Hating 2016 and wishing for it to end has perhaps been the meme of 2016. It has been called a dumpster fire and was declared to “even sucked for Kim Kardashian.” Beginning in July and continuing non-stop, this year was deemed to “suck” and we saw a flood of hot takes either labeling it the worst year in living memory or at least asking the question of how bad it really was.
How bad was 2016?
I’ve only lived for thirty years, but am confident this wasn’t even the worst year I’ve seen of my lifetime. 2001 was awful. 2004 wasn’t great either. 2008 had the financial crisis, the rise of Sarah Palin, the death of Heath Ledger, and apparently Elon Musk’s personal rock bottom. Armed with the right confirmation bias and armory of evidence, one could make an argument that really any year is the worst.
It’s also worth noting that not every take on the outgoing year is as reductive and hyperbolic as “the worst!” Jia Tolentino called it “The Year We Played Ourselves” in The New Yorker. Stephen Pinker pointed out that, if you ignored headlines and value facts, 2016 is better than its previous years in almost every way. It was arguably the best year ever for black filmmakers and apparently the year that solar panels finally became commercially viable. The Economist, meanwhile, awarded “The Economist‘s country of the year award” to “plucky Estonia.” Congrats Estonia!
But there is one theme I see everywhere I look, from the Nobel Prize to the election of Donald Trump to the author of Harry Potter. One piece of wisdom, one particular theme, one pervasive lesson: the classic advice that you should “never meet your hero.”
To recap exactly how this theme presented itself throughout the last year, I’ve catalogued a list of disappointing heroes and their disappointed fans from the last twelve months.
Why shouldn’t we meet our heroes?
Before we jump in, it’s worth reminding ourselves of why exactly we should never meet our heroes. Ultimately, it always comes down to disappointment. They aren’t who you thought they would be. They’re not doing what you wanted them to do. The things they said that made you admire them? Either your hero never meant those things or they don’t mean them anymore or they never meant what you thought they did.
And now, let’s take a look at all the disappointment heroes unleashed on their admirers.
Clint Eastwood and Bret Easton Ellis and the “pussy Generation”
I start with this example not because it’s the great perpetrator or the first chronologically, but because it’s the moment when I first noticed the extent to which 2016 seemed to be a vehicle for heroes to disappoint.
And yes, it’s admittedly very foolish for me to have thought that Clint Eastwood and Bret Easton Ellis are appropriate heroes. Eastwood might be a talented actor and director, but he’s also the guy who did the Invisible Obama chair routine and made the racist, jingoist American Sniper. Nonetheless, it did disappoint me to see an exhaustive interview in which Eastwood and his son repeatedly referred to the so-called millennials as “the pussy generation.”
The disappointment brought by Bret Easton Ellis arrived on a very similar note, within two weeks of Eastwood’s. But with Ellis, I found myself disappointed on a stronger level. I had defended Ellis for years, believing him to be operating his Twitter account with a level of satire and believing that I understood what his books were really about.
Then, there’s Ellis spouting off misogyny and hate, using the condescending language of the alt-right like “snowflake” and “social justice warrior” and uttering those classic words: “boys will be boys.”
Of course, looking closer, I realize that Ellis might be one of my favorite novelists, but he has been behaving this way for years. He ranted about “Generation Wuss” in 2014 and was calling people snowflakes back in 2015.
Ellis might be a hero of the word and Eastwood a hero of the screen, but both are men I no longer have any interest in meeting.
Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, and Every Candidate Who Sold Out Their Message
This is not to say that I admired any of these candidates. But this has been perhaps more prominent in this election than any other for would-be presidents to go from one stance to another with the flip of a coin.
- Sanders endorses Clinton, after swearing he would never quit; his supporters claim their hearts are broken.
- Cruz refuses to endorse Trump… only to become a meme when he starts making calls supporting Trump.
- Christie, who once defended Muslims and seemed a voice of reason, endorses Trump in a seemingly pre-emptive signaling of defeat.
- Kasich, instead of using his voice for strength, simply goes silent in the election and resigns himself to writing in a vote for McCain.
J. K. Rowling, Joyce Carol Oates, David Simon and everyone else who shouldn’t be on social media
The beautiful thing about social media is that you get human interaction with people who would be nearly impossible to meet otherwise. This is also the ugliest thing about social media:
- J. K Rowling and her increasingly bizarre tweets
- Slug from Atmosphere and his confused foray into politics, including his vote for Jill Stein and when he declared via Instagram: “now y’all can quit tryna convince me to vote for your favorite puppet”
- David Simon and his Twitter presence
- Glen Greenwald and his Twitter presence, which includes attacking anyone who disagrees with him in a very condescending way.
- Joyce Carol Oates and her Twitter presence (this one isn’t new, but it certainly hasn’t gotten any better since the Jurassic Park incident in 2015.)
The list goes on.
Even Donald Trump managed to disappoint his fans
We’ve seen it starting already. Just as Obama proved he could not do everything he meant to do, Trump has started disappointing some of his most fervent fans. How could he disappoint, one might ask, when his fans seem to require nothing more than an ever-changing muddled view of economic populism with some dashes of racism and misogyny?
The answer is that he has refused to drain the swamp, at least in the opinion of the rabid Joe Walsh, the gun-toting extremist who, in this case, must be given some credit for his attempts to hold Trump accountable. Or the other deplorables who are losing their minds as they see that maybe Trump wasn’t the swamp-drainer he claimed to be.
The question is: how many Trumpists can admit they’ve been played, and how many will stay in lock-step with anything he does? Furthermore, how many will simply be satisfied having a deplorable on the throne?
Has the list not been long enough for you yet?
The examples only continue:
- Elizabeth Gilbert, who shocked her Eat Pray Love fans by leaving her husband and ending the relationship she had continuously exploited for profit.
- Paul Ryan, who decided that sexual assault and racism are not dealbreakers.
- Every other Republican who valued winning-at-all-cost over losing with dignity.
- Every Democrat and liberal who has refused to let go, admit defeat, and analyze what went wrong. How much longer do we have to hear about the failings of the electoral college, as if this election would be determined by some other manner?
- All the grown-ups you once admired and the things they say on Facebook.
The heroes we met when they fell to Earth
What are we to make of the ones who died? How do Prince and Bowie fit into my argument that we should never meet our heroes? What of Fischer and Wilder and Yelchin and Rickman?
There are two ways to view this. One is that, when a celebrity is dead, their secrets are often revealed. We meet them for the first time, seeing who they were all along. The greatest manifestation of this must be the revelations and reminders of the dangers of substance abuse.
This theme has been covered at length by others, but we saw the early deaths brought to our heroes, resulting from either drug abuse in earlier days or the overdoses of those still using.
And then there is Hillary Clinton and all the other heroes we were saved from meeting
There is another way to view the heroes who died and the heroes who failed in 2016. In a riff on never meeting your hero, Harvey Dent once told us that “you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
This is the reversal, the lack of proof through following the sage advice. Sometimes a hero does not disappoint because they are never met, never grounded, never known.
Perhaps we were saved from having to see Clinton struggle through the presidency. Perhaps the early deaths of celebrities saved us from being disappointed by them. Perhaps.
And finally, there is Bob Dylan.
What better riff on this theme than Dylan and his unwanted Nobel Prize? The Swedish intellectuals wished to meet their hero, and he said no.
It has been worse than this, and it will be again.
One more thought to everyone who thinks that celebrities have never died at this rate or that the world has never been this bad.
On November 22nd, 1963, the President of the United States was assassinated. On that same exact day, Aldous Huxley and C. S. Lewis both died. The United States lost its leader, Narnia lost its creator, and the visionary behind Brave New World and The Doors of Perception had passed away.
Imagine all the “Fuck you 1963!” memes we missed out on.
What would John Steinbeck say about 2016?
Of course, all of this has been said before. It has been noted before.
Time is relative. A year is arbitrary. 2016 cannot be blamed for the sadness in your life, as 2016 does not even know you exist. And to even say that its theme was disappointing heroes does not hold true, as when has there ever been a year when heroes did not disappoint?
Consider what Steinbeck said about children and their fallen heroes in East of Eden:
When a child first catches adults out — when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not always have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just — his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone. And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck. It is a tedious job to build them up again; they never quite shine. And the child’s world is never quite whole again. It is an aching kind of growing.
The gods are fallen. The heroes are met. And perhaps it’s the fault of social media that we see how untrue their thinking is and how unjust their sentences.
Perhaps that is what 2016 was. Not the worst year ever, but just an aching year of growing.