Sunday, December 30, 2012

Taking Stock: 2012

New Year is nothing but another morning, but it is the opportunity to start anew that we really cherish. The Year-end, in contrast, is quite under-rated - the crowds on New Years Eve seem to want to let it go as soon as they can - but this allows the time to pause and reflect, a luxuriant activity unaffordable for most of the year. But, without this pause, there is no new start in the New Year, no opportunity to do anything new, no breaking free - since we won't discover what kept us back. 

So, this is to 2012: The year that is on its way to history. At this point, this year is like any other: Fading rather than exiting, not with a bang but a whimper. But, may be, this will have a special place, as events in 2012 may change things in many places, which may have broader impact. When recounting the year, one may talk about less about celebrities who appeared and disappeared, or politicians who made it (Obama, Hollande, Xi Jinping, Mohd Morsi) and those who didn't (most spectacularly, Bo Xilai) or simply disappeared (Sarkozy, Romney): Rather, it would be more about children killed in Newtown, Cincinnati, which may change America forever, or an unnamed student gang-raped and tortured (eventually killed) in a bus in Delhi which brought out the pent-up anger among ordinary Indians which may finally change India's polity. 

Apart from those moments of shame, when the society we built seemed to be falling apart, the year may be remembered as one of living dangerously: The Euro-zone stood on the brink for most of the year, and financial Armageddon was always in sight. As we end the year, America stands on the brink, with its politicians freezing into inaction and inviting upon themselves, and the world, another financial disaster. And, indeed, the world may change for worse in 2013: The Americans may not be able to extract themselves out of the mess in the next 48 hours, and even thereafter, because, in a connected world, the result of falling off a fiscal cliff may be to able to never recover again. Europeans are not out of the woods yet: In a strange replay of what ails America, European politicians like Angela Markel and David Cameron will continue to play to their domestic audiences and endanger the broader union, allowing demagogues like Silvio Berlusconi to return from the dead (just as, in another generation, admittedly in a different context, politicians playing to domestic priorities allowed Mussolini and Hitler to emerge).

Indeed, we are now quite used to economic bad news, having lived with it, 24-by-7, for almost five years now. But, the bright spots are also vanishing. The great hope in 2008, after the Western Economies came to a screeching halt, was that the emerging economies, and its millions of new consumers, will drive the growth engine. However, that hope has mostly been dashed: BRICs is broken, as the latest Foreign Affairs cover declared. And, indeed, the big news of 2012 was about China's growth slowing, and the incompetence of India's government, and its total incoherence of its politics, was forever in the front pages. Even the Brazilians, the bright spot in governance, earned their reversals, showing off the weakening grasp of the government on crime and even economic management. The biggest news coming from Russia was about Putin's re-election, his intransigence on issues such as Syria and the travails of a Pop group which offended the Church, and South Africa, the new-found 'S' in BRICS, made news with its various miner unrests, brutal police shooting and finally, electing one of its richest men, a key supporter of the police action, as Number 2 in the Cabinet, further alienating the society.

More bleakly, the march of freedom, if there was one, embodied in Arab Spring, morphed into tension and unreason in 2012. The Egyptians elected a government which seemed to have a hidden design. The Syrians continued to bombard their own citizens. Israelis, with their ability to manipulate American public opinion, further bombarded Gaza and killed their annual quota of innocent people and children, all with impunity and swagger that will embolden tyrants worldwide. Iranians, perhaps following the example, continued developing their nuclear capability, preparing for a war which will surely come one day. The breaking down of Pakistan seemed to have thawed, but only in comparison to the breakdown elsewhere. And, if Sri Lanka's boots of brutality against its own people needed to be filled this year, the new entrants, the Burmese, stepped in, flaring up another campaign of mass murder, which will, with time, become another Islamic cause to contend with. 

This grim account above is not to deny that there were indeed bright spots, news of scientific progress, new breakthroughs in medicine, in understanding the nature of the universe, in space science. There were exciting new businesses that created products that solve old problems. And, most important of all, human creativity ebbed and flowed all along, and resulted in great literature, music, art and Cinema. We should not be oblivious to the irreversible ability of human beings to rejoice, to create and to make a difference. But, these bright spots, the progress, are fragile, and must be nurtured and protected. We entered into a new territory in 2012, when we got used to living with a recession, and seemed intent on turning this into a long term depression by political action (or inaction). At the same time, our societies came to a breaking point: Shameful human activities trumped progress, hypocritical politicians stood exposed, the world seemed dangerously intolerant and on the brink. The snake oil of continued prosperity lost, inevitably as it should, its magic: Suddenly, promises of middle class life seemed further than ever.

Signing off, then, the crowd may be right in wishing 2012 to go. However, they should also be fearful in what they invite in the form of 2013. We should indeed look forward to the New Year, as we have to. But, simply believing that human ingenuity will see us through crisis automatically may not be good enough. It may be time to do something about the world around us. 

In summary, then, this is a New Year like no other: We shouldn't just simply cheer. This pause to reflect should become a call to action, for each of us. This year, let this be a new start one person at a time.

 

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We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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