Monday, September 24, 2018

2015 in review: crisis and complexity

We're living through history. We just don't know how it will be told. When our grandchildren and their grandchildren look back on this year, what might still matter? For fun, we once again pick an event for each month that might seem significant when our future selves look back with hindsight's clear vision.

Jim Verhulst, Perspective editor


Science has some doubters on the left who fear vaccines and all genetically modified organisms, and on the right from those who deny climate change. Some of those doubts literally made people sick during an outbreak of measles that began at Disneyland in California but quickly spread across several states because of unvaccinated children thanks to the anti-vaxxer movement. Overwhelming medical evidence shows that the MMR vaccine does not cause autism or other developmental problems. Measles is dangerous; so is denying science.


A 12-month study by University of South Florida researchers on police body cameras comes to an end with this conclusion: Police officers may be better at their jobs when the public is watching. Police accountability became an ever-bigger issue as the year went on. The Black Lives Matter movement grew. Dashcam video of police shootings in Chicago, among other cities, was released and greatly changed the narrative of events. Two Cleveland cases showed the controversial complexity. In one shooting, after an apparently suicidal, disturbed suspect had shot an officer, the officer tried to calm the situation, saying, "I know you shot me, but I'm not going to shoot you." In the end, the suspect indeed was killed after he again pointed his gun at officers, but body cam footage cleared the officers. However, in another Cleveland case, video in the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing with a toy gun, shows the police firing within seconds of arriving on the scene. This seems to be the year that marks the point when body cameras will soon become routine. But archiving the records and protecting privacy will remain sticky questions.


Amazon gets federal approval — an "experimental airworthiness certificate" — to start testing drones to deliver packages. The goal is get packages into consumers' hands within 30 minutes. Amazon later in the year opened an actual store where customers could shop like in olden times. Will there come a day when it's unimaginable that shoppers had to wait an hour for anything?


Bruce Jenner comes out as a transgender woman, Caitlyn Jenner, in a TV interview with Diane Sawyer. Transgender topics are still new to many Americans. Jenner tries to explain: "There's two different things here. Sexuality is who you personally are attracted to — who turns you on — male or female. But gender identity has to do with who you are as a person and your soul, and who you identify with inside, okay?" Many LGBTQ activists have a conflicted attitude toward Jenner, particularly after a sexed-up Vanity Fair cover. Indeed, it's a lot for many people to think about, whether you know Jenner as the 1976 gold medalist in the Olympic decathlon or as the star of Keeping Up With the Kardashians.


Ireland became the first nation to approve same-sex marriage by a popular vote. Not long ago, the vote would have been unthinkable. Ireland decriminalized homosexuality only in 1993. The next month, the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage a constitutional right.


A white supremacist opens fire and kills nine black congregants at a Charleston, S.C., church. But church members forgive the shooter, and a movement to remove the Confederate battle flag sweeps the nation. A discussion about its place in history leads to broader looks at American history and more consciousness of ongoing racial discrimination. By year's end, President Woodrow Wilson would be viewed in a new light by many, not as a progressive but as a racist president who resegregated the federal government. Famous figures are routinely more complex and confounding than we can imagine. One hundred and fifty years after a constitutional amendment outlawed slavery, history is an ongoing lesson.


Separated physically by only 90 miles but politically by the wide gulf of the Cold War, the United States and Cuba reopened embassies in each other's countries after more than a half-century. The Castro brothers' regime has outlasted 10 presidencies. Now let's see how it fares against an influx of American visitors and values.


For the first time, two women — 1st Lt. Shaye Haver and Capt. Kristen Griest — complete the U.S. Army's Ranger School. Before the year was out, the U.S. defense secretary opened all combat jobs to women: "There will be no exceptions." Also, predictably, there was pushback.


Pope Francis, the first pontiff from the Western Hemisphere, made his first trip to the United States, and crowds swooned over the "People's Pope." His visit reinvigorated the church and brought lapsed Catholics back to the pews. At the same time, the entering class at Harvard started the term with more agnostics (21.3 percent) and atheists (16.6 percent) than Catholics (17.1 percent) and Protestants (17 percent). And while Harvard is hardly reflective of America, organized religion matters far less to young Americans overall than to earlier generations. A national poll showed that among millennials, (those 18 to 29 years old), 55 percent call themselves Christians, but 36 percent of the rest — the so-called "nones" — claim no religion whatsoever. Some years hence it will be interesting to see which way this trend turned.


China ends its one-child policy, a decades-old social disaster. With 1.36 billion people, the world's most populous nation initiated the misguided policy to check population growth, but it resulted in forced abortions, heavy fines and intense resentment, and created a society of only children in which boys far outnumbered girls because traditional rural families favored males and would go to extreme measures to make sure their one baby was a boy. In other reproductive news with a similarly cautionary bent, a group of U.S. scientists called for a worldwide ban on new tools that could edit human genes in ways that could be passed down, in effect creating designer babies: "Once the process begins, there will be no going back," said one scientist. "This is a line we must not cross."


As a wave of Syrian refugees fractures a Europe afraid of being overwhelmed in trying to cope, ISIS-inspired attacks in Paris kill dozens and bring home the threat of home-grown terrorism — citizens of Belgium and France who became radicalized and murdered in the name of the Islamic State. Secular Western democracies confront a foundational question: Of what and whom are we made? Days later, as the calendar turned to December, Americans found that even oceans don't protect against terror. A married couple — an American-born Muslim and his Pakistani wife who came to America on a visa — stocked their home with weaponry and their hearts with radicalized hate, with her claiming that their shooting rampage at a holiday party in San Bernardino, Calif., was in honor of ISIS leadership. Such crises bring out who we really are. When we look back on this years from now, we'll know what it meant to be an American in 2015.


Following the lead of the Microsoft founder and his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pledges to give away all but 1 percent of his worth — a sum of about $45 billion. But the philanthropy raises conflicting attitudes. Kudos to him for giving almost everything away. But lost in the early coverage were details of some tax benefits in the way the giveaway is structured. Many argued that it's his money to do with as he wishes and that only a scrooge would question someone for giving away a fortune. But others pointed out that such tax loopholes, while legal, keep money out of the hands of government — ultimately the people — and reduce what's available to fund necessary functions and worthy causes for the commonweal. The rise of this so-called hacker philanthropy will become more common with the number of self-made billionaires in Silicon Valley. They will decide what causes matter. With trust in government ebbing, many will argue that this is a good trend. But only our future selves will know how this one worked out.

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