Monday, October 25, 2010

The Zeitgeist of the Aughts

From the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

zeitgeist, noun - the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era

From the movie "Fight Club":

"... an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression."

Of course, David Fincher's masterpiece was released in 1999 - two years before the September 11th terrorist attacks, four years before our invasion of Iraq, six years before Hurricane Katrina, and nine years before the Great Recession and the election of America's first black president. In the grand historical scheme of things, none of these durations are particularly lengthy, but in the calendar of a people's spirit, these brief chronological spans mark the boundaries between entire worlds.

For contrast, just think about what life was like two, four, six, or nine years before the release of "Fight Club." 1999 was a year in which America was prosperous at home and at peace with, to say nothing of dominant throughout, the entire world. Was the ethos of that year different in any meaningful way from that of 1997, 1995, 1993, or 1990? Like 1999, each of those years was also marked by a bullish economy at home and peaceful American unilateralism overseas. All of them were born in the afterglow of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which had made the Cold War's impending conclusion as obvious as the graffiti once scrawled on the sides of that mortar edifice, and of the technological boom, as seen by the proliferation of personal computers and the Internet. Although the news stories that dominated headlines in those respective years were obviously varied - 1990 had the fall of apartheid and the opening salvos of the first Gulf War, 1993 carried with it the end of a brief economic recession and the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords, 1995 contained the Oklahoma City bombing and the circus of the O. J. Simpson's trial, 1997 saw the deaths of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, and 1999 brought the Columbine school shootings and another legal circus, the Bill Clinton impeachment - they were all notable in that the overwhelming majority of American citizens, though emotionally invested in them, were not directly impacted by them.

A few steps down one avenue of history shows an unbroken stream of affluence, tranquility, and power for America as a nation, as well as an atmosphere of comfort in which her citizens were so deeply immersed that a "Fight Club" monologue about the restlessness of lacking purpose spoke to an entire generation. In short, it was an age of ennui, in which the ease of American life was matched only by its detachment from events of historical consequence.

On the other hand, a few steps of equal length in the opposite direction yield the bloodiest terrorist attack in our nation's history, a controversial war that bitterly divided the country at home and ostracized it throughout the world, stagnating economic growth that led to a gradual loss of prosperity and opportunity, a natural disaster that laid waste to a great American city and destroyed a presidency, a Wall Street meltdown that officially transformed the struggling economy into the full-fledged Great Recession, and - as perhaps the one bright spot in this bleak landscape - the breaking of a racial barrier with the election of America's first black president. In stark contrast to the "Fight Club" era, this historical period had more than its fair share of great wars and great depressions. After 2001, Americans found the comfort of their lives imperiled, the security of their place in the world shattered. Whether they liked it or not, they were no longer passive witnesses to a sweep of events in which they neither could nor wished to exercise any individual agency; they were impacted by, reacting to, and inextricably part of those events.

Why do I bring this up?

There is a tendency of those who reside in a given period of history to assume that its salient conditions will be everlasting. In what I like to call the Age of Ennui (1989-2001), many felt that the domestic and international conditions of that time were destined to be perennial. So certain was this belief that President George H. W. Bush talked of a "New World Order", philosopher and economist Francis Fukuyama wrote to great acclaim of "The End of History", the magazine "Newsweek" could reflect at the end of the century that a perpetually rising stock market seemed to be a fact of life, and - of course - Brad Pitt could deliver a famous cinematic monologue in which the features of his time were treated as the new facts of life. Few prominent voices took into account the possibility that this period of history, like all other periods of history, was finite in nature, and would no doubt someday find itself at a point of conclusion just as it had a point of entry.

The same is true of our own time. When one listens to the pundits and other so-called experts, it is hard to avoid the thinking that the rather undesirable accoutrements of our own time - high unemployment, declining standard of living, rising discontent with domestic political institutions, and constant fear of Islamofascist terrorism - are not also going to be constant variables. Yet a glimpse back through the pages of history - and recent history at that - shows the lie behind this conviction. Just as the curtain eventually fell on the Age of Ennui, so too is it destined to someday fall on our own period, which right now can bear a moniker that is oddly appropriate, The Aughts (even though the term 'aught' technically refers to 2000-2009, it can apply just as distinctly to our time as "The Sixties" does to the period from John Kennedy's assassination to Watergate, 1963-1974).

The sad irony, though, is that when this happens, the chances are we won't appreciate it. After all, the last time we were blessed with placidity, we showed our gratitude with ennui.

Even worse, we took the good times for granted and thus allowed the seeds to be planted that eventually covered our temporary garden with weeds. When Osama bin Laden attacked the World Trade Center in 1993 and the USS Cole in 2000, the call to avenge those Americans whose lives were lost and the clear need to protect our nation from an evil determined to shed gallons of our blood was stifled under a morass of complacent fatuity. When the presidential election that opened this century gave us a choice between a vapid but affable plutocrat and a pompous but intelligent and well-intentioned statesman, we allowed trivialities to dominate the discourse of the election and then stood aside indifferently as the lesser man stole the prize from the rightful victor. When that same shill of big business wasted $1.3 trillion on tax cuts for the wealthy and, after that, pursued deregulatory and anti-labor policies which curtailed job growth, caused incomes to plateau, and encouraged Wall Street to run amok, Americans either didn't care or were too oblivious to it to pay attention.

All of these occurrences, though taking place in the Age of Ennui, are directly responsible for the defining tragedies of The Aughts - the negligence in capturing Osama bin Laden led to the September 11th attacks; the selection of an inferior president led to the failure to capture bin Laden, the disastrous war in Iraq, and the bungling of Hurricane Katrina; and the indifference to that president's economic policies led to the income disparity between middle-class and wealthy Americans that began the Great Recession, as well as the Wall Street meltdown that so severely exacerbated it.

Thus when commentators bewail today's plight as a "new normal," I scoff at the chronological parochialism of their perspective; they forget history's unfailing tendency to sort things out.

No, my concern isn't that these times won't eventually end. My fear is that, when they end, we won't know how to make the best use of it.

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