If a Hollywood writer last year had proposed a movie about some of the world events that happened in 2016, his ideas would have been dismissed as too crazy to be even considered.
Imagine it: A script for a political thriller in which an ambitious Russian president and an insecure FBI director simultaneously take actions to destroy the campaign of the leading U.S. presidential candidate, while the White House is busy drafting rules to relax U.S. imports of rum and cigars from Cuba. Outlandish, even by Hollywood standards.
And yet, it happened in the Nov. 8 election of Donald J. Trump, an authoritarian business tycoon who has never disclosed his tax returns and who has zero experience in government or in the military.
And this was just one of many surprising things that happened during a year in which pollsters, opinion writers, presidents and even astrologists were caught off guard by events.
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It was the year in which Britain voted to abandon the 28-country European Union, one of the most successful experiments in war-prevention and economic progress in modern history. It was the year in which Colombians voted against a peace referendum that all major pollsters had predicted would pass easily.
Among the many other bizarre things that happened in 2016, the United Nations elected Saudi Arabia – where women are not even allowed to drive unless escorted by a male – to its Human Rights Council, which among other things is supposed to fight for women’s rights.
And, just as insane, the U.N. General Assembly paid an official tribute to the memory of late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, a man who destroyed his country’s economy, suppressed all basic freedoms and executed thousands.
It was the year in which fake news – the proliferation of false news stories on Facebook and other social media, such as the invented story that the Pope had endorsed Trump – along with Trump’s habit of making up facts led to the realization that we may be entering a dangerous era of “post truth,” in which the lines between reality and fiction are increasingly blurred.
And it was the year of the Aleppo tragedy in Syria, the bloody terrorist attacks by Islamic fundamentalists in Orlando, Fla., Nice and Berlin, and the shooting of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey by the policeman who was supposed to protect him.
In the face of all of this craziness, many are saying that things are getting increasingly worse. But, in fact, if you put things in perspective, the world is becoming a better place.
Consider some of the figures published this week by ourworldindata.org, showing how much humankind has advanced over the past two hundred years:
▪ Child mortality: while 43 percent of the children died before they were 5 years old in 1820, the percentage has dropped to 4 percent today.
▪ Life expectancy: While life expectancy in the pre-modern world averaged about 30 years, it has more than doubled since 1900, and is now nearing 70 years worldwide. Even in poor countries, people are living longer.
▪ Literacy: While only 12 percent of people were able to read in 1820, today 85 percent of the world’s people are literate.
▪ Freedom: while only 1 percent of humankind was living in democracy in 1820, the percentage has grown to 56 percent today.
My opinion: No, the world is not coming to an end. We may be facing a dangerous era of populist nationalism in the United States and Europe, alongside an increasingly authoritarian Russia and a surge of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.
But the good news is that western democracies have systems of checks and balances, which I hope will be able to control authoritarian leaders, help preserve the environment and keep the world moving forward. On that positive note, happy holidays.
Andres Oppenheimer can be reached at email@example.com.