On Christmas, Syrian President Bashar Assad enjoyed a respite at a monastery in Saidnaya, an ancient Christian city in Syria.
He ascended the steps with his wife, Asma. In 2011, she had been profiled in Vogue as a “rose in the desert.” Some 600,000 bloody bodies later, the Assads are still trying to portray themselves as a normal couple, having driven half the country from their home.
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As Assad was touring the monastery and meeting orphans, dozens of members of Russia’s Alexandrov Ensemble army choir were killed after their plane crashed in the Black Sea on the way to Syria.
The tragedy of Syria is emblematic of 2016 in general.
The year began with the Iranian nuclear deal taking effect January 16. One of the world’s most brutal regimes, run by religious fanatics more suited to inquisitions than Twitter, were counting business contracts in Tehran as European companies rushed to sign deals.
In Nigeria, Boko Haram killed 58 people at a refugee camp on February 11, adding to the thousands it had murdered in the years before.
China deployed rockets to disputed islands. North Korea launched a missile.
In Brazil, former presidents Dilma Rousseff and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva were impeached and arrested, respectively. Islamic State struck Brussels, and terrorists hit Turkey and Pakistan and numerous other places in the world, including a Christmas market in Berlin.
But it wasn’t all bad. President Barack Obama visited Cuba, the first US president to do so for almost a century, and Aung San Suu Kyi became prime minister of Myanmar.
Rome got it’s first female mayor and Romania was considering nominating a Muslim woman as prime minister.
Columbia signed a cease-fire with the Communist FARC after a half century of war.
And Cuban president Fidel Castro died.
There’s a palpable feeling that many 20th century figures, standard-bearers and elder statesmen are passing on. Elie Wiesel, Leonard Cohen and Shimon Peres were among them – the living embodiments of history.
In their place were the new icons of iconoclasm: Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Rodrigo Duterte. Each triumphed in a democratic contest.
In June, Duterte became president of the Philippines and the UK voted to leave the European Union. In November, the US elected Republican candidate Trump.
Each is significant in their own way. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has said the public faces a “less predictable and certain future” that is “awash with division and fear.”
First lady Michelle Obama told Oprah, “We are feeling what not having hope feels like.” But Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader in France, doesn’t see it that way. “The people must have the opportunity to vote for the liberation from slavery and blackmail imposed by technocrats in Brussels to return sovereignty to the country.”
This was the legacy of this year. Call it “populism” or a revolt against the unelected elites by those “left behind by globalization and multiculturalism,” but this was the year that many people in the West said fear of being called racists was not enough to get them to vote against something. They were saying no to safe spaces and micro-agressions and saying they will not be scolded.
They’re not ashamed of “mansplaining” or white privilege. It was a “screw you” to what they saw as media elites.
The libertarian magazine Reason claimed the rebellious current in the West is against political correctness, which has caused a “terrifying backlash.”
That’s also the feeling in other parts of the EU where open borders and a mismanaged migration policy has led not only to Islamist extremism but the rise of the Right.
The liberal order appears to be breaking down because the freedoms provided by the Schengen Area have been taken advantage of, and citizens are saying, if politicians won’t listen to us, we can at least protest at the ballot box. What Trump and Farage promise is not some nostalgia – neither is a patrician of the old era – but a new robust nationalism based on saying no to the status quo. “No” to listening to the CIA briefings, “no” to not offending China.
In this brave new world, or nightmare, depending on who you ask, Russian President Vladimir Putin is the rational model. He knows what he wants. He’s proud of his country. His admirers see a manly man. He’s not ashamed. He supports his allies and kills his enemies.
First appointed prime minister in 1999 it took him almost two decades but his view of the future is being increasingly embraced.
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