2016 had a lot to be grateful for. More generally, we live in the best of times, thus far. Of course, the perch we've reached is fragile and precarious, for many reasons, including the fact that an ignorant, impulsive, pathological narcissist will soon control the world's most powerful military with the capacity to wipe out most of humanity at the press of a few buttons. But the malaise preyed upon by the opportunistically pessimistic Trump is likely due to three factors: 1. Mismatch between conditioned expectations and reality 2. Anxiety over various trending changes in society that are mostly good but also threaten many people's perceived place in the social order. 3. Rightful anger at government, which was distorted by long term psychological and media factors to which many millions fell prey: the need for a concrete scapegoat which right, left, and media had been turning Clinton into for decades; and the culmination of celebrity idolatry and "reality" TV which had lent Trump an aura of credibility to millions (which would be undercut for anyone by an afternoon, if not a scintilla, of critical reflection). Also, the above links should not be taken to imply that we live in the best possible times, or are anywhere near to them (see here and here). The world is complex.
Before getting to entertainment and such, here are two people who died in 2016 who deserve far more recognition: Donald Henderson and Thomas Schelling. If we were a society that recognized people like these more than celebrities, things would be closer to what they should be.
That's mostly enough of politics. My "best of 2016" or "review of 2016" or "varia of 2016" will mostly focus on books, music, movies, TV shows, websites, blogs, and articles (including some political). And I'll include stuff that I encountered or even re-encountered in 2016, even if it didn't originate in 2016.
Of the legends that died this year, two did not get attention commensurate with their talent, achievements, and influence. I'm talking about Maurice White, best known as bandleader of Earth, Wind, and Fire; and Bernie Worrell, best known as keyboardist and one of the leading songwriters for Parliament-Funkadelic. Their influence extends to countless other musicians whom they either worked with directly or inspired, as well as to the entire hip-hop genre via extensive sampling of their work. Just this year, Childish Gambino, star of acclaimed TV show Atlanta and current Hip-Hop, released an album with the inspiration of P-Funk explicitly acknowledged to be all over it.
Of those who died, Bernie Worrell is the one whose music has affected me most. Two of my most memorable live shows from the last few years were concerts by the Bernie Worrell Orchestra at small, Boston area clubs (get a sense for them there). It was an honor to be able to meet him--he came across as quiet, humble, world-weary. And then when he started to play, an incredible ferocity erupted. One of the things I most love about the great funk artists, Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown and the JB's, and P-Funk, is how they invented new ways to be: new expressions, new emotions even. In his waning years Bernie invented a way to be a gracefully aged embodiment of both psychedlic energy and world-weary wisdom. That's what I saw in him at those performances and what one might have thought impossible based on how other musicians from the psychedelic era have aged. This, for a sense of his range that continued long after the heyday of P-Funk. This, for a perspective that I could never give. And this, which is one of the hidden treasures of the internet.
Prince is next for me. It's fitting that there is no easy way to link to him on the Websites to give a sense for his music. No single song or playlist could adequately convey who or what he was. He was genuinely one of a kind and his genius is still underappreciated. My guess is that his storied vault contains music for a multitude of legendary music careers. I never guessed how little his radio hits conveyed until I attended a concert by a Boston gem, The Nephrock! Allstars. They played songs from his early "Nasty" period that blew me away and convinced me I needed to get to know Prince. A memorial Prince dance party I attended at this year's Burning Man was one of the funnest, most magical parties I've been to in a long time, with so many singing and dancing their hearts out in mutual recognition of what Prince's music expresses. A fitting farewell for me. I wish I could share his rendition of "Bambi" from a few years ago on Jimmy Fallon, which was, of course, quickly removed from the Websites. Nasty.
Phife Dawg was a staple of my teenage years. I saw A Tribe Called Quest on their farewell tour and his energy was still fresh and infectious. He embodies a period of hip-hop that feels like an alien world today. What a revelation to learn that he and his mates had teamed up for one more album. What a treat that it turned out so well. Buy it! Read why that goes for good music generally.
I love so much of George Michael's music. His voice; how easy each song puts you in the mood it so effortlessly embodies. And I despair over how he was shamed and disparaged during his too brief life. His music is easily available so I'll just include a link concerning his astounding, mostly unknown generosity.
Of course, there were so many others whose music made this world vastly deeper, richer, and more textured.
Some of my favorite discoveries this year: Blaze Foley, Whitefield Brothers, BadBadNotGood, TOPS, Dirty Love, Chicano Batman, Little Beaver, Brownout, Herbert Harper's Free Press News, Orange Juice, Soft Hair. And re-discoveries: Mazzy Star (This song made an incredibly haunting scene in The Night Of), Jungle Brothers, Midnight Oil.
For the most part I enjoy TV much more than movies these days. I like extended stories to keep coming back to. I like the little known actors that get to show off their chops. They're often much better than the stars of Hollywood, or even the repeat darlings of popular "indie" film. Similar things go for the writers, directors, and photographers. I like the degree of experimentalism that must balance itself with the need for repeat viewers. I like the convenience and the price. Getting friends together to watch this week's GoT's episode is usually more fun than meeting them at most of today's movie theaters.
I discovered Luther toward the end of 2015, and it was over just before 2016, but I'm including it anyway. Definitely one of the best detective-crime dramas ever. Dark, devastating, brilliant. Idris Elba is masterful. Ruth Wilson's great as well.
Better Call Saul may be the first spin-off series that shamelessly exploits many of the tropes and techniques that made its predecessor so successful--and totally pulls it off. The series never feels (to me) as though it is yearning to be just another Breaking Bad. It just does what the latter did well, but in its own way. The back story of Saul Goodman is written really well and, at least so far, the character that eventually becomes Saul Goodman is better at conveying moral mixture and ambiguity than Walter White's character was. Its second season came out this year, and I highly recommend both.
Twin Peaks. Yep, I had never watched it before this year. Another reason I'm grateful for Netflix. As those who have seen it will understand, this deserves an essay of its own. I'll just say that it is one of those series worth watching again and that it is worth watching to compare to TV today (came out in early 90's). I'm looking forward, with some trepidation, to its promised return this coming year.
Mr. Robot, Season 2. I think this already counts as one of the best series ever. The second season got even more experimental, and while some of it failed (that Alf thing went on for far too long), overall it pulled it off and was amazing. I'll nominate the tenth episode for the best episode of any show this year.
Stranger Things was wonderful. The Night of had so many different kinds of virtues, it also deserves its own thing. Everyone should watch it for messages about justice, evidence, bureacracy, uncertainty, desire, escape, and more. This season of Game of Thrones had some incredible episodes. Westworld was neither as bad nor as good as it could've been.
Websites, Blogs, Writers, Journalists, etc.
As far as broad ranging websites that collect work from multiple authors: Aeon, Nautilus, and The Conversation continue to be excellent outlets for academics (and others) to write for wider audiences. 3QuarksDaily and Arts & Letters Daily are the best I know of for collecting the best from around the web. If anyone knows of stuff in the same vein, I'd love to hear about them.
Regarding individual blogs and websites, I'll start with Robert Paul Wolff, who is an internationally known political and social philosopher who has spent a lifetime of activism in support of socially progressive causes and opposed to regressive ones. If you think that Marxian economics is dead, you may be under the sway of an ideology that Wolff can help disabuse you of in his many works collected online and linked to on his blog. It was my great privilege to get to know Professor Wolff, who is retired, while on a postdoc at UNC-Chapel Hill this past year, where he continues to lead reading groups and give lectures to post online. He is one of the better people I've met, and I recommend his blog which, among so much else, is becoming a great place for reflection on the incoming presidency-disaster, as well as a site of coordination for resistance (email him to tell him you wish to be on his list).
Mind Hacks is a great blog run by psychologist Tom Stafford who tries to make research from psychology and neuroscience accessible and addressable to real human problems. He does a beautiful job and is an exemplar of what more academics should be doing. I also recommend his online book defending, against much of his profession, the idea that reason really can play an important role in people's lives.
Slate Star Codex appears to be run by a superhuman who is a proof of existence that beings can regulate their cognitive lives in much more accordance with standards of reason and evidence than is the norm. His advocacy posts are incredibly well researched and reasoned, with markers for what he considers to be his weakest points. He usually gets at least dozens of comments and then revisits his post with the best of the objections, either rebutting them, or admitting that what they have said changes his mind. Plus so much else.
Many conservatives started, and continue, to lead the Trump resistance. George Will, one of the better writers in the media, repeatedly excoriated Trump better than just about anyone. Jonah Goldberg, David French, and Kevin Williamson at the National Review all consistently denounce Trump. Lately, I particularly like Williamson's style and perspective, even if I vehemently disagree with him on several issues. Evan McMullin deserves special praise for leading a charge, mostly on Twitter, against Trump. Sure, he probably has political aspirations that are in the background. But for now, he is combatting Trump in a way that anyone can get behind, and that everyone should.
A bit more on Trump resistance: This website collects articles on what the mainstream media particularly failed at prior to the election: Trump's massive conflicts of interest. These issues will loom larger and larger and may be his undoing sooner than later. Shaun King, of Black Lives Matter fame, is a voice, mostly on Facebook, to pay attention to. Sarah Kendzior recently wrote a book about Trumpland, collects stuff she's done on her website, and is often way ahead of the press with her own research on Twitter.
As befits the usual level of care in this country for justice for Native Americans, the Standing Rock issue (not over!) hasn't gotten the attention or care it deserves. This Atlantic piece deserves close reading and I encourage people to visit the websites of the people involved (here and here).
While I have some criticisms of Glenn Greenwald and The Intercept (Naomi Klein incisively gets at that here), I admire and commend their consistent stance on demanding publicly available evidence concerning the "Russian hacks" as well as their warning to the main stream media about giving up any and all pretense of fair play in order to stop Trump. Subsequently, they maintain a higher degree of credibility on many issues than most--so pay attention!
Jay Rosen at Press Think has the best take on Trump and the press I've seen yet. I can't recommend his article highly enough.
The idea that Obama is responsible for whatever widening of racial divides there has been during his presidency is ludicrous on its face, as far as I'm concerned. But I still didn't appreciate what lies behind such claims as much as I do now, having read Ta-Nehisi Coates' My President Was Black which deserves all the praise it has gotten, and then some. In addition to the way it addresses its topic, the understated prose style has a distinctive kind of beauty that all should enjoy. Just as important are his interviews with Obama that are now being published in a flurry as the year ends.
Finally, on a lighter note, Clickhole seems to be hitting its stride, getting funnier and more clever by the week this year. But maybe that's just me.
I don't see movies as much anymore. But Moonlight and The Handmaiden were two of the best I've seen in a while. If I had to pick just one to recommend, it would be Moonlight. It is a gorgeous, heartbreaking film, with understated dashes of hope. See it.
While I liked Arrival, I think it is a bit overrated. I also suspect that I liked it for different reasons than most. My interpretation of it is that pretty much all the happenings and themes that people tend to focus on and that take up the bulk of the film are distractions, side shows for the most important part of the film, which is the monumental, existential choice the main character makes concerning her daughter. Of course, all that other stuff makes the choice possible/inevitable. But my interpretation makes the main point of the movie something that is largely understated in comparison to the rest. I guess that makes me like it more than I otherwise would.
The movie I most regret not seeing (yet) is Elle.
Movie to watch/re-watch for 2017: Dr. Strangelove.
Reading is kind of weird for someone in academia who is supposed to specialize in narrow topics. While I often enjoy what I read, it is usually in the form of journal articles and it isn't stuff I would recommend to other people. However, two books I'm reading right now that give good insight into the issues I think a lot about and that I would recommend to anyone, share the feature of having cheesy titles that belie the seriousness of the authors and how good the books are. They are: The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Culture, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, by Joseph Henrich; Algorithsm to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths.
I also recommend a book that is sure to spark serious controversy, by renowed Yale psychologist Paul Bloom: Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Please also see the Boston Review forum with Bloom's target article followed by responses from several philosophers and psychologists. This is good as well.
My friend, Phil Torres, The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us about the Apocalypse is a great achievement, and very important for our times.
Finally, a recommendation for 2017: Daniel Dennett's From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds and Culture.
I intend to have more to say about fiction next year.