Physicists have long understood that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. What is true in the natural world is also true in human society. Little wonder then that in 2017, democracy found its voice in the streets.
Protesters marched, quarterbacks took a knee, scientists exclaimed and millions of Americans stood in awe of a darkening that came across the sky. Man buns and pussy hats were in vogue, superheroes were box office, and real-life heroes were found in the midst of heartbreak and tragedy.
The year opened with a sea of pink when some 5 million marchers around the world – inspired in part by the grass-roots activism of two Los Angeles feminists and their knit shop in Atwater Village – rallied for their right to protest the inauguration of the new president.
Barack Obama had just said goodbye (“I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than I was when we started”), and Donald Trump had just said hello. Under drizzling skies, his words charted a new course.
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“At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America,” he told his followers who had gathered at the Washington Mall, “and through our loyalty to our country we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.”
But loyalty proved quickly elusive in a country where moderation was marginalized. Citizens gravitated to extremes: political, moral, even comedic. Just ask Kathy Griffin, who in a year of outrageous gestures and crude bombast managed to find the line and cross it, Salome-like, with a photograph of herself brandishing a bloodied mask of the chief executive’s head.
Battle lines – over immigration, healthcare, trade, climate change and Iran – seemed immovable. Diversity had become less a reason to celebrate than a point of antagonism, rainbows turned upside down.
Some debated free speech. Others challenged it with chants of “blood and soil” in the streets of Charlottesville, Va., where tiki torches, assault rifles and clubs set the stage for the death of a counterprotester.
Most disturbing, perhaps, was fear that some Americans welcome the disarray as if chaos was merely the unfortunate side effect of the cherished goal of “draining the swamp.”
Only the financial markets seem immune from such troubles.
What happened? Up was down, and down was up. Even the stolid accountants at PricewaterhouseCoopers botched the envelope-pass during the Academy Awards.
Had the country suddenly become addled by rising temperatures? NASA declared 2017 the third-hottest year on record, and as if to oblige, an ice sheet the size of Delaware broke free from Antarctica in July.
Fallout and blowback – stoked by the self-proclaimed “Ernest Hemingway of 140 characters” – became staples of the news cycle.
“Covfefe” became a word. “Little rocket man” squared off against the “U.S. dotard,” and the White House briefing room, thanks to Melissa McCarthy, became a venue for ridicule. Cinnamon gum, anyone?
Only Congress seemed unable to appreciate the joke, and when some of its members stepped to microphones, they put politics above morality, platitudes above common sense. As the poet W.B. Yeats once opined of another divided time, “the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Meanwhile, the investigation of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III burned like a quiet fuse through the back alleys of Washington and Moscow.
So when Puerto-Rican import “Despacito,” a four-minute encomium to dancing and a little more, surpassed 3 billion YouTube views, it felt right to bust a move. This battered world was ready for distraction.
Even the heavens seemed happy to oblige.
In California, storms soaked the state to end the historic drought, and in outer space, Cassini, intrepid explorer of Saturn and its ethereal moons, threaded the needle between the planet and its rings. The pictures are not to be missed (no wonder tears were shed at its demise).
Elsewhere, champagne corks popped at Caltech when two goateed physicists celebrated winning a Nobel Prize for proving Einstein was right once again about that EMC² business, and a supernova 160 million light-years away provided the fireworks.
From Oregon to South Carolina, millions of Americans risked retinal burn for the sake of glimpsing the totality of a solar eclipse (or a fraction thereof). Some made pilgrimages to the heartland; others stepped into school yards. They donned goofy glasses, peered into cereal box eclipse projectors and joined a fleeting culture of amazement and awe.
As satisfying as these reveries were, there was no escaping more terrestrial woes: hate crimes on the rise, “bump stocks” still on the market, and violence tearing through communities in Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, Rancho Tehama and elsewhere.
Amid the memorials, heroes were rightly found and praised: the doctors and paramedics at the Sunrise trauma center off the Vegas Strip; the next-door neighbor to the church in Texas; the teaching aide who locked her elementary school down.
And when wildfires devastated Northern California in October and Southern California in December, the story of the couple who survived the night in a neighbor’s swimming pool seemed especially miraculous, as were the encores and comebacks that 2017 brought.
Heroes and superheroes played big as well, as audiences tuned into the timeliness of “The Handmaid’s Tale” on television and cheered for “Wonder Woman” in the cinemas, never suspecting that a real power struggle between the good and the bad would emerge as the year came to an end.
Demonstrators, who marched in January, marched in November as well, only now #metoo was the rallying cry, an exhortation to the courage of the women who stood up to speak truth to the predators who seemed to believe that their abuse and harassment would never come to light.
And now with a new year upon us, 2017 recedes with the promise of what lies ahead: Los Angeles’ winning bid for the Olympics. Google’s Larry Page and his flying automobile.
And with the midterm election approaching, the political action committee Emily’s List has recorded nearly 20,000 women interested in running for office.