I am a sucker for decadism – the fetish for arbitrarily assigning a certain personality to each decade after it has passed. The top ten lists, the gadgets, the horrible fads and fashion trends that supposedly make the Seventies the Seventies or the Eighties the Eighties. I have often tried to figure out how people would memorialize this decade, to size up the zeitgeist and determine which trends and tendencies would be remembered as quintessentially 2000s.
This is a risky business. In 1995 a magazine had a contest for its readers to define what the Nineties were all about, and the winner came up with “the Whiny Nineties.” The memory of grunge and the recession and Thirtysomething was still painfully fresh at the time. But then everyone took Prozac and got into ska and stock options and things were fine.
To a certain extent, the cultural cues of the 2000s haven’t been hard to find. The iPod. Texting. Crocs. Trucker hats and ridiculous sunglasses. These are the embarrassing bric-a-brac of material culture. But was it a conservative era? The Republican Party had an almost unprecedented lock on the White House, the judiciary, and Congress for a significant part of the decade, and for a time the evangelical political movement seemed unstoppable. In the wake of the 2004 election, the Economist wryly quoted Ignatius J. Reilly to describe the results: “Now, it seems, the conservative rural red-neck Calvinist vote has captured America.”
Fey, flimsy liberals appeared helpless in the face of tax cuts, militarism, and family values. One of my worst memories of the decade involved watching Tom Daschle and Nancy Pelosi deliver the rejoinder to a Bush State of the Union address; they sat in soft lighting and spoke with even softer voices, as if they were trapped in a gauzy round of couples counseling. Needless to say, this was not enough to stop the war machine.
Despite the iron political orthodoxy that seemed to govern the country from 2000 to 2006, the culture as a whole did not feel stiff and conservative to me. If anything, people seemed to be growing more open-minded about sexuality, race, technology, and the wider world. This was the era when music became free, much to the chagrin of Metallica. In the age of Harold and Kumar and Lost, Asian and Arab characters finally moved from the sidelines into prominent roles in pop culture. The success of programs from Will and Grace to Modern Family suggests that a gay or lesbian couple has become an unremarkable concept for many Americans.
Of course, the anti-Muslim animus that flared after 9/11, and which reappeared with the rise of Barack Obama, showed how uneasy some Americans felt about a multicultural world. And the passage of anti-gay referenda throughout the country, from Ohio to California to Maine, remains a disgrace of our time. Some folks feel fine laughing at a gay character on TV but will happily deny their neighbors civil rights at the ballot box.
Despite these disappointments, I think the arc of this decade has been toward justice. It is easy to forget that civil unions for same-sex couples were an invention of the Aughts, at least in the US. One of Howard Dean’s liberal bonafides when he ran for president was the fact that he signed the nation’s first-ever civil unions bill as Vermont governor in 2000. Numerous other states have followed suit, in one form or another.
True marriage will have to wait in many states, but the polling in recent referenda indicates the shape of things to come: younger voters have voiced much greater support for equality than the older generation. These attempts to inscribe homophobia into the law are tokens of our moment – the last-ditch efforts of an aging, shrinking contingent of traditionalists – and the passage of time is their greatest enemy.
Perhaps there is a time lag in the logic of culture and politics. Historians are fond of pointing out that conservative eras were less conservative than they seemed, and the same for the great periods of liberalism. The people who set the New Deal in motion were there all the while in the 1920s, before they got to take their ideas into the mainstream. The 1950s gave you the Beats, rock and roll, and the rise of the modern civil rights movement, while the supposedly radical 1960s might be best known for giving the world Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Liberalism made an unexpected comeback in the late 2000s, after having been pronounced dead and useless over and over again in the 1990s. The sprouts of this seemingly sudden shift were growing in the shadow of the conservative juggernaut all along.
In this decade, we felt the despair of watching a demagogic cult drag the country into a pointless invasion, cheered on by a feckless press corps despite a total lack of any security threat. Five years later, we witnessed the euphoria that surrounded the election of an optimistic leader from the Left, who was lifted to the heights of power by the youth, the labor movement, the netroots. One day, capitalism was flawless and Alan Greenspan was a minor deity; and the next thing you knew people feared for the survival of the world financial system and pointed fingers at the free-market gurus who deregulated us nearly into oblivion.
I don’t know how you characterize a decade like this. We may yet lurch back into the dogma of fear and free markets for all I know. This long, strange period, without a music to define it (ringtones? reggaeton? Autotune?), or a politics to unify it, is very nearly over. The Dow is about where it was ten years ago, as if the financial whirring of the whole decade never happened.
Perhaps today’s young people will be so spooked by the catastrophic economy that they will, like the Silent Generation of the early 1950s, seek the security and comfort of a quiet, conformist life, clinging to any sort of stable job. Perhaps the culture will continue to fracture along microtargeted lines, and we will have no shared experiences except for watching a cat flush a toilet.
Despite the inherent diversity within any culture, and the artificial limits of the decade as a unit of time, each period gets characterized in one way or another. The 1990s, more for the go-go capitalist optimism of its later years than for the gloomy counterculture of its early years. From today’s vantage point it is hard to tell whether we are leaving the age of George Walker Bush or George Michael Bluth. It was, of course, both.