And no one told me when to run… that’s for damn sure.
New Year’s came and went without me writing a blog post. I was preoccupied with other things at the time, as detailed to some extent in my last couple of entries bookending my computer headaches. But I did make some observations that I think are still worth mentioning, as both the year and the decade rolled over and restarted.
I’m well aware, of course, that both our calendar year and the decades into which we assemble them are completely arbitrary human constructs, and that there’s nothing metaphysically significant about the transition from one random chronological marker to another, despite all the cultural baggage we attach to them. Nevertheless, one of the central components of human consciousness is our capability for pattern recognition, and the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century definitely displayed some patterns that are, at the very least, psychologically meaningful.
To put it all in a nutshell… this past decade sucked. Big time.
Politically, culturally, even environmentally — by pretty much whatever criteria you care to measure, in fact — this was just a godawful ten years.
This has, of course, been widely noted. Almost everyone was glad to put it behind us. As columnist Mark Morford put it in his inimitably effervescent style,
[It was] the end of the Aughts, the Zeros, the Zips, and everything they contained, hurled, dragged us down into like a Goliath tarantula drags down an unsuspecting sparrow. …
Let us just say it outright: Good riddance to the Zeros… It was easily one of the worst periods in recent American history, upwards of 3600 days drenched in fear and ignorance and bitter divisiveness, nipples and anthrax and macho shock n’ awe, economic implosions and endless conservative puling about God and gays and terrorism.
We began the decade at the tail end of the Clinton years (for both good and ill, but that’s another topic), the tail end of the Internet boom, the tail end of what was once optimistically called a “peace dividend.” Within three months the boom had collapsed and the stock market was in a tailspin… and it remained essentially flat (some ups and downs notwithstanding) through the entire decade. Within a year arguably the worst, the most singularly inept, incompetent, arrogant, corrupt, and downright moronic, presidential administration in U.S. history had been installed by the auspices of an unsigned Supreme Court decision over the express will of the majority of American voters. Within ten months after that our largest symbols of capitalist and military hegemony had been attacked by a loose-knit band of Saudis armed with box-cutters and airplanes, and the Bush regime responded not with reason and prudence but with hysteria and a long series of opportunistic and unconstitutional abuses of power, including most prominently a completely unnecessary and hideously costly invasion of a country completely uninvolved in the attack. Along the way we got saddled with regressive social policies and even more regressive tax cuts, all aided and abetted by a mass media that deliberately, insistently debased public discourse in every way imaginable, and by the time the Bush years staggered to an end we were suffering the deepest economic contraction in three generations, exacerbated by the steepest public debt in American history.
Meanwhile the problems that any responsible government could and should have attended to were neglected. Our ice caps melted and climate shifted and storms and floods and droughts accelerated at a pace even worse than the most cynical scientific prognosticators had warned. America’s health insurance companies inflated premiums and rescinded coverage at rates beyond the expectations of the their worst critics. Our industries were outsourced to the developing world, most notably China, to a completely unprecedented degree. Gay rights became not so much the next front for civil liberties progress as a club for reactionary theocrats to swing around. And lest this needs to be underscored, real people suffered and died as a result of all these trends, people who could and should have continued to lead normal, productive lives.
And the Obama administration, although it fostered a brief surge of civic optimism, has thus far hewed much too closely to business-as-usual to live up to almost any of the hopey changey aspirations people had for it. Obama’s intelligent and articulate in a way we haven’t seen in decades, but his main problem is that he’s not quite Lincoln or FDR, and that’s what we need right now.
In our popular culture things weren’t quite that dismal: it was merely a decade of boredom and insignificance rather than outright disaster. The decade in film was largely forgettable, even among award-winners. Television was dominated by unwatchable unscripted “reality” shows, while the creators of edgier scripted fare got pushed aside. No new innovations and very few noteworthy new artists emerged in popular music. Print fiction ambled along dominated by corporate consolidation, shorter backlists, and more lowest-common-denominator blockbusters the likes of Twilight. Newspapers hemorrhaged advertisers and made panicky jumps to new business models and in too many cases fell to bankruptcy, and serious journalism dwindled.
One of the few positive highlights of the decade was technological change. Google reinvented our mindspace, the blogosphere democratized public discourse in unforeseen ways, and nifty gadgets continued to emerge and converge at a sometimes bewildering pace. But as much as I love my iPhone, I’d cheerfully give it up for a chance to hit undo on the decade just ended.
Large scale macro-trends aside, it was a dismal decade on a personal level as well. My own career made a brief surge of forward progress, but then fell into an unpleasant long-term holding pattern. And this past year in particular, especially its later months, seemed to find new and unexpected ways to be miserable for almost everyone I know. The second half of 2009 brought crises of every kind, health woes and legal entanglements and financial shortfalls, lost employment and crumbling relationships, fires and floods and accidents, to a shockingly long list of my friends, relatives, and acquaintances. The fact that I made it to year’s end with nothing worse than a hard-drive failure is almost something of an accomplishment.
So the opportunity for a fresh start, a new leaf—however arbitrary the turning point may be in a cosmic sense—is a consummation devoutly to be wished. And there is cause for hope. For all the obstinacy of the do-nothings in Washington, we’re at least taking a few steps in the right direction for a change, rather than making things worse. For all the turmoil in so many people’s personal lives, at least some of those I know seem to be moving back toward stability again. And for all the anecdotal reasons I may have to descend into unremitting cynicism, I still have some prospect of making forward progress in my own life as well… or at least running fast enough to avoid backsliding.
We have the opportunity and the capability and the imagination to make this next decade the fresh beginning that we always thought the 21st century would offer us, even if it’s ten years late. And I’ll do my best to offer a (scattershot) chronicle of the journey on this blog.
People find ways to survive and move forward. We look to the future. It’s what we do.Tags: 2009, 2010, climate, George W. Bush, government, internet, journalism, Mark Morford, media, Obama, progress, the future