Finally, we wind down our retrospective of the “anus horribilis” with the rest of the responses to our annual survey of contributors: the stuff that moved us, surprised us, made us laugh and (most definitely) made us cry this year. We may have had fascism in 2016, but we also had beans, greens, potatoes, tomatoes… you name it!
Best TV Show
ASC: Easily Atlanta–wunderkind creator Donald Glover’s take on life in the A combined verité realism with the occasional touch of the brilliantly absurd to capture the wonderful weirdness of the city it chronicles. Like the thinking man’s Twin Peaks.
Two other shows also brought a lot of light into 2016, recently available to American audiences via Netflix though they were released a while back in their home countries. Both explore women’s sexuality with a welcome frankness and willingness to embrace the ridiculous and embarrassing aspects of life: British performer Michaela Cole’s painfully hilarious sitcom Chewing Gum, about a young woman from a conservative Ghanaian family trying to lose her virginity in the grimy council estate where she lives; and Australia’s Laid, in which star Allison Bell tries, with brilliant comic timing, to solve the mystery of why all the men she has slept with are dying. Both programs mix up moralistic ideas about sex and promiscuity with a feminist sensibility about women’s desires and agency, with truly funny results.
Nick: Please Like Me, the best little Australian coming-of-age sitcom you’ve never heard of. The 2016 connection here is tenuous, because Season 4 of the show dropped in Australia but the US provider, Pivot, folded in October, but whatever: Seasons 1 and 2 are on Hulu, and they’re sweet, funny, and quietly brilliant. If “coming of age sitcom” makes you retch at the thought of Friends or Girls, it’s all the more reason to watch this unpretentious, surprisingly honest show, created by comedian Josh Thomas, with its head-on takes on coming out and mental health and a cast that are actually friends and behave like actual friends, instead of “friends” in a reality show.
Jael: MTV Latin America’s Super Shore. It’s really bad and really shouldn’t be on TV, yet my repulsion breeds intrigue because it’s hard to contemplate how a single show can have so much wrong with it.
Joel: I’m on the final season The Sopranos. It’s cool. The Wire is better.
Will: Westworld. “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” The engineers who maintain the lifelike robots that host this show’s titular theme park ask this question as part of a routine diagnostic. Answering “no” indicates that a host’s artificial intelligence is functioning without any problems.
It is almost impossible to not view this show as a critique of neoliberalism. The equal indulgence of guests’ cruelty and kindness carries the ethos of the service industry to its logical extreme. What is more, the hosts literally have a false consciousness, but some of them start to see past the intricate mechanisms of their exploitation.What makes Westworld unique, though, is its brain-bending wholeness. From start to finish, every name, detail, and plot point fits together, and that might be what is most confusing about it. Like the managers of park, the audience engages with a fabricated world of enormous, perfect complexity. As the order of that world unravels, both the audience and the managers begin to share a lack of control, which makes for a beautiful finale
Cherie: It’s time to turn off the television. We have ridden the entertainment wagon into the end times. It’s time to turn these horses around. And some more platitudes, because things really suck right now.
It’s a good time to return to books. One need not be a bibliophile to appreciate how sickening our captivation with spectacle has become. One need not think there is something special or sacred about the written word that raises us to the heights of human excellence in a way that other media can’t. But our brains do need a break from the smoke and mirrors. We are dizzy and confused from sensory overload.
This mass of minds that fills our days in the age of information makes for an inconsistent hodgepodge of contradictory thoughts. We’re getting mixed messages.
When you read a book, in many ways it’s just you and the author. The author doesn’t have to be confessional for you to get a glimpse into her mind. Humanism requires us to connect with other people one-to-one, without the illusion of a unified message from the world. The lowest-common-denominator messages we get from mass entertainment are largely stripped of the intricacies of the minds that make them.
ASC: Tie! Nursing Clio–consistently profound and thought provoking material by a wide range of talented contributors, with great editorial direction–and African American Intellectual History Society’s Black Perspectives blog, which boasts work from a growing number of excellent scholars such as Ibram X. Kendi and Keri Leigh Merritt. And Los Feliz Daycare‘s Twitter feed, though it is more of a hilarious epic poem about liberal sanctimony than a blog.
Lauren: Nursing Clio! Crack team of editors, you know ;).
Nick: Present company excluded, of course, but the folks at the AAIHS (African-American Intellectual History Society) blog have been abso-freaking-lutely killing all year (and, in keeping with being a total homer, two more awesome recent Columbia PhDs, J.T. Roane and Yesenia Barragan, are now writing for them regularly). I’ve also taken up as an Associate Editor of the Gotham Center Blog over the past year and a half, and great contributions of reviews, essays, and book excerpts keep rolling in!
Jael: The Angry Arab News Service. It never disappoints and always provides a tastefully humorous, intelligent, and compassionate take on news reports about the Middle East and the U.S. that more often than not leave you with a feeling of immense despair. Asad AbuKhalil’s analysis offers an antidote to bitterness and cynicism.
Cherie: Well, duh.
Joel: Other than ToM? Corey Robin’s blog has been an interesting read. He’s incredibly sharp and a gifted writer. More interestingly, he was also catastrophically wrong on the election despite having arguably the shrewdest understanding of the right. I hope he’s writing a long essay on the dissonance between his understanding of what makes the right tic and his vast underestimating of the right’s strength/coherence. For now it appears he has seamlessly gone from calling Trump the McGovern of the Republican Party (animating his base, but incapable of forging a broad coalition) to Trump now being the Jimmy Carter of the Republican Party (a late-regime president; where Carter spelled the end of New Deal liberalism, Trump spells the end of Reaganism). Let’s hope this latest diagnosis is more accurate than his persistence belief in Clinton’s inevitable landslide.
Best Political Moment/Catastrophe
Troy: Greek anarchists squatting buildings in Athens and opening them to refugees; Greek anarchists forcing a recall of Nestle and Coca Cola products from Athens supermarkets after releasing a communique that claims to have randomly poisoned some products with hydrochloric acid before returning them to the shelves.
ASC: To me the best was the first presidential debate, when HRC seemed to find her cool and Trump seemed to be on a flight path to “total meltdown,” as TIME over-confidently put it. It was a different time.
Joel: Two best moments: 1. Watching Chris Christie make a complete fool of Marco Rubio. 2. Bernie Sanders.
Worst? I took Martin O’Malley’s defeat really hard.
Nick: Silver linings, dammit! The best political moment of the year was the good people of North Carolina throwing out Pat McCrory even as they voted in Trump. The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber laid out the fight, and its significance, in The Nation. The catastrophe, of course, is what the Republican losers did next.
Jael: Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto inviting Donald Trump over for lunch.
Rob: Antonin Scalia’s death. The Republican Senate created from whole cloth a new policy of waiting out a sitting president by stonewalling his nominee on the off chance that the next president will be of a more favorable ideological persuasion. This was the event that will allow us to forever remove the label “conservative” from the American Republican Party, which is now unabashedly right-wing with no regard whatsoever for precedent, tradition, or constitutional government. Thanks a lot.
ASC: Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer is way up there. 38% of Florida voters thought it was possible, but they also voted for Trump and thought Hillary ran a child sex ring out of a Godfather’s Pizza, so who knows what anything means anymore. But only in the cavernous depths of 2016 could the Word of God and Thanksgiving table fare become a hilarious, life-affirming viral firestorm, when Pastor Shirley Caesar’s sermon became an unlikely online hit with “Beans, Greens, Potatoes, Tomatoes.”
Nick: Crying Jordan, if only because Obama invoked it while giving Jordan the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Joel: Those Woke Glenn Beck memes were kinda funny.
Cherie: This year has really shown us the ugliness of memes. I just want to tell everyone to stop rotting your brains with editorials. I’m speaking to liberals right now, because that’s probably who is reading this. Be progressive, be charitable, be an activist, but for God’s sake realize that there are bad ideas on the left too, and often they catch on. Stop thinking things because everyone else is thinking them. Don’t be a reactionary either. Use your brain and don’t believe things just because believing them is in style. Gather evidence. Check your sources. Think. People build entire weltanschauungs out of memes. Fuck memes. I do think sharing video footage of things like police brutality is making people face hard truths. But those aren’t “memes,” they are sad reality.
Best Historical Callback
Troy: Donald Trump and fascism.
Lauren: I refuse to read Trump’s tweets, or follow him, but from seeing them reprinted other places, some of the things he says about immigration/minorities are straight from the lips of early twentieth-century eugenicists like Madison Grant. And while the white supremacists have been cognizant of this for a long time (and much to their delight), the rest of America better get woke to what this means when it comes to not just immigration law, but also federal and state policies on marriage, mental health treatment, and reproductive rights. See above re: Douglas Baynton’s new book!
Joel: The revival of debates over globalization and free trade was a fairly surprising “callback.” For all the criticism Wall Street took after the crash, the basic premise of globalization was left seemingly unscathed within the mainstream of both political parties. As someone who grew up and was initially politicized in the 1990s (namely by the Zapatista uprising and the Seattle WTO protests), watching the political legitimacy of “free trade” unravel has been one of the more curious and dizzying experiences for me. There were always critics on the fringes of both parties, but it’s impossible to forget Thomas Friedman’s “Golden Straightjacket” and his big, dumb flat world and how they once carried so much bipartisan weight. That world, so seemingly sturdy and unchangeable at the time, is now gone.
ASC: It has to be Trump’s use of the rhetorical figure of the “silent majority,” which sealed all debates about which historical election 2016 most resembled – of course, it was 1968. By appealing to the smoldering resentments of working class and middle class white America, Trump was able to skate to the narrowest of “victories,” much like his rhetorical precursor Nixon, who managed to turn his own unique unpopularity into an epochal, history-defining win. Both the “forgotten man” (of William Graham Sumner and FDR) and the “silent majority” came back with a vengeance this year. The pitched battles between protesters and police, the anguish and despair of so many in black America, and the triumphant invocation of white solidarity all remind this historian of 1968 more than anything else.
Nick: Ugh, they’re all too depressing, but it was somewhat fun to see people dredge up John Adams’s use of “Trumpery” as a description of cheap frills for cheap nobles, and sort of amusing to watch pundits try and fail to pronounce “emoluments” (full disclosure: I have no idea how to pronounce it, either). My efforts at silver linings are failing here.
Rob: The Cubs. Hey, any team can have a bad century. And the Indians had them in the bag, three games to one, leading FiveThirtyEight on October 30 to confidently predict, using sophisticated mathematical modeling techniques that never fail, that The Cubs Have a Smaller Chance of Winning than Trump Does. Pick your callback: the Mets over the Red Sox in 1986, the Red Sox over the Yankees in 2004, or Truman over Dewey in 1948.
Best Public Institution
ASC: Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn Market, not long ago re-dubbed the “Municipal Market.” Built by the Atlanta Woman’s Club back in the 1920s, it became known as the “Sweet Auburn curb market” because black sellers were not allowed inside but had to sell on the curb during the days of Jim Crow. Despite several brushes with death and financial extinction in the 70s and 80s, the Sweet Auburn Market is stronger and more vibrant than ever. And Afrodish has the tastiest and most generous jerk chicken on the planet. Or at least in America.
And while it may seem like a cop-out, but I also would like to say Georgia State University. The institution has many shortcomings, but it remains an extraordinary engine of upward mobility for tens of thousands in Georgia – especially in a state that makes kind-of sort-of free college education a possibility for many students through the Hope scholarship program. GSU graduates more African American students every year than any university in the country, despite being smaller than in size than some of its more gargantuan rivals across the country.
Troy: Centro de Estudios Interdisciplinarios Uruguayos (CEIU) in Montevideo, Uruguay
Lauren: The New York Academy of Medicine! While I’ve never been, I’m super excited to visit their archives in 2017 and dig around for the diss-to-book project.
Jael: This is cruel, ToM – we’re supposed to name our favorite public institutions and then watch them be destroyed by the new administration and their cronies in the statehouses? This feels like the old trick Lester Freamon warns McNulty about in Season One of “The Wire,” where the captain asks you where you DON’T want to go after a disciplinary hearing for the express purpose of sending you there. Are you putting us all on the boat, TOM?!?!
In all seriousness, my favorite public institution is the K-12 public school. It is under attack everywhere, yes, but it is not going away. Betsy DeVos will try to strip the system for parts and sell it off, but she will fail, because the Feds don’t actually have that much power over schools. The governors will do the same, and they have more power, but they will ultimately fail, too, because localities will eventually revolt, whether through teacher strikes like those in Chicago and Seattle or parent/student strikes like those in Newark and Philly and a zillion other places.
I’m not blindly nostalgic about public schools. Lord knows they’ve been, in so many ways and so many places, segregated, unequal, imperial, and even violently hostile to the students and communities they’re supposed to serve. But they are always sites of struggle, places where educators and parents and students can and do build solidarity and challenge accepted wisdom and the hierarchies of power it supports. Looking at projects like SEMAP, for example, I can always renew some faith in the public and our institutions.
Rob: The Supreme Court. Let’s leave it at eight members. Or reduce it to six. Shoutout to Michael Stokes Paulson for beating me to this brilliant suggestion.
Joel: Public libraries and parks. Everywhere. Always.
Todd: The National Park Service. I live in a part of the country where it’s hard to get to a national park quickly, but I was very conscious again this year of the smart, creative stewardship NPS professionals provide for our natural and historic resources. I saw an amazing presentation at the Oral History Association’s annual conference from Jodi Morris of the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site about her park’s educational and public history programs that drove this home. It made me proud to be a taxpayer—and I suspect I’m going to have to remind myself a lot over the next four years that our national institutions are capable of great things like this, too.
Cherie: The Council on American-Islamic Relations.