I don't mean to get all controversial on you, but I'm going to be bold and just say that 2020 sucked. Sure, the majority of it can be blamed on a novel coronavirus out of China that has forced the entire world to take drastic action, but it's more than just that. It was another presidential election year in the United States, and these have an uncanny ability of becoming somehow more intolerable and obnoxious every four years, with this one managing to be even more psychologically caustic than 2016 was. Yes, as usual with these annual lists, I will be talking a lot about politics, because no matter how hard I try, I can't seem to fully disengage myself from the madness. So let that be a disclaimer: if you're here because you like my sci-fi reviews and are the type of person whose opinion of me will be tainted if I have the temerity to express a thought you disagree with, please read no further. For the adults in the room, however, I will also be sharing some personal anecdotes and other random thoughts about this atrocious year. I will then join you and just about everyone else on Planet Earth in hoping that 2021 will be much better.
Let's start with the elephants in the room and talk about politics and the coronavirus. Fair warning, a lot of this is going to be me on a soapbox talking about why you'd have to be a complete assclown to not wear a mask in public.
Everything Is Partisan in an Election Year
Polls like this are part of the problem
There was a brief moment--somewhere in late March--where it looked like we might come together in the face of adversity, put our partisan grievances aside, and help each other out. On the micro scale, this turned out to be largely true in practice, with communities coming together, neighbors sharing good will and assistance when needed, etc. However, on the macro scale--in newsrooms, the halls of academia, and the blood-soaked fields of social media--the opposite became true pretty rapidly, with all that good will twisted into ludicrous but nonetheless bitterly fought battles over, well, everything. And the facts didn't seem to matter. If you are inclined towards left-leaning politics, then you probably think it's obvious that blue states handled the initial stages of the coronavirus better than red states and that we clearly wouldn't be in the position we are in today if the guy in the White House had a "D" next to his name instead of an "R." Meanwhile, if you lean towards the right, you are pounding your keys about how much worse the coronavirus numbers are and always have been in blue states than in red and that President Trump couldn't have handled things any better. (God forbid you think every elected official has been trying their best, that no one is capable of delivering a perfect solution, that we should learn from successes and mistakes by officials of every political persuasion, and that this shouldn't be a partisan issue.)
Even worse, something as simple as the effectiveness of masks in preventing the spread of disease somehow became a partisan issue, too, with an enormous swath of far-right lunatics--including people in my own family circle, by the way--contending that masks are some kind of left-wing conspiracy designed to stamp out freedom and that they couldn't possibly be effective. Granted, the people we trust to give it to us straight made the critical error in the beginning of telling us not to wear masks because they were worried there'd be a shortage, and thus they hurt their own credibility, but I don't understand what's so complicated about the idea that wearing masks, even if they only help a little bit, is better than not wearing masks. Oh, and just to be clear, there are very few--if any--valid medical reasons why a person can't wear a mask, so don't use that as a pathetic excuse. My sympathy for that talking point has completely run out.
People Will Go to Insane Lengths to Support a Selfish Narrative
Short version: a significant number of people are reporting severe long-lasting symptoms after recovery
To this day, go to any Facebook comments section or open Twitter thread about coronavirus, and I absolutely guarantee you'll see some bonehead arguing that this is all a ridiculous overreaction to a disease with an over 99% survival rate. Few arguments around coronavirus piss me off as much as this one, for multiple reasons. 1) The survival rate is only that high because we have managed to slow the spread and keep flattening that curve, ensuring that hospital capacity and medical supplies never run out. 2) Just because you survive being infected with the coronavirus doesn't mean you live a long and healthy life after being sent home; many survivors--including my own mother--deal with severe and potentially lifelong side effects including lung and heart dysfunction. There are thousands of cases of a person who had relatively minor symptoms and felt fine only to discover some lingering health effect that could remain with them for the rest of their life. 3) I'm sure the friends and families of that 1% who died won't take it personally that you don't think you should have to wear a mask in public because you're not afraid of getting sick or because it makes you feel claustrophobic.
My Faith in People to Make Good Choices is Shaken
Even people who wear masks can be extremely mentally deficient in their choices
For the most part, I've always considered myself a libertarian. I have long believed that people should be left alone to make their own decisions and that, generally speaking, they will act in the best interests of everyone. If you had, in 2019, laid out a hypothetical scenario to me involving a worldwide pandemic and whether or not people would do the bare minimum and wear masks in public, wash their hands diligently, and respect social distancing guidelines, even if they realized that such measures are more about protecting everyone else rather than themselves, I'd have told you that yes, 100%, of course people would do that. Granted, in reality, most people have indeed adopted these measures in good faith--and the people who haven't make up a tiny, bigotted, disproportionately vocal minority of lunatic zealots I should just ignore--but man, that minority is really testing my idealism.
Apparently I'm a Racist and a Xenophobe for Blaming China
On the other hand, China insists that China didn't make any mistakes, and no country is as honest as China
Imagine if a new and bizarre disease popped up in Atlanta, just a mile or two away from CDC headquarters, and that the best guess for a natural origin involved a wild animal whose closest habitat was a thousand miles away. Would it be a crazy conspiracy theory to ask if the disease had accidentally escaped from the CDC? In Wuhan, China, where the novel coronavirus originated, there are two research labs involved with the study of coronaviruses (both of which have been cited multiple times for unsafe practices), especially those that come from cave bats, the nearest of which live--you guessed it--a thousand miles away. And yet, if you try to apply Occam's Razor online and suggest that maybe--just maybe--the novel coronavirus came from one of these labs instead of a wet market where no evidence of bats has been found, you'll be branded a crazy conspiracy theorist. (Also, clearly, if you argue the disease came from a lab, that's exactly the same as saying it was a genetically created superbug that was deliberately released, because obviously you couldn't mean that a natural disease was accidentally let loose and that a totalitarian regime refuses to admit it.)
And if you take it even further and try to call SARS-CoV-2 the "Wuhan Coronavirus," in keeping with classical naming conventions from Ebola to the Spanish Flu, you must also be a racist and a xenophobe, don't you know? The media writ large really ran with this particular narrative, probably in an effort to ensure that blame for everything falls on President Trump and that nobody dares upset the Chinese government that controls a fair amount of corporate purse strings. But whatever, I guess I'm just sounding even more like a racist, xenophobic conspiracy theorist when I say things like that. I guess it's a good thing I don't work for the NBA or I might have to issue a public apology for daring to even think about these things.
People Put Way Too Much Stock in the President
No one more than the president, of course
It's no secret I think Donald Trump is a terrible president and a terrible human being. I do wish he'd handled the coronavirus with more presidential candor and factual accounting instead of downplaying its severity, promising that it will disappear, comparing it to the common flu, hyping up drugs that haven't been rigorously studied, and then using press conferences to spitball foolishly naive ideas about injecting people with UV rays, all the while refusing to be seen wearing a mask of his own, even after catching the coronavirus himself. But you know what I wish even more? That people wouldn't take it on faith that the president is even capable of combating a pandemic like this one. I do consider disease control to be one of the few legitimate purposes of the federal government, and yet, I don't believe the president should have so much power over that for it to matter what nonsense he decides to believe and say to the American people. We should be intensely and vigilantly skeptical of all presidents, not just the ones whose partisan affiliation is different from our own, and we should never give them more power than they need. Alas, President Trump's most vocal critics aren't critical of the power he weilds; they just want somebody else to have it.
Respect for Free Expression is Dying
Some say this opinion is still stalking the streets at night, ready to stab unsuspecting New York Times employees
In June, The New York Times published an article in its opinion section by a sitting U.S. Senator, Tom Cotton, who argued that the military should be used to quell rioting and looting in many America's cities. Senator Cotton's argument was hyperbolic and his proposed solution terrible on multiple levels, but the reaction from much of the staff of the newspaper, who argued vehemently that they were "assaulted" by the editorial and "suffered permanent harm" from it being published in "their" newspaper, was perhaps even more hyperbolic and ridiculous.
The fact that the paper forced its lead Opinions Editor to resign and then publicly apologized for publishing an unpopular opinion (instead of, you know, telling its younger staff members to grow up and stop acting like infants) is proof positive in my opinion that we are doing a piss poor job educating the younger generation on the importance of free expression. Keep in mind, many of the same people who called the Senator's published opinion "violent" were simultaneously arguing that the destruction of property doesn't fall under the definition of violence. We truly live in absurd times. (I'm also tempted to go on about how people protesting their lost jobs to lockdowns were called dangerous superspreaders while, less than a week later, the George Floyd protesters were given a free pass, but whatever, people are just going to agree with the protests they want to agree with while denouncing and belittling the ones they don't; consistent principles have never friggin' mattered.)
It goes further, too. Take the hubbub over the Hunter Biden story published in The New York Post, which was ridiculed by the few news outlets who bothered to mention it and then mercilessly censored by Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms until after the election, when, lo and behold, the story was revealed to be at least partially based on fact. Sure, it reveals an inherent left-wing bias in Silicon Valley and many of the newsrooms of America, but that's hardly breaking news. What it reveals to me is even more disturbing: the fact that a whole lot of people think I am too stupid to be trusted with information that may or may not be true. They like to talk about "fake news" as though this is a new phenomenon, but the reality is that information has always been tainted by politics, misinformation, charlatans, and flat-out lies. No one in the history of ever has been able to change that, and the knee-jerk decision to let information platforms like social media and the hallowed halls of CNN be The Arbiters of Truth demonstrates that people are more afraid of free expression than ever, that they honestly believe that people must be spoon-fed carefully filtered news or else they will be eternal victims of their own gullible idiocy. My faith in people may have been shaken this year, but I still don't think of the American people as complete morons.
Trumpism is, in Fact, a Cult
I may disagree with what you say, but I will call you mindless idiots for saying it
That said, the last few weeks have shown me that the left was absolutely right about how Trump would react to an election loss. I was certain that they were just being melodramatic and silly when they said he wouldn't accept the results of the election, or when they started floating the possibility that he'd fight it to inauguration day (and maybe longer). Before the election, I still believed, despite his egomania, his deficits in reality-testing, and all his flaws, he'd have to face the music if the American people voted him out of office. Further, I believed that, if he lost and persisted in fighting it, very few people would go along with it and he'd be forced to give up relatively quickly, lacking the support even of a majority of his base.
Holy crap, was I wrong. There is a significant percentage of the population that actually believes--without any concrete evidence whatsoever--that the presidential election was completely rigged against the incumbent, that some vague conspiracy involving thousands if not tens of thousands of Democratic operatives, deep state spies, specially rigged voting machines across the country, and the Venezuelans somehow managed to fix things in just the right way to ensure that Joe Biden would become the next president, even though they let President Trump have more votes in 2020 than he had in 2016. The sheer mental gymnastics required for such a monumentally absurd belief leads me to one and only one firm conclusion: the Trump true believers are, in fact, a cult. They have their faultless avatar, and they have the belief that the rest of the world has been aligned for the sole purpose of persecuting him. They take it on faith that the proof is out there, even if they haven't seen it themselves.
Congress is Even More Broken than I Thought
There's a shocking amount of stock photos on this subject
I've railed against omnibus spending before. The idea that Congress has to put all of its spending into one bill and then argue that anyone who votes against it must be against all of it is, without hyperbole, probably the single worst idea in the last hundred years of American governance. Still, tainted by that wholesome memory of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle singing "God Bless America" together on the night of 9/11, I used to believe that, if things got bad and the American people genuinely needed their help, they could set the omnibus insanity aside and come together in a bipartisan way to do what needed to be done. Add that to the pile of things I was wrong about before 2020.
I see only one way out of this. We need to enshrine the proper appropriations process in the constitution, to make an amendment that outlaws omnibus spending under no uncertain terms. Don't talk to me about the importance of compromise, because a compromise between two parties that both want to spend too much and thus agree to spend absolutely everything is not a compromise that will do anything but ruin the American people. Yeah, a measly six-hundred bucks in tax relief for the economic devastation wrought by coronavirus is weak sauce, but you know what? So is two thousand, especially when it is sandwiched in the middle of thousands of pages of ridiculous government spending on trillions of dollars worth of utter nonsense that no one person will ever be able to realistically parse through. There are more pages to the bill than dollars in the best government check.
Congress is broken. They've abdicated most of their authority to the executive branch; they only go to work maybe a hundred fifty days out of the year; they are too damn lazy to appropriate funds in a way that would preserve the power of the purse; they care more about partisan bickering than they do actual lawmaking; and 99% of everything they do these days is nothing more than political theater designed to increase their prospects of being re-elected so they can do it all again in the next Congressional session. This is a far greater threat to the long-term health of the Republic than whatever bozo is in the White House, and yet, the people don't seem to care as much.
People Aren't Interested in Solutions
A far better slogan than "defund the police"
I was and still am pretty infuriated by what happened to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the hundreds of thousands of other victims of misplaced police violence whose names we unfortunately don't know. I strongly believe that we need to reform the entire law enforcement apparatus of this country, that we need to de-militarize, de-escalate, re-train, and get back to cops who walk the beat and engage with the community. And I understand the frustration that comes with these changes not happening, with the stack of victims that piles up year after year while bad cops walk away with slaps on the wrist and the shield of qualified immunity. I can even appreciate--though I certainly don't condone--those who feel like lashing out is the only way to get people's attention.
There was a flashpoint that could have been used to make meaningful, positive reforms that could have ensured that law enforcement would improve. There was honest bipartisan support for reforming if not outright ending qualified immunity along with at least a dozen other potential solutions that would have made it all better (such as ending the practice of count stacking, banning civil asset forfeiture, etc.). The potential was imperfect, of course, but better. Alas, the flash came and went before anyone did anything, to be replaced by a freakshow parade of people calling for the complete defunding of the police (and when calmer voices tried to argue that they didn't really mean "defund the police," the freakshow responded with "we absolutely do, and check out this Autonomous Zone we set up in Portland, never mind the rape victims"). Partisanship swept in almost immediately, and all that bipartisan energy that could have been used for good was drowned out by a supernova of animus, bad faith, and bitter disagreement. This is how nothing gets done, because rather than doing the hard work required to affect positive change, people are perfectly happy to just bitch and moan and throw things.
Despite It All, There is Still Hope
Now I say this to you tonight: let us not forget
As I write this, on the day before the new year, thousands of people are actively getting vaccinated against the novel coronavirus in what can only be considered one of the greatest achievements of modern medicine. Whether you credit international cooperation, the government-overseen Operation Warp Speed, the ingenuity of an unleashed private sector of pharmaceutical companies, the steady forward march of science, or even just blind luck, you have to be in awe of the speed with which the first vaccines have been created to combat this monster of 2020. I know the last nine entries don't paint a portrait of someone hopeful for the future, but I remain steadfast in my firmly held belief that, in the long run, progress continues apace and the future will be better than the present. Of course, the vaccine might not be a permanent solution, and of course, we still have a long road ahead of us, but a betting man should never bet against the human race's tomorrow. It is this singular belief that keeps me strong and happy, even after all the complaining above.