It was the year of "eh, not bad" — and also of avoiding the obvious

We avoided nuclear war and the red wave — but global fascism and George Santos are still with us. Happy New Year!

By Brian Karem


Published December 29, 2022 9:38AM (EST)

Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Longtime White House correspondent Brian Karem writes a weekly column for Salon.

My deep love for celebrating the New Year has roots in being raised Catholic and will forever be tied to an event in my pre-pubescence.

I wanted an official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot range model air rifle ... No. Wait. That was someone else.

When I was a child, I didn't want to attend Sunday school. 

I was born into the Catholic faith, but was not enrolled in parochial school. I was a member of the great unwashed who attended public school. It was free and my parents could neither easily afford nor wanted to send their four children to a church school. My father was critical of church teachings, and my mother despised "those who worry more about an afterlife which may or may not exist rather than the life they have in front of them."

But since we belonged to a Catholic parish, I paid for this indiscretion once a week by being forced to attend "CCD," the Catholic version of Sunday school. For reasons that escape logic, and therefore are consistent with the rest of the Roman Catholic faith, Catholic Sunday school occurred on Wednesday nights.

Those were fun times. I learned how to make spit balls and baptize a Mrs. Beasley doll (don't ask). I discovered that sacramental wine tasted horrible, as did holy water. I couldn't make sense of the different vestments and got tired of reading prayers in Latin. A friend of mine got yelled at because he dropped a Bible in class. He was told he was going to Hell for that prodigious sin. I was told I would follow, because I laughed when the teacher admonished him.

We never knew what CCD stood for, but when we were younger, it meant "Creepy Catholic Drudgery." (We thought that was pretty clever.)

The highlight to my misadventures in this torturous mental branding came in the Christmas season before my 10th birthday — a day before the New Year in the Year of Our Lord 1970. Man had already landed on the moon. Richard Nixon was president. The war in Vietnam was in full swing. The Kent State massacre had occurred in May. Paul McCartney announced the Beatles' breakup at the end of April and "Let It Be" was released in May. In between those events, the Apollo 13 disaster occurred and Jim Lovell became a hero. 

Meanwhile, in CCD class, we were told that God so loved us that he sent his only son to earth to suffer for our sins. This made absolutely no sense to me. My dad would never send me someplace foreign and make me suffer for something someone else did. Why would God do that to his "only" son — and if I were immortal, as God's son was supposed to be, what would be the point? It wouldn't really be suffering, would it? It seemed like cosplay at best and fiction at worst. The plot holes were gaping. I wanted to know why God would want to fool us. That screenplay needed work. How did Apollo 13 fit into this silly narrative? What about the Bumpus' dogs?

I also took umbrage with the description of Jesus as "his one and only son," from John 3:16. 

Did God have daughters he sent elsewhere? Who was "Mrs. God"? If God had children, who was his wife? And if God was all-powerful, why did he send anyone anywhere to do anything? If he believed in free will, wasn't he hedging his bets by sending an emissary to straighten things out? Why didn't we hear about God's other kids? He was Catholic, right? Or did God practice birth control? Did God's wife give him grief for leaving the toilet seat up? 

I took umbrage with the description of Jesus as God's "one and only son." Did he have daughters he sent elsewhere? Who was "Mrs. God"? If he was all-powerful, why bother sending anyone anywhere to do anything?

These are all heavy questions for a nine-year-old mind, and I couldn't wrap my head around them. My 29-year-old teacher was no help either. She was the mother of seven who had been married for nine years and obviously didn't believe in birth control. She volunteered to teach the class so her children could enjoy a Catholic school education at a reduced rate and she didn't even bother to discuss the heady questions I asked in class. Some of the other kids had chimed in with similar inquiries and that had her flummoxed. 

Church politics demanded that she send me to the priest who laughed off my concerns and dismissed them with prejudice as the "questions of a young man who should be in Catholic school every day." He also admonished me for getting the class worked up and told me he would have a talk with my parents about my "anti-Catholic" behavior.

My mom and dad saw it differently. So I started the new year unencumbered by the need to attend CCD any longer. I wasn't a witness to the conversation Mom and Dad had with the priest, but the old man had some choice words afterward. My dad, as someone else said of theirs, "worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium — a master."

So as a result of that parental dustup with a priest my dad called a "narrow-minded bigot," I had the greatest year of my pre-pubescent life. No more Sunday school on Wednesday. I was sure 1971 would be much better than 1970 because of this, and I've endeavored to ask pointed questions and question authority ever since. And I've always looked forward to the New Year.

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That brings us to the end of 2022. The threat of nuclear annihilation is rising because of the war in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin wants to get the Soviet Union band back together and will stoke whatever fires, kill whoever he can and threaten the entire world if he has to in his efforts to make that happen. 

Authoritarianism is on the rise globally, while racism and Donald Trump's narcissistic, dystopian dreams of clairvoyance are all making daily headlines. 

I asked a national security source recently whether the thinking was that Putin is behind the resurgence of the far right across the globe, or is merely taking advantage of it. Could it be both? In the U.S., Putin or his Russian oligarch friends have contributed to the NRA and a variety of politicians and causes that support fascism and authoritarianism. There's evidence he's helped that cause in other countries. 

"That's a good question," I was told. But there was no definitive answer.

As for my ancillary concern that the threat of nuclear annihilation has grown because of Putin's war in Ukraine, I simply received a shrug. "Well, it looked bad earlier this year, but those concerns are waning." Why? Well, we haven't heard about it in the last few weeks. Whew. Good to know. 

I asked a national security source recently whether Putin was behind the resurgence of the far right across the globe, or is merely taking advantage of it. "That's a good question," I was told.

This just goes to show that anyone can bury their heads in the sand. The Democrats claimed a victory in the midterm elections with their heads fully buried to the fact that they lost the House. Trump supporters, not content with just their heads, have buried their entire bodies six feet under to their hero's latest claims of being "clairvoyant." Voters in one New York suburban district buried their heads in the sand and pinched their nose with both fingers so they couldn't detect the smell coming off George Santos, as they elected him to Congress.

For me, it's déjà vu all over again. I look back at 2022 concerned about mass shootings, climate change, racism, misogyny, civil rights and good music. With the exception of mass shootings and climate change — new to my list, versus my 1970 list — I've worried about the same thing since I was nine. Back then, I was concerned whether there would be any good music, with the Beatles breaking up. Now I wonder if we'll ever have any good rock 'n' roll again. Of my new concerns, it was reported this week that more children have been murdered in mass shootings than in any year in recent history. But at least because of climate change, the temperature will be a balmy 65 degrees in D.C. on New Year's Day, while other parts of the country are digging out from a massive, historic snowstorm. Wildfires, monsoons, hurricanes, bomb cyclones, floods and famine are all increased concerns over the last 50 years. As for civil rights, that issue has been set back 70 years or so, to the 1950s, because aging white men are scared of losing their power.

Ultimately, as we look back on 2022 and look forward to 2023, I also worry about the press. Sure, some of us are still reporting about Santa Claus and Donald Trump, but it's hard to believe in a fat cherub with a white beard, dressed in red who eats cookies and drinks warm milk while his enslaved little people churn out toys for (by some unknown metric) good little boys and girls around the world.

I wonder about Santa Claus too.

Our current corporate media has done a horrible job informing the masses of the fundamental stupidity that leads people to believe in such drivel. Some of us — both ignorantly arrogant and arrogantly ignorant — have fallen into the trap of disbelieving all facts. 

Critical thinking? Almost nonexistent. Ad hominem attacks top the list of accepted methods of political discourse, and logical fallacies are so common even a college freshman can dissect today's social commentary before the day's first infusion of caffeine. As I see it, the press is in full retreat across the country. Talking heads who engage in chest-thumping arguments on cable news outlets have replaced real reporting. What few real reporters we have left are less experienced than their immediate predecessors, who were less experienced than their predecessors. In some places, there are vast "news deserts" where there's no local press and reporting doesn't exist at all.

As a result, we end the year wondering how a guy like George Santos can get elected to office, a self-made man who literally made himself up. He pandered to the public to get elected, and was ignored by the press until he won. While he now admits the staggering number of lies he told about himself, he refuses — so far — to resign.

This is our country today. 

It makes for great headlines — if you can find a newspaper — but lousy government.

And yet, I remain cautiously optimistic while others remain openly or cautiously pessimistic about our future.

For that I thank my parents. I never got that BB gun — oh wait, that was still someone else — but what I did get from my parents that I cherish to this day was an appreciation for independent thought and a love of good music.

In the Year of Our Lord 1971, against all hope, there came a blast of hope that I also carry to this day. Things can look bad and things can look worse, but 2022 wasn't that. After the four years we suffered through during Donald Trump's traitorous run in the White House, 2022 was a case "eh, not that bad." Let other humorists, satirists and columnists assail you with the day-by-day account. I need not bother.

But I do remember the words I heard for the first time in October of 1971. My mom and dad were breaking up. The war in Vietnam was still going on. And while I was working through that depression, my dad and mom both told me that things would get better. My cynical neighbor, whose parents had recently divorced, told me I was a naïve dreamer if I believed my parents.

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one.

That ran through my head. And things did get better. So, if you want to call me naïve, go ahead. I double-dog dare you. Hey. I triple-dog dare you. OK, technically that's a breach of etiquette, but you get the idea.

Happy New Year to all.

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

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Commentary Donald Trump George Santos Happy New Year Joe Biden