The Magazine

A Bad First Draft

Journalists make a hash of the decade that was.

Jan 4, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 16 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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Journalists, long on confidence but chronically short of knowledge, have been lately offering end-of-decade summations. The fact that the first decade of the 21st century doesn't actually end until this time next year hasn't slowed them down; and there's universal agreement that this was, as Andy Serwer wrote in Time, "the decade from hell."

No doubt, deep in the bowels of the Time-Life Building in Manhattan, where neither Life nor Time exists in the form they did when the building was constructed--and where neither may survive once the decade really does end--the sense of gloom must be palpable. The past decade was an epoch of "neglect," "greed," "self-interest," "deferral of responsibility," and, not least, the two presidential terms of George W. Bush. As "historian H. W. Brands of the University of Texas" points out, the Glass-Steagall Act was repealed in 1999--"an unfortunate tipping point of deregulation"--and so, according to Serwer, our first order of business in the new decade should be to "enact a 21st century version of Glass-Steagall." Then there was Hurricane Katrina. "An act of God, right?" asks Serwer. "Not really."

A few blocks away, at New York magazine, Michael Hirschorn points out that the dying decade was the era "when the bottom fell out of just about everything, including the idea of authority itself." This was because "we've had to tolerate the Bush presidency, born amid what was essentially a Supreme Court coup," which saddled America "with arguably the worst president in history." No explanation or comparison--or argument, really: Just an assertion of "Bush insanity," an entertaining list of scandals and oddities having nothing to do with George W. Bush, and the concluding wisdom that "the fear now is that no one is in charge. That we are all adrift in a vast, roiling sea, the contours of which none of us can fully discern."

Across town at the New York Times, reporter David Segal chose the expedient of telephoning sages, such as Carmen Reinhart, author of This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, who predicts that "this will be remembered as the era when the North went South," and Stanford futurist Paul Saffo, who reminds us that "realities have consistently outpaced our wildest imaginings." David Brin, a science fiction writer, "looks at the '00s as a great lost opportunity, the decade when 'the drug high of self-righteousness poisoned our inherent American joy in pragmatic problem solving.' We missed the chance to solve the problem of global warming [and] to fix our crumbling infrastructure." Worst of all, "we were sidetracked by our response to 9/11, which [Brin] considers stupid and costly."

And so on. Readers who find these analyses disconcerting, perhaps even juvenile in tone, will have good reason to do so: End-of-year/end-of-decade summaries have a tendency to allow dyspeptic journalists to unleash their inner Lewis H. Lapham, their H.L. Menckenesque dismissals of contemporary foibles, Gore Vidaloid lamentations for lost Edens, Neil Postman-like surveys of cultural devastation, H.G. Wellsian predictions of a ravaged planet.

In fact, there is an entertaining sameness to these eloquent summaries. You would have read the same complaints about our failure to repair the crumbling infrastructure in 1989, or solve the problem of global cooling in 1979, or the drug-high of self-righteousness in 1959. The idea of authority itself was effectively destroyed by 1969, the tipping point of deregulation arrived in 1929, and anytime between 1945 and 1991 you could have read a confident assertion that our response to the Cold War was stupid and costly. (There is a partisan element at play, to be sure: Ronald Reagan's prosperity yielded the decade of greed, which Bill Clinton's did not; and Jimmy Carter was never described as the worst president in history.)

The other problem is that dividing history into decades is convenient for numerical purposes, and that's about it. As viewers of Mad Men must surely realize, what we think of as the sixties did not begin until that decade was at least half over, and the previous fin-de-siècle cycle lasted until 1914. Sometimes decades end on schedule--the twenties with the 1929 crash, and the thirties with the 1939 German invasion of Poland--but the meaning of these terms is ambiguous at best. The twenties was not a carefree epoch of raccoon coats and bathtub gin for the devastated farmers of the Midwest, and not every American dropped acid and marched against the Vietnam war in the sixties. The seventies began when the draft was ended (1973), or maybe at Kent State (1970), or perhaps with the death of Karen Ann Quinlan (1975).