Verbum Ultimum: Celebrities, 2016 and Hope

The last year was not one of despair but of hope, death shows us.

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 1/6/17 12:17am

Judging from internet memes, press coverage and the national election, 2016 was the year the world went mad. To paraphrase the Broadway hit “Hamilton,” the world seemed to have turned upside down. One piece of unity amongst a year of division came from grief, however. Celebrity death after celebrity death marred 2016 — and, as the baby boomer stars of our youth age, that trend will likely accelerate.

Those deaths, strangely, brought people together. Whether it was Alan Rickman or David Bowie, Prince or Mohammad Ali, William Christopher or Carrie Fisher, international mourning provided a glimpse of unity amidst a fraught time, albeit with no less sadness. The news media, popular internet and word on the street find common cause in the mourning of our collective dead. There was no hint of President-elect Donald Trump’s tweeting or former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s controversial emails as people and news outlets left and right told sad stories of the death of kings.

That was as it should be. Although often the saddest parts of our 2016, the deaths of stars like Fisher provided an interlude from the media bias toward fear and the waxing politics of hatred both nationally and globally. Fisher’s accomplishments — as the iconic Princess Leia in the “Star Wars” saga, as a mental health advocate, as a memoirist and writer — could draw away the cynicism and loathing from our national dialogue to provide moments of open introspection on the widest possible scale.

Fear is an easy emotion to tap. From the United Kingdom’s decision to exit the European Union, stage right, to our own incredibly challenging presidential election, everyone from family members to national media personalities found it all too easy to delve into the darkest of human emotions to create a 2016 wracked with anxiety and wary of a nameless “other.” The previous year has become seen as a calendrical pariah, exiled to the hell where awful years of grave global misfortune go.

But that was never the truth of the matter. Environmentally, great strides have been made. China is set to ban the ivory trade in 2017 and has announced a ban on the construction of new coal mines. The giant panda is no longer endangered (manatees, too). Wild tiger populations increased for the first time in a century. Globally, an area larger than the United States was set aside as marine preserves. Scientifically, major advances occurred worldwide, from the invention of an ocean cleanup prototype that could substantially reduce marine pollution to the announcement by Israeli and American scientists that a cure from radiation sickness could be around the corner. And speaking of Israel, what was once one of the world’s driest countries now produces over half of its own freshwater supply, making it an agricultural hub in the Middle East.

Then there’s public health. In 2016, the rate of unsheltered veterans continued to decline rapidly in the U.S., coming alongside the announcement of a 67 percent drop in the HIV rate in Malawi, to name just two global health milestones. Measles was officially eradicated from the Americas in spite of the best efforts of the anti-vaccination movement, and world hunger reached a 25-year low. Teen birthrates in the U.S. have also hit an all-time low, and ebola, an international horror story just months ago, now has a vaccine that boasts a 100 percent success rate.

So it’s not all bad. We so often do not hear the good, but — in the death of a national icon — we can pause for a moment to remember it. Rickman’s Severus Snape taught a generation the value of loyalty. Bowie’s music and public persona helped millions realize that they could be themselves, and, far from being ashamed, they could become better and stronger people for their oddities. Ali inspired generations of sports fans with his tenacity and helped American Muslims come out of the shadows and become an ever-more integral part of American society.

And then there’s Fisher. Her legacy is of paramount importance. Her work in recognizing her own mental health issues, combating the public stigmatization of mental health and its treatment and fighting for the rights of the mentally ill helped to spark a revolution in care in America. There is still much to be done, but, thanks to Fisher and many others like her, the veil has been lifted back. Mental health care is more available. And the national conversation now includes those with mental health problems in ways it never could have before.

As Princess Leia, Fisher also helped show multiple generations of young people how to lead rather than command. Fisher’s Leia did not bark orders but rather led from the front, committing herself wholeheartedly to her beliefs. She took action, was decisive and will ultimately be remembered, in all likelihood, as the greatest fictional anti-fascist ever created. It is also wrong, as is so often said, to say she only inspired young women. No, Fisher inspired millions of boys and girls to be all that they could be — to be leaders and to be firm in their morals and beliefs.

When there is a pause from political fragmentation, media fear-mongering and internet-fueled sensationalism, we can remember the good of which we are all capable, collectively and individually. The deaths of so many icons of pop culture, sports, science and politics in 2016 provided such pauses and allowed us to remember their achievements and, through them, the good we have all done. The next year will include many more celebrities’ deaths and will likely be reported in the same light: sorrow, but with hope, love and a sense of what we can and have done to better this planet.

Fisher said that, upon her death, she wanted it reported that she “drowned in moonlight, strangled by [her] own bra.” So let it be written.