Clarity in the heavens, and maybe a little more here on Earth
Last night I stood in the garden looking at the sky. Despite the light pollution that prevents suburb dwellers from ever seeing the milky way, two light sources shone through with thrilling clarity: a crescent moon, and beneath it Venus, so big that it could never be mistaken for a star.
No flat-earther or post-truther could deny the existence of the moon, even if there are some who claim we never went there. A reminder perhaps that as we face a muddled and uncertain year, there is some clarity to be found. The moon will wax and wane. Venus will come and go in the night sky, always outshining its neighbours.
Back on our planet, the events of the past year have left many of us more fearful and confused than usual. Yet there are signs that new clarities are emerging that might enable us to deal with the so-called known unknowns. Here are a couple:
Regardless of whether the cyber-attacks on US institutions during the presidential election campaign originate from the Kremlin or from some thrill-seeking teenager in a bedroom, there can hardly be any government that is now unaware of how vulnerable their political structures, commerce, infrastructures and armed forces are to a malicious and determined hacker. The threat has been out there for years, but in 2016 it moved to centre stage. And it’s apparent to not only to five-star generals and paranoid presidents, but to every user of the internet whose personal information has been stolen, whose email has been hijacked and who has been defrauded. And that’s billions of people. We have woken up. Forewarned is forearmed.
This is the new arms race. Multipolar, and far more significant than North Korea’s attempt to impress the rest of the world with its notional ICBMs. Can we defend ourselves? No more easily than we can shoot down every missile and dodge every bullet. But at least we know the danger, and hold to account those tasked with keeping us safe. We can also go some way towards protecting ourselves by using the same level of common sense that prevents us from leaving our wallets in cars and our doors open to strangers. When was the last time you changed your passwords?
The second clarity is that no political order, however old, entrenched and seemingly stable, is incapable of being subverted, or at least threatened with subversion. Whatever value judgements we might make about Western democracies, absolute monarchies and authoritarian oligarchies, all can be changed beyond recognition or even swept away.
That much is obvious to anyone who has read just a single history book. But reading about the end of empires and ancien regimes is one thing. Facing dramatic change in political systems we grew up with and take for granted is quite another. The former is academic, the latter is personal experience.
If Americans believe that the separation of powers cannot be breached, if the British believe that the independence of the judiciary is inviolable, and if citizens of the European Union believe that it will never fragment back into its component parts, 2016 has taught them that nothing is sacred, and nothing lasts for ever.
The threats to the status quo are clearer than ever, which is cause for optimism. Not because the status quo must be defended at all costs, but because the implications of change have been so widely debated. Whatever the elected officials US, Britain and the EU achieve over the next few years, we will not be able to say that we sleepwalked into disaster. We still have the opportunity to speak up, protest and take legal action against those who attack the institutions and freedoms we value.
And if we don’t value them enough, we can blame nobody if they disappear.
This year the hackers will still hack and the demagogues will do their best to subvert and infringe. But at least we see them coming.