As we head into the year 2020, it’s hard to know whether to be fearful or hopeful. (Despite it being “20/20” I’m not seeing very clearly.)
So far, the 21st Century has left a lot to be desired.
When I was young–many years ago–I imagined we’d make great progress by the 21st Century. My anticipation had less to do with flying cars and computers and more to do with things like world peace; in any event, I wasn’t prepared for the renewed tribalism and various bigotries that have grown more intractable in the years since 2000. (I was definitely not prepared for a President reckless enough to Wag the Dog.)
It’s hard to know whether the problems we face are truly worse than they have been, or whether–thanks to vastly improved communication technologies– we are just much more aware of them. In any event, as we turn the page on 2019, pundits and historians are proposing terms to describe the last decade.
“Unraveling” was the descriptor offered by Dana Milbank, one of the Post opinion writers offering their perspectives on the last ten years. I think Milbank got the decade right.
It began with the tea party, a rebellion nominally against taxes and government but really a revolt against the first African American president. At mid-decade came the election of Donald Trump, a backlash against both the black president and the first woman on a major party ticket.
Milbank attributes much of the ugliness of our time to the fury of white Christian men who realized that they were losing their hegemony. He saved some opprobrium for social media:
It gave rise to demagoguery, gave an edge to authoritarianism and its primary weapon, disinformation, and gave legitimacy and power to the most extreme, hate-filled and paranoid elements of society.
Molly Roberts had a somewhat different take; she characterized the decade as one of (over) sharing. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like have ushered in “full-frontal confessionalism to a country full of emotional voyeurs.” In the process of baring our souls, we also, inadvertently, shared a lot of private information.
To maximize our engagement, those platforms played on the preferences all our sharing revealed — which meant shoving inflammatory content in our faces and shoving us into silos. All that connection ended up dividing us.
Jennifer Rubin has been turning out a stream of perceptive columns the past couple of years, and her take on the decade didn’t disappoint: she dubbed it the Decade of Anxiety, “one in which we lost not simply a shared sense of purpose but a shared sense of reality.” Rubin, a classical conservative, is clear-eyed about what has happened to the GOP.
The Republican Party degenerated into a cult, converted cruelty into public policy and normalized racism. Internationally, U.S. retrenchment ushered in a heyday for authoritarian aggressors and a dismal period for international human rights and press freedom.
Christine Emba, with whom I am unfamiliar, characterized the period as a Decade of Dissonance–a period during which our reality and our expectations kept moving further and further apart.
For her part, Alexandra Petri called it the Decade of Ouroboros. I had to Google that one. Turns out it’s a serpent or dragon eating its own tail. (I’ll admit to some head-scratching; she either meant a time when we set about destroying–eating– ourselves, or a time when everything is ominous.)
The final offering, from the economist Robert Samuelson, struck me as appropriate, if depressing. He called it the Decade of Retreat.
It’s not just the end of the decade. It’s the end of the American century. When historians look back on the past 10 years, they may conclude this was the moment Americans tired of shaping the world order.
At my house, it has been a decade of civic disappointment–and exhaustion. (Persistent outrage really tires you out….)
How would you characterize the decade? And more to the point, where do you see America after another ten years?