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Ought Lang Syne

It's out with the depressing 2000s and in with the . . . what? As a new decade dawns, we need a completely new chapter in our history.

December 30, 2009|By Marc Cooper

A turn of the calendar page and the ringing in of a new year is usually meaningless to me; my least favorite holiday. This year I'm making an exception. The decade of the "oughts" has been for naught, the most depressing in my lifetime, and it won't be over soon enough for me. I'm ready to celebrate almost anything but what we've had since 2000.

It has been a decade of collapse and exhaustion. It began with the breakdown of an antiquated balloting system and the charade of a moth-eaten electoral college and an unelected Supreme Court choosing the president. Less than a year after that, the myth of American invincibility was pierced with a few box cutters.

As the Twin Towers fell, so did our guiding principles as a nation. We not only struck back -- inadequately -- at the perpetrators (landing us in a briar patch we're still in nine years later), but we were also stampeded neck deep into a second unnecessary war by an administration that cynically manipulated our deepest but unfounded fears.

No sacrifice was called for by our leaders; worse, with tax cuts for the wealthiest and the least binding of market regulations shredded, Wall Street partied as if there would be no next decade, leaving us with a staggering tab for their excesses. Executive power was expanded with a zeal that would make Dick Nixon blush and Tom Jefferson roll over in his grave. Our global moral authority was drowned in the CIA's waterboard torture pits and in the horror dungeons of Abu Ghraib.

After New Orleans was nearly washed away in the summer of 2005, the fiasco was complete. Our treasury was bankrupt, our international image tarnished. Faith in our governing institutions was eroded and respect for the Constitution made a mockery.

Indeed, Hurricane Katrina marked the turning of the tide of an entire period of American history, the conservative hegemony that washed in with the Reagan revolution and definitively ebbed out to sea as the surge receded in the Big Easy. Just as President Reagan cut the last hanging threads of the New Deal, Katrina marooned the conservative majority on a desert isle of history. Isolated and bewildered by their sudden cruel exile, the best the Reaganites could do was put forward the privileged and befuddled son of a Navy admiral claiming to be an Everyman -- who, in turn, chose a half-baked Alaskan pol unable to name a newspaper she regularly reads as his second.

If there were any doubts that the anti-government, free-market orthodoxy of the last three decades had come to a dead end, they were erased by the economic free fall that distinguished the closing days of the Bush era. That supposed, steadying, benevolent and invisible hand of the marketplace slapped one out of about seven American workers out of a job, shuttered more than 125 banks, threw one out of four American children onto food stamps, wiped billions of retirement funds off the table and did its best not only to rock our collective boat but to downright sink it.

The great economic earthquake of 2008 was, in some sense, a tumultuous, involuntary spasm of an entity already in its afterlife. Starting with the congressional elections of 2006, the American people were openly clamoring for an ousting of the exhausted. Two years later, in the midst of the financial meltdown, millions more resolutely voiced their dissent by electing a young, vibrant and relatively inexperienced African American as president based on his two-word platform of "change" and "hope."

Some thought a new day was upon us. But Barack Obama's first year in office has been sobering to those who naively believed that changing the world required only a few minutes in a voting booth. Part product of and part challenger to an ossified and obsolete system, Obama has struggled to lift the curtain on the new. We can all ponder the wouldas and shouldas when it comes to his strategy -- and that of the Democratic majority in Congress -- but that is all idle Beltway chatter compared to the larger question we face. A choice that just happens, by pure serendipity, to coincide with the coming of a new year and a fresh decade.

The old world is dead. But the new one still struggles to be born. The decisions we face in the coming decade are infinitely more awesome than what -- if anything -- the "public option" will or will not be, or how deep or not Obama should have bowed, or even who will dominate the House in 2010.

More important, do we have the collective will as a nation to imagine a completely new chapter in our history without resorting to a knee-jerk nostalgic yearning for the yesteryear of either the New Deal or "Morning in America"? Can we, together, begin to move beyond hubris and denial and into the realm of healing our profound ills? Or are we destined this next decade to continue languishing in a sort of political and moral purgatory that rejects the old but refuses to conjure the new? New Year's Day seems the right moment to decide.

Marc Cooper is director of Annenberg Digital News at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

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