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Life is short, but it was more than people that passed away in 2016: James Miller

Posted 1/18/17

When historians look back upon 2016, they’ll designate it the year of death. No year in recent memory gave us so many gravestones.

Countless celebrities, musicians, artists, and athletes left us in 2016. The list is long, but here’s a …

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Life is short, but it was more than people that passed away in 2016: James Miller

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When historians look back upon 2016, they’ll designate it the year of death. No year in recent memory gave us so many gravestones.

Countless celebrities, musicians, artists, and athletes left us in 2016. The list is long, but here’s a smattering: former heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay (aka Muhammad Ali), actor Gene Wilder, David Bowie, Prince, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, actor Alan Rickman, country music artist Merle Haggard, Abe Vigoda, TV psychic Miss Cleo, BMX legend Dave Mirra, novelist Harper Lee, legendary music producer George Martin, R2-D2 actor Kenny Baker, Princess Leia actress Carrie Fisher, conservative talk show host John McLaughlin, golfer Arnold Palmer, PBS Newshour anchor Gwen Ifill, Hollywood socialite Zsa Zsa Gabor, and a big personal loss for me, A Tribe Called Quest rapper Phife Dawg.

(Seriously: Listen to “Buggin’ Out” from Tribe’s highly influential album “The Low End Theory” to witness the great talent lost.)

Stars and starlets weren’t the only folks to burn out. Many figures of great political significance also passed on. 

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly in February, injecting more rancor into an already contentious presidential race over his vacated seat. To the dismay of militant leftists and delight of conservatives, former Cuban president and communist strongman Fidel Castro died. After a career of astounding accomplishment, astronaut, war hero, and former U.S. Sen. John Glenn passed away in December. Former first lady Nancy Reagan also joined the departed in March, a woman of elegance whose warnings about recreational drug use were laughed off too early, especially in light of the opioid endemic devastating Midwest America.

For me, the biggest loss of 2016 wasn’t the author of an iconic work of fiction, a showy sportsman, or a braggadocious rapper. It was the death of my mother. Not a day passes that I don’t consider her absence and how much I miss her.

When it comes to death, our memories home in on people. But individuals aren’t the only things that kick the bucket. Ideas, those nebulous creations that govern our perception of reality, have a life all their own. And in 2016, an idea many Americans take for granted was dealt a near-fatal blow. Specifically, the uniquely Western view of liberalism is now on life support after the walloping it received over the course of last year. 

Czech author and dissident Milan Kundera described the Western ethos as “founded on the individual and his reason, on pluralism of thought and on tolerance.” In the Western mind, faith, nationalism and duty should never impede on individual want.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that philosophy, which served as the basis for America’s founding documents, is no longer as sacrosanct as it once was. The people of Great Britain voting to leave the European Union was the first shot in the side of liberalism. The election of political outsider Donald Trump was the second. Right-wing nationalist parties are on the rise in Europe, and the Bernie Sanders Left now openly mocks neo-liberalism, the view of human beings as commoditized, pleasure-pursuing creatures.

All represented a rejection of reigning political orthodoxy. 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was assumed we had reached, in the famous words of Francis Fukuyama, the “end of history,” and that the world was moving toward a more open, more accepting, and more connected place than ever before. 

Former President Bill Clinton gave a speech in Australia in 2001 expressing his desire to see all national borders eliminated so that all could experience the benefits of trade. His wife, in a speech to a Brazilian bank in 2013, described her “dream” as “a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders.”

Hillary never expected that comment to see the light of day (Wikileaks brought it, along with many, to the fore). And she certainly never expected it to elicit the backlash it did. 

For all his flaws, Trump’s unapologetic defense of country-first won him just enough support to claim the presidency. Even in his inchoate rambling, Trump never broke away from two main traits: a respect for borders and a respect for national character. His refusal to accept doctrinaire liberalism brought the accepted ideological consensus crashing down. 

Few saw it coming. Liberalism as an idea joined the body of loss in 2016. The heart beat the mind, and it’s anyone’s guess as to where our current trajectory will lead.

It’s customary to make pledges to betterment in the new year. And after the last 12-month roller-coaster ride, I think great personal reform is in order. 

Loss makes you reconsider what’s important in life. One 2016 death I failed to mention was that of pop superstar George Michael. After a life of excess, Michael passed away on Christmas Day. Rumors of suicidal thoughts and rampant drug use surround the as-of-yet determined cause of death. 

His partner in stardom, Andrew Ridgeley, lives on. Unlike Michael, Ridgeley lived a quiet life after the Wham! years, settling in Cornwall with his partner, spending his days surfing, tippling at the pub, and advocating for a clean environment. 

Michael embraced the spotlight; Ridgeley eschewed it for a small, secure life without the frivolities of fame.

May we all remember his example. Celebrity is fleeting. The people we love never live long enough. Ideas we think will last can vanish faster than Donald Trump when creditors come calling.

Life’s painfully short, and should be lived wisely. And humility should always be exercised in healthy amounts, because what you think is true now will not always be the case. Just take a look at the new resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Heeding those lessons should be everyone’s resolution for 2017.

James E. Miller, a native of Middletown, works as a digital marketer in Northern Virginia.