In the waning days of 2016, a year that killed Prince, sent Hurricane Matthew, killed David Bowie, brought riots to Charlotte, killed Carrie Fisher and delivered a sloshing-over bucket of political bile, it is tempting to apply this ignominious label: Worst Year Ever.
By the time half the sand poured out of 2016’s hourglass, critics were already calling it a contender for the bleakest in memory, defined by death and disunity, punctuated by joyless headlines.
Not to minimize anyone’s legitimate grief or downheartedness, but I think our modern sensibilities could stand some toughening. Even a relatively short jaunt through history shows fortune might have dealt us a far worse hand. The unemployment rate stood at 23.6 percent in 1932, and the 1918 flu pandemic killed half a million Americans alone.
So with that in mind, I invited the Triangle’s history professors to e-mail their picks for the all-time worst string of 365 days. May we take comfort from the miseries of the past.
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“Of course, the whole idea of years being unilaterally good or bad is fairly meaningless,” wrote Benjamin Waterhouse at UNC-Chapel Hill, “in part because a calendar year itself is an arbitrary division of time and not really an effective way to generalize about human society. ... But that hasn’t stopped people from trying.”
In this turd of a year, which showed up on nearly everyone’s list, the Black Death swept across Europe, killing a third of the population before physicians had any guess to its cause. By the time it finished its seven-year swing from Turkey into Scandinavia, it had wiped out an estimated 200 million people. Giovanni Boccaccio described his native Florence being so choked with dead bodies that churches had no space to bury them.
“Now that,” wrote Jay Smith at UNC, “was bad.”
If medieval Italy seems too distant, let’s turn to this chapter in American history, which saw British troops ransack the White House and set it ablaze. As the city burned, a tornado whipped through the nation’s capital, ripping up buildings and sending cannons flying through the air. A few months later, Vice President Elbridge Gerry – namesake of the word “gerrymander” – died in office.
“It seemed,” said Kathleen DuVal at UNC, “that God had turned his back on the United States.”
Not half a century later, the country would experience carnage unlike anything it had yet experienced. The Battle of Shiloh killed 3,400 people in two days. The Battle of Antietam slaughtered, wounded or otherwise eliminated another 23,000 within 12 hours. “This was the year in which it became clear that the Civil War would be very long and very bloody,” wrote James Crisp of N.C. State, adding, “We’d better hope nothing even comes close to matching it.”
Deserving candidates flooded in from all corners – 1968, which saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy – but nearly all noted 1941 for obvious reasons. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The German Army pushed deeply into the Soviet Union. The United States joined the fighting in World War II, and the Holocaust began, all of which brought about death in the tens of millions.
Perhaps, as John Martin at Duke suggested, I err by weighing the woes of 2016 against the greatest calamities to strike mankind.
“What has been so terrible about 2016 is not that there haven’t been worse years,” Martin wrote. “Of course there have, but pointing to them would only minimize the genuine concerns that we should have for the present.”
With that in mind, let us each do our part to make this year an improvement, whatever political stripes we wear, whatever Prince album is our favorite, whatever “Star Wars” episode we cherish most.