Belated New Year's thoughts
I spent a couple of minutes last night watching 'The Party's Over,' a documentary Philip Seymour Hoffman produced on the 2000 election. I say "a couple of minutes" because I couldn't stand it for long: Putting aside the achingly calamitous notion that there was no difference between the two parties, the film was shot through with a basic uncertainty about what politics was actually for. It's not that people didn't like Al Gore's positions on the issues, but that the issues didn't really enter into the equation, and when you removed them from the analysis, then Gore was just another rich white guy like George W. Bush. It's a reminder that when times are good, government seems almost vestigial, like a weekly psychiatry appointment that you keep even though you're feeling fine.
Times are not good right now, of course. And government seems really, really important because of it. Washington is counter-cyclical. But just as the assessments of the 90s wrongly de-emphasized the centrality of politics, my sense is that the grim verdicts on the Aughts are over-emphasizing the centrality of politics.
Most of the retrospectives I've read have been depressing processions of the decisive issues in (American) elections: Wars, financial crises, stagnating incomes, growing debts, bubbles, reality television, and more. In the grand sweep of history, however, I'd bet the Aughts will be remembered more as the age when the internet transformed everyday existence than anything else. It's the age of Google, of Wikipedia, of blogs and video on demand and YouTube and e-readers and GPS in our pockets and e-mail everywhere we go and online connectivity from airplanes and Christmas shopping from Amazon.
There's an impulse, I think, to downplay some of this. No one likes the starry-eyed techno-optimists. After all, the automobile was a revolution too, as was the television, and the radio. Most of us find our skins crawling a bit when people compare the current moment to Gutenberg inventing the printing press. It seems historically presumptuous, somehow. But the impulse to remain calm in the face of technological change is also an invitation to downplay the things that change our everyday lives the most. And for all that the decade's terror attacks and wars and bubbles did us terrible damage, none of them did nearly as much to transform the average American's everyday life as the rise of the net.
That said, the decade was economically and psychologically difficult. America learned to be afraid again, even if the worst-case scenarios -- Al Qaeda launching an attack with more lethal weaponry, or the financial system collapsing into a second Great Depression -- were averted. In the 90s, we didn't worry about such things. But that's not because those dangers didn't exist in the 90s. And it's not because they got so much worse in the Aughts.
My sense is that when all is said and done, just as the 1990s weren't quite as calm and meaningless as some believed, the events of the Aughts weren't quite as transformative as they seemed. Indeed, I'd much rather be alive in 2010 than in 2000. Technology has made this a better year to live in even as the intervening years have been bad ones for the country. Our future will have a lot more to do with the internet than with Iraq. At least, so I hope.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle.
Posted by: eloomis20 | January 1, 2010 11:34 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: bmull | January 2, 2010 1:59 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: silentbeep | January 2, 2010 4:36 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: jkaren | January 2, 2010 8:31 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: serialcatowner | January 2, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: sphealey | January 2, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: pneogy | January 2, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: chinshihtang | January 2, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Mimikatz | January 2, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: pj_camp | January 2, 2010 1:48 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: KennethAlmquist | January 2, 2010 2:34 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: jc263field | January 2, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Castorp1 | January 2, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: RichardHSerlin | January 2, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: RichardHSerlin | January 2, 2010 4:58 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: mminka | January 2, 2010 6:51 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: umesh409 | January 3, 2010 12:37 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | January 3, 2010 1:43 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: vaherder | January 3, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: amoffett1 | January 3, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: gregw571 | January 3, 2010 8:38 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: NickBenjamin | January 4, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.