Opinion

New Year's Day, 2022

How will America remember the year to come?

Let us hope 2022 will be as disappointing as the previous year. This may sound strange. But as 2021 recedes into memory and the new year makes headway, try to recall how dire our predictions were last January. Many feared that Joe Biden's presidency would be a complete disaster; that the coronavirus pandemic would continue indefinitely; that the "before times" would never return.

The reality was more mundane. Though the lame-duck Trump administration bungled the first month of COVID-19 vaccine distribution, Biden invoked the Defense Production Act and instituted a national rollout plan that has more or less worked. While we have not yet reached herd immunity, life has become considerably more normal. Children no longer wear masks to school. People no longer preface their vacation photos with explanations of all the precautions they took. Audiences are flocking to see Dune in theaters even though it's also streaming on HBO Max. For 48 hours the great debate on Twitter has been whether AOC sufficiently denounced bi erasure.

The year disappointed all those who feared, and not so secretly hoped for, apocalypse. Before 2021 had even begun, the doomsayers were exhibiting a strange sort of (remember this word?) cope. They seized upon any piece of evidence that 2021 would be as bad as 2020, if not worse. On election night, when Biden's margin was artificially and predictably narrow, many cackled that the neoliberal establishment had failed again to contain Trump. As the mail-in ballots trickled in and revealed Biden had reclaimed Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and had even won Arizona and Georgia, with a greater share of the popular vote than anyone had won against an incumbent since FDR, few dared call it what it was: a victory.

The cope was by no means limited to the political sphere. A momentary drop in birthrates was interpreted as an omen of a sexless, sterile West — a cross between Children of Men and Le Grand Remplacement. Warner Media's announcement that its 2021 slate of films would be released concurrently in theaters and on HBO Max provoked gleeful incantations that Cinema Is Dead. No other studio followed Warner's lead.

Nowhere has the accelerationist cope been stronger than when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic. When a more contagious (but neither deadlier nor more vaccine-resistant) strain of the virus appeared in the UK, prophecies of eternal plague poured in. When there was not yet hard evidence that the vaccine prevented transmission, the careful statements of public-health officials were willfully misconstrued to suggest that the vaccine definitely did not prevent transmission. Even now, with the pandemic's end on the horizon, many insist they will keep wearing masks and abiding by the six-feet rule indefinitely. They seem to want to stay in the "new normal."

It is no great mystery why so many are disappointed — why so many refuse to admit 2021 was (not great but) okay. They wanted something to really change for once. The word apocalypse, as well as its Latinate calque revelation, does not mean the end of everything but rather the removal of a veil, the exposure of some great truth that had always been there, just out of mortals' reach. People are not wrong to reckon that cataclysm is the surest path to justice.

What they did reckon wrong was the ability of an empire to absorb pain and death. The United States is assuredly in decline. But decline does not mean a fall is coming any time soon. Rome may have been built in a day, but it took four centuries to die — 14 if you count Byzantium.

The United States lost nearly one-tenth of its young men in a civil war, and within a generation it was the world's largest economy, with colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific. More than 400,000 Americans died in World War II, and a decade later the survivors were rewarded with TV dinners and two-car garages. America can certainly absorb the embarrassment of the Trump presidency and the pandemic's many isolated griefs.

The irony is that, if the disappointed prophets would look beyond their imperial perch, they'd see they weren't entirely wrong. India's reservoirs dwindle. Angola's forests burn. The COVID death toll still climbs in under-vaccinated Brazil. Do not underestimate how bad things can get while the median American is doing-fine-they-guess.

Will the new year be great? Probably not. Will America muddle through somehow? Probably. This isn't a naive thing to admit. It's a confession.

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