The 21st year of the new millennium began with high hopes. The world had just endured its first lockdown Christmas and we were all expecting that godawful Covid-19 to fizzle out so we could return to work, shopping, holidays and even sharing a few drinks on a night out at the pub with our pals. Fat chance.
No love in a time of corona
Things were even worse for many as coronavirus and its bastard variants wreaked havoc, scuppered holidays, devastated education, shuttered businesses and tore great gaping holes in economies, killing millions as it followed its deathly course.
To date, from 277 million reported cases worldwide there have been nearly 5.5 million deaths and we’re still not past the latest Omicron strain. While Europe shuts its doors to British visitors, families have had to think twice about having gran over for Christmas dinner and the hospitality industry faces another grim time of it, the real cost has been on our freedoms.
The great majority have played along to the new and seemingly never-ending rules. Stayed indoors, worked from home (occasionally turning into Jack Nicholson’s character from The Shining), and worn a disgusting face mask (does my breath really smell like that?) on every journey to the supermarket.
But in the UK, at least, that obedience has largely been for mugs. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, his staff, friends and colleagues have felt no compunction to stick to the rules they made for the rest of us. They’ve been partying like it’s 1999 all over again. Covid? Pass the Wensleydale, and yes, please, another glass of red would be perfect. Not so much cabinet meetings, but cabernet ones.
The pandemic has been the biggest story all year. Again. But, but, but, ‘21 has brought its fair share of upset outside the Covid-19 bubble and the year was only six days old when chaos rained down on the US capital.
Capitol Hill under siege
Outgoing President Donald Trump appeared for an impromptu – and ill-advised – speech to his (take your pick) loyal supporters/right wing nutjobs, still seething at his November defeat to Joe Biden and nursing, frankly, looney-tune suspicions that the election had somehow been ‘stolen’ from their man.
After Trump had finished his rallying cry, the mob marched on Capitol Hill, raucously smashing, stealing and stomping through Washington DC’s seat of government. When the dust settled, five people were dead, including 35-year-old Ashli Babbitt, shot at point blank range by a Capitol police officer as she attempted to climb through a broken door. It was not a great day for the US of A.
For most observers, however, it was the image of conspiracy theorist and self-styled Q Anon shaman Jake Angeli, wielding the Stars and Stripes, face painted, heavily-tattooed, bare-chested and wearing a snazzy horned head-dress while whooping in triumph that will forever spring to mind when the events of January 6 are recalled.
Angeli was among the 727 protesters rounded up by law enforcement in the weeks and months that followed and while his choice of costume and bravado might have brought him global attention, it also meant he was handed a 41-month prison sentence in November for his trouble. Angeli should count himself unlucky; after all nearly a year later, while around 50 of those arrested received jail terms for their involvement in the riot, less than half are actually serving prison time.
Elsewhere, one man for whom there was little dispute over his punishment was former Minneapolis p-olice officer Derek Chau-vin, who in September was handed a 22-year stretch for the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, an incident which provided an 18-month companion subplot to the pandemic as support for the Black Lives Matter movement blossomed and spread across the globe just like, well… a virus.
And just like Covid-19, it too mutated into variants that spread into the wider arguments around colonialism, imperialism and capitalism that fuelled the debate that continues to rage in Western democracies on these issues and those born from the modern madness of critical theory.
Taliban takes over
Not in Afghanistan however. When the US and its allies finally withdrew its troops from the seemingly endless no-win war of the last 20 years, the shameful treatment of the Afghans who helped in the fight against the turbanned, heavily-armed Taliban will come back to haunt us.
No one ever believed the empty promises of the Taliban’s men in black, that there would be no reprisals, that women would be free to go to work, go to school and leave the home unchaperoned. It took just days before playing music in public was banned.
In a matter of weeks, it was clear the new Taliban were pretty much the same as the the old Taliban and that the US, UK and other allied governments knew that all along, yet somehow tried to convince us that pulling the plug on the whole sorry adventure was all about creating a bright new future for the troubled nation. Tell that to the families of those killed in this blood-soaked shambles of a handover who are right to keep asking questions about our self-serving cowardice in abandoning them to such a hardline and vicious regime.
Meanwhile, in Europe, another fiercely parochial and powerful outfit sought a takeover of its own.
Super League 0 – Fans 1
The secret planning that went into creating the European football Super League announced in April, however, was all for nothing, as the plotters never managed to leave the changing room. It left many of us wondering what sort of supposed masterminds dreamt up this idea believing it would ever be a flier.
Sure, the billionaires backing this escapade could smell the money to be made and got drunk on their own cleverness, never wondering what the fans, or the rest of the football world, might think. Seems the cl-ever clogs at 12 clubs, incl-uding AC Milan, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and six English Premier League teams were in for a shock.
It didn’t take long for the backlash. Humiliated, shamed for their greed and subsequently punished for their wild ambitions by UEFA – anyone else see the irony? – the clubs involved quickly abandoned their plans. For now, the Super League is a non-starter. But no-one seriously believes the plan is dead.
However, while those moneybags mavericks are back to the drawing board, elsewhere many enjoyed the battle of the billionaires in that most final of frontiers – space.
Weirdy beardy Richard Branson took a sub-space flight on his own Virgin Galactic rocket in July, beating fellow billionaire oddball Jeff Bezos by just days to be the first ‘I own this rocket’ astronaut to soar into space on his own dime. Meanwhile, king of the nerds Elon Musk continued to send hundreds of satellites on a spectacular journey into the skies and stumped the bill for NASA’s first venture into privately-funded space exploration by ferrying four astronauts to the Internat-ional Space Station on a SpaceX rocket. He subsequently won a $2.9 billion contract to fly the next batch of astronauts to the moon, penciled in for 2024.
But, for Musk, that’s not enough. The world’s richest man’s eyes are on a prize 65 million miles away. Mars. And you have to ask, ‘Who’s gonna stop him?’.Because today’s billionaires can do what they want, and sod the rest of us. They’re sending truckloads of money-making satellites into our pristine skies, blasting rockets – sometimes unsuccessfully – off into the stratosphere willy-nilly and drawing up plans to colonize the Red Planet, yet no one seems to be prepared to say, “Hang on a minute, who put you in charge?”
This one rule for them and another for us was on show as Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before both the US congress and the UK parliament in October.
The articulate executive revealed her former boss Mark Zuckerberg and his cronies were perfectly aware that the platforms that earn them billions from exploiting account holders’ private data for advertisers, Instagram in particular, were proving harmful to young users but, despite warnings, sometimes from their own staff, had so far been reluctant to do anything much about it.
Haugen painted a vivid picture of bullied adolescents unable to escape the harsh cruelty of social media trolls. It was all convenient music to the ears of those politicians who want to control the online space as they control mainstream media, and so it was no surprise to subsequently discover the help Haugen was receiving.
And what did Facebook do about these unwelcome revelations? It decided the solution to all this bad publicity was to change the company’s name. It’s now called Meta. Completely different deal. Job sorted, problem solved. Next!
While Frances Haugen was given the rock-star treatment as she tooted the flute on shoddy practices, fellow whistleblower and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has not been so fortunate.
Whistling in the wind
He’s spent his third Christmas in custody at London’s grim, high-security Belmarsh Prison, having been convicted in the British courts of… um, err, hmm… nothing.
For reasons that escape me, Assange – who is not in good health following a mini-stroke – is remanded in custody awaiting extradition to the US where he’ll wallow in yet another prison cell while awaiting his day in court on trumped-up espionage charges. While the US court victory in overturning the UK decision not to hand Assange over to the Yanks owing to his fragile mental state might have had them fist-bumping in Washington, it can only have made things worse for the whistleblower’s health situation. He may appeal the latest decision, but nothing’s happened yet.
That the governments of the UK and his native Australia have failed to secure his release, despite the fact that he has been found guilty of nothing – and is actually considered a hero by many – is a disgrace and shows who really wields the power in the imbalanced but much-trumpeted AUKUS alliance announced in September.
While the Aussies were quite happy to scupper an already agreed upon $90-billion submarine deal with France ‘for convenience’ in sucking up to the US, it seems this new partnership is more ‘quid’ than ‘pro quo’ when it comes to Oz PM Scott Morrison swapping favors to benefit his more problematic compatriots.
That 2021 has been a bad year is undeniable. For some it’s been hell. Those with loved ones who died of Covid, for the people of Afghanistan waiting for the Taliban to knock on their door, for despairing youngsters bullied on social media and, of course, for Julian Assange being held without trial at the insistence of a malevolent foreign power.
So good riddance, and bring it on, ‘22! Give it your best shot. We’re battle-toughened and ready for action and, as the calendar begins anew, we’re not taking any prisoners.