In my newspaper column, trying to figure out when a decade ends and what happened while it lasted.
Farewell to a tough decade
News & Record
It is the end of the decade, a moment for solemn reflection and the summing up of serious things. Or not.
Some people say the Zeroes, or the Aughts, or whatever history ends up calling the 10-year period now ending, or almost ending, will not be over until next year, on the last day of 2010. Greensboro attorney Locke Clifford, known to some -- well, to me -- as "Matlocke" for his folksy ways and steel-trap mind, recently invoked Roman law to buttress this side of the argument. Point taken but not conceded. I say Prince called the song "1999" for a reason, and that by popular reckoning, the clock started in 2000, and the buzzer sounds in less than four weeks.
Anyway, good riddance. Let's just call it a decade and start a new one. May the curse of interesting times now be lifted.
That's not how it works, though. The grim years of war and recession will not end with the turn of a magic calendar page. Peace and prosperity are still somewhere in the future that recedes before us. If those happy things arrive soon enough, and last long enough, history will remember them as the true harbingers of the new decade. We won't know until we get there.
History is funny that way. We understand it not just by the smooth chronological flow of time but by the events that punctuate time, the kairotic moments that define eras and provide us frames of reference, whether we are appending Anno Domini to a date or using the birth of a child or the death of a parent as a mnemonic device. This way of organizing time lets us argue about when the 1960s really began (the assassination of JFK? The televised presidential debates?) and when they ended (I vote for Altamont).
We can't always tell what will seem important in the future, or which events and trends will loom larger than they now appear as their knock-on effects become evident in years to come. The converse is true as well. Remember the Maine? Probably not. Still, the defining stories of the Aughts seem clear enough already: the terrorist attacks of 2001, and the economic bubble and bust of somewhat more recent vintage.
There are other contenders for long-term relevance. Maybe the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will come to symbolize the death of government-is-always-the-problem conservatism. Maybe we'll find out that we hit peak oil last year, or maybe the Large Hadron Collider that fired up in 2009 will explain things about the universe that change the course of science and philosophy. Many who lived through this era will insist that the death of Michael Jackson or the rise of the Internet were epochal, too. But no matter what the history books record a century from now, Sept. 11 and the Great Recession seem certain to make the cut.
What the essential elements of the present and recent past will mean to the future is a much hazier proposition. For one thing, these mega-stories are not over. Their outcomes are not decided, in fact, much less interpretation. Our great-grandchildren will have the context we lack, for better or for worse. They will be able to link the events of Sept. 11 to, say, a nuclear attack in 2023, or, more happily, to the emergence of a stable Middle East that we now can only imagine. We're standing too close to see the whole picture.
Posterity will know with certainty whether the fragile recovery now warming the economy is a false dawn or something better, but we won't be able to tell where we are in the cycle until the cycle has been over for a while. Yet the spin of the moment and the battle over What It All Meant is important now as we try to figure out what to do next. Sitting around and waiting for history's judgment is not an option.
And even if this moment marks, as it should, the end of the post-regulatory state and the demise of the false religion of market worship, lessons have a way of getting unlearned. Our descendents will forget our pain, just as we forgot the truths taught by the Great Depression. They will argue that things are different this time, whenever this time may come, and then they'll blow things up all over again.
Sometimes the future is easier to predict than the present.
© News & Record 2009