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Commentary: Was 2016 the worst year ever?

Prince, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, David Bowie, and Muhammad Ali.
(Los Angeles times - Richard Hartog | Al Seib | Robert Lachman | Steve Fontanini)

On Dec. 23, as fellow airline passengers began tweeting that Carrie Fisher, suffering a health crisis on a flight from London to Los Angeles, appeared unresponsive when paramedics took her from a plane, many people quickly blamed 2016.

It was a year that had already claimed a number of beloved figures — David Bowie, Muhammad Ali, Prince, Florence Henderson, Leonard Cohen, Nancy Reagan, Harper Lee, Patty Duke, Alan Thicke, Alan Rickman,  Gene Wilder, Merle Haggard and, before it was through, George Michael. Confronted with the idea of Fisher joining the list of loss, people turned on the waning year like weakened warriors defending the wounded. 

“You can’t have her too” was a common refrain on Twitter and Facebook.

For a day or two it appeared the pleas, or threats, had been heard; Fisher stabilized, her mother, Debbie Reynolds, thanked the world for its support. Then on Dec. 27, Fisher died. 

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Life Achievement Award recipient Debbie Reynolds with presenter, her daughter Carrie Fisher, at the 21st Screen Actors Guild Awards.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times )

A day later, Reynolds was gone too, a twist that seemed to cement the question: Was 2016 the worst year ever?

Many seem to think so. With memes and blogs and tweets they didn’t so much greet the New Year as wish to see the old one explode into a billion pieces like something from a Jerry Bruckheimer film.

Others took to social media to tell the complainers to stop complaining: 2016, like every year, has had its disasters and losses. Buck up and move on.

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Certainly, the last 12 months have been full of loss, and not just that of celebrities. Hope, security and unity — and our very American way of thinking that we can overcome anything — took major hits  during a contentious election year filled with riots, record high temperatures, terrorism and war abroad.

We were battered by a vicious presidential campaign that came down to two candidates who were the most unpopular in recent history. Manufactured news stories and Russian hacking may have swayed a political process that many already mistrusted, a conversation already filled with talk of walls and lists and deportations.  

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton engage during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis.
(John Locher / Associated Press )

Then more than half of those who bothered to vote saw their candidate lose to a reality star who has bragged about sexually assaulting women, who favors angry midnight tweeting over press conferences and has no experience in office. 

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It was all going on under a distracted press’ nose, and the deaths of veteran journalists like Gwen Ifill and Morley Safer drive that point home.

The number of notable deaths was not much different than any other year. The pain was more about who we lost and what they represented, rather than how many.

Many embodied ideals that seem in short supply today — the civil rights activism of Ali; the all-American wholesomeness of Reynolds; the forward-thinking iconoclasm of Bowie, Prince and George Michael, the truth telling of Lee and Fisher, even the stability of fictional parents like Thicke’s Jason Seaver or Henderson’s Carol Brady.

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As the country felt increasingly divided, the last thing we needed in 2016 was to lose so many who united us.

For the opponents of a Trump presidency, 2017 doesn’t exactly look like a reprieve. No wonder so many of this year’s RIPs included the notion that the best and the brightest — George Martin, Zaha Hadid, John Glenn — knew what was coming and wanted out. 

Proposed rollbacks in policy and perception seem to invoke a  a mythical time and place when America was better than it is today, but as Harper Lee wrote in “To Kill a Mockingbird,”  pre-civil rights America was not great. 

Other deaths felt equally personal and political. 

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Bowie, a defiantly iconoclastic gender-bender emboldened the truly disenfranchised — those who became targets by simply walking out their front door. He convinced us to embrace our weirdness and showed the world that our differences are what make us unique, innovative and strong.

A portrait of Muhammad Ali is displayed next to a pair of boxing gloves at the "I Am Ali Festival" in Louisville.
(David Goldman / Associated Press )

Ali changed the way 1960s America saw black men, black rights and the Vietnam War. He became America’s first beloved Muslim. He broke barriers and made us all better for it.

Fisher evolved from warrior-sex-symbol Princess Leia to one of the most outspoken, funny and honest female voices on mental illness and addiction. She brought taboo subjects into the light and healed a great many with her candor and humor. 

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Michael advocated for LGBT rights from his platform as a pop singer, changing a generation’s understanding about AIDS awareness.

Prince changed the way we think about men, women, music, marketing and the color purple.

Duke broke the silence around mental illness, while performers like Garry Shandling, Maurice White, Sharon Jones and Juan Gabriel were simply loved.  And love was a good thing to have in a year filled with so much hate.

Indonesian children hold banners 'Save Aleppo' during a rally in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia
(Fully Handoko / EPA )
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And then there were those whose names we didn’t know, but they left a lasting impression as footage from the Syrian war and the immigrant crisis made headlines and news cycles. 

Children pulled lifeless from bombed-out buildings in Aleppo or washed up on the shores of whatever safe haven their families were seeking.

To mourn their deaths is to embrace the humanity we ought to be preserving rather than ripping down. Their passing was a brutal reminder that empathy should not be another causality of 2016.

No wonder we wanted to hold on to whatever glimmers of hope we could find.

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We’ve had better years, to be sure. But humanity has survived the Crusades, the Black Death, the Civil War, the Great Depression, world war. It survived 2016, just as it survived the last. 

Was it the worst year ever? No, but it was bad enough.

https://twitter.com/lorraineali

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