“I saw the decade in,
When it seemed the world could change,
At the blink of an eye.”
Jesus Jones – “Right Here, Right Now”
I have to wonder what is it about this last decade that makes it unique. How do we define the 2010s? It seems to be a modern quandary. Since the 1920s, the United States – and perhaps, much of the world – has viewed itself in terms of decades. Every ten-year period for the past century has been defined by certain cultural and political events and movements.
The 1920s were known as the “Roaring 20s” and the “Jazz Age”. It was a decade of extraordinary prosperity, the maturity of the film industry, jazz bands, raccoon coats, flappers, bootleggers and marathon dancers. The 1930s were dominated by the “Great Depression”; a calamitous effect of those “Roaring 20s”. It also became renowned for the equally disastrous “Dust Bowl”, bank robbers, the rise of fascism in Europe and many precursors to World War II.
The 1930s started as the previous decade came to an end and spilled into the 1940s, which then became known as the “War Years”; its connection to the Second World War sealed in blood and stone. Sorrow and patriotism marked that period, but hope also rose up from the sands of despair. American dominance across the globe began to take shape in that decade.
The 1950s saw the greatest economic expansion in modern world history, as a new “Middle Class” took control of the American experience. The Second World War metastasized into the Cold War, as Communism began rampaging across Europe. The Korean War was a brutal stain on this time of prosperity, which also became known for a dual sense of conformity and fear. The various civil rights movements that would dominate the latter half of the 20th century began fomenting in the 1950s.
The 1960s were a cataclysm of generational clashes, which started with the election of John F. Kennedy. The decade commenced as a mirror of the previous decade. But all of the chaos that defined the 60s had begun rumbling in the 50s, like a volcanic caldera. People who had done everything possible to secure their right to freedom and happiness exploded with anger that they had achieved little in many respects. Their hostility shocked the staid American populace, as the decade also saw the space race take shape; political assassinations; the Vietnam War; drug and sex revolutions; and finally, a man on the moon.
The 1970s began as an extension of the 60s, but it saw an explosion of artistry in music, television, cinema and literature. It also experienced cultural and technological innovations. On the down side, it was scarred by the first resignation of president in U.S. history; a humiliating end to the Vietnam conflict; energy crises; and finally, an even more humiliating hostage situation with Iran.
While the 60s were often called the “We Decade” and the 70s the “Me Decade”, the 1980s became the “Gimme Decade”; a time when greed became good, hair and women’s shoulder pads grew large and overpriced meals grew small. It spawned the “MTV Generation” and saw the VCR become ubiquitous in American households. It also experienced the rise of one of the greatest health crises in world history, as AIDS exploded.
The 1990s remains my personal favorite. Although it began with the “Savings & Loan” crisis and the Persian Gulf War, we underwent economic growth that eclipsed the 1950s and an explosion of technology unmatched in modern history. The 90s saw multiculturalism and the fruits of affirmative action; DNA science; the collapse of the Soviet Union; right-wing paranoia; and Y2K.
The first two decades of the 21st century, however, seem almost indistinguishable. The horror of 9/11; a resurgence of patriotism; U.S.-led Middle East conflicts; and the “Great Recession” defined the first ten years. But, if we had to classify the 2010s, how would we so it? What would we say?
I feel it’s been almost a complete reversal of two centuries of civil rights progress. The birth of the “Tea Party” in 2010 wasn’t so much a vitriolic dissatisfaction with the tax system in the U.S. (Taxed Enough Already), but rather, the election of the nation’s first biracial president. That seemed to upend all that was considered normal in this country; an obliteration of long-held norms. The “Tea Party” boasted a few Asian, Black and Hispanic members; all tokens working on behalf of the Old White Male, who went from just ‘angry’ to downright ‘enraged’. So-called “birtherism” mixed with the complete and total disrespect Republican politicians had for Barack Obama. In response, Republican-dominated state legislatures (including my beloved Texas) became determined to dismantle decades of voting rights by limiting early voting periods and enhancing voter identification methods; all in an attempt to undermine a mythical rash of voter fraud. In reality, they were just appalled that a Negro (a half-blooded one, but a Negro nonetheless) could make it into the highest political office in the land. Fortunately, they’ve been stalled by various judges at almost every step. In retaliation for the Obama years, many voters became determined to get just about any old White man into the White House. Thus, we ended up with the cantankerously disoriented Donald Trump. I told myself repeatedly during the disastrous George W. Bush years that I’m not ashamed to be an American. But Trump’s tenure has made that sentiment exceptionally difficult.
As with any serious economic downturn, the “Great Recession” made America turn inwards during the last decade; with non-Whites and immigrants suffering the usual brunt of antagonism and fear. What should have been a time of extraordinary prosperity – coming off the 1990s – mutated into lackluster economic growth in the 2000s and ardent despair in the 2010s. Literally millions of people lost their jobs, homes and savings, as the large corporations (particularly the monstrous financial institutions) that fueled the near-total collapse got bailed out. And – with a few high-profile exceptions – no one went to jail. Where was my tax relief?
The trickle-down economics bullshit that forms the basis of conservative financial ideology got a steroid-type boost with the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and intense deregulation of those dreaded banks. That furthered the expansion of wealth inequality that makes the “Gilded Age” look juvenile. The “Gilded Age” – to anyone wary enough – created an anarchist movement that took root in the slums of Europe and Latin America before seeping into the U.S. It came close to a rebirth with “Occupy Wall Street”, but I still believe a full-fledged revolt is possible.
I guess how we define any period in our lives is how we define ourselves. If we like where we are in life, then times are good. It’s always purely subjective. As introverted as I am and as pessimistic as I may seem to some, I still hope the 2020s experience an eruption of more progressive national ideologies; such as advances in science and medicine and greater funding for education and health care, instead of war and tax breaks for a select privileged few. Where we go from here is often dependent more on our own aspirations than on fate and acts of God. The sun hasn’t set on hope, if we look at hope as concept ahead and not behind.