural 21st century city (heck, Kirk and I met online!), I realize my life as it is would not be possible 15 years ago, let alone during the era of the American Songbook songs of George Gershwin and Harold Arlen.
What I really miss is a feeling, a sense of comfort and safety. I wish I had appreciated the years before university and digital disruption more, but when you’re a kid who’s had a charmed life you never really think things will change. I guess that’s what the quote ‘You can never go home again’ means. It’s not rational or logical, but that doesn’t make the feeling any less real.
It may be different eras and different outlets, but judging by such nostalgic travesties as ‘Fuller House’ I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way. The past is cozy.
As much as I fundamentally disagree with their positions, perhaps that’s what’s fuelling supporters of Donald Trump or the Brexit in Great Britain – an unshakeable sensation that their world has changed, that things are getting worse, and a desire to turn back the clock. Their opinions are uninformed, their xenophobia about immigration dangerous, and their embrace of demagogic nationalism chilling, but perhaps that’s a root of their fiery passion.
One weekend a few months ago, when I was at my last job and had kicked out my boyfriend to do some work on a sunny Saturday, my best friend phoned me to invite me to Kensington Market. I told her that I was staying indoors pitching journalists and she proceeded to give me what amounted to an intervention over the phone.
“Yes, work can be stressful,” she said. “Yes, there’s not enough hours in the day. But you can’t close yourself off from your friends, or from the world. People miss you. I miss you. You won’t be happy spending all your time either working or cocooning at home.”
She was right. I closed my computer, called my boyfriend back and spent the rest of the day out in Kensington Market.
It’s not just your social life you have to keep up with. You have to engage with the wider world as well. In 2016, every week has brought upsetting headlines – ISIS, Orlando, guns, Trump. It would be comforting to tune them all out, and instead live in the world of books and Hercule Poirot mysteries. Perhaps I could drown out the great unravelling with the soothing songs of Tin Pan Alley.
But, like Prior at the end of ‘Angels in America’, I chose not to watch the terrifying beauty of the apocalypse from a safe distance. Rejecting the offer to stay in Heaven and embrace the serenity of death, Prior insists to the angels, despite it all, “I want more life.”
But if the last couple weeks of tragedy and strife have taught me anything, it’s that we need to do better. Things have to change. Systemic racism must be challenged and dismantled, and sometimes that will entail protests that inconvenience people. The Left needs to not descend into social media disputes and splinter along identity lines – the threat from the ultra Right is just too dangerous.
We need to mitigate climate change before it wrecks even more havoc. If people are worried about refugees now, wait until entire island nations disappear. We need to bring back the bees. We need to get rid of the guns. We need to combat rape and support survivors. We must stop the disproportionate murdering of indigenous women, and trans women of colour (which, once again, does not mean we don’t also want to stop the killing of white people). We need to use the internet to educate and emphasize, not dehumanize, divide and attack.
These changes won’t happen on their own. Change for the better never does. But we’re smart, and have access to more information than any other generation in history. We have to be committed. We have to step up. Our parents aren’t going to save the world. It’s ours now. And the very first step is to stay engaged and informed and invested. We can’t own the future by hiding in the past.
I’ll end with a quote from Dr. Seuss: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better. It’s not.”