As we enter the last few weeks of the first decade of the twenty-first century, if we had a better name for this period, we might have a firmer fix on its identity. Modern Americans are decade-focused, packaging our historical memories in easily-labeled ten-year chunks: the Sixties, the Seventies, the Eighties, the Nineties. Yet neither the “oh-ohs” nor the “oughts” has stuck as a label, making this decade’s character elusive. With 2010 fast approaching, branding our trying times can help us understand them better.
Yes, as historians we know that we should not fall into this decade-labeling trap. We know that it leads to oversimplification. But we also know that periodization is a valuable weapon in our historians’ arsenal, helping us make some sense out of the passage of time. And we also know that just because we don’t plunge in and offer our judgments it won’t stop others. Let’s face it. Journalists – and more superficial popularizers — rush in where historians fear to tread.
At first blush, this period has been marked by catastrophes. The Al Gore-George W. Bush electoral deadlock of 2000 exposed major fault lines in American democracy. In 2001, the dot-com bubble burst and the most lethal attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor murdered nearly 3000 Americans on 9/11. Two years later, in 2003, President Bush led us to war in Iraq. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Finally, the financial meltdown of 2008 triggered America’s worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Any one of these traumas could have defined a decade. When they look back on this cascade of catastrophes, Americans in the future will assume our lives were miserable, practically unlivable. Yet, for most of us, life has continued. We have maintained our routines, while watching these disasters unfold on the news. In fact, these have been relatively good years. America remains the world’s playground, the most prolific, most excessive platform for shopping and fun in human history. Most Americans can take for granted that our basic human needs of food, clothing, shelter, will be met. We enjoy a stable government while our liberties expand and the microchip miracles dazzle. In perhaps the greatest sign of robust social health, in 2007 America experienced its highest birthrate in fifty years, since those giddy baby boom days. And on Election Day 2008, Americans welcomed Barack Obama’s rise to the presidency with a redemptive, affirmative “Yes We Can.”
Amid all the happy talk, for all the shopping, Americans have responded to the various crises with an odd mix of despair and disinterest. Experts caution that America’s empire is teetering, America’s seemingly-never-ending boom is ending, the unemployment figures are, quite literally, depressing. But, except for the mobilization around Obama’s election, the dire warnings rarely trigger action. Many more Americans watch the Super Bowl than vote. Americans seem dangerously resigned to the status quo. Ours is an era of delighted nihilism, epitomized in Simple Plan’s mega-hit: “I’m just a kid and life is a nightmare,” sung to a happy, infectious beat. Further illustrating this disconnect, Michael Jackson’s recent death engaged many more Americans more intensely than the tragic deaths of over four thousand heroic American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. It seems that Americans collectively have said to these repeated, frequently-sobering calamities what too many of our teenagers have said to their parents lately: “whatever.”
The aptly-named oh-ohs are the Whatever Era. In this decade of dissociation Americans collectively seem to wallow in the defensive, post-traumatic mental state wherein individuals disconnect from memories, emotions, actions. Our dismissive, passive, amusement imperative amid such great disasters reflects social strength – and weakness. According to Dr. Patti Levin, a Boston-based psychologist, even when people do not experience traumas directly, mass disasters such as 9/11 and the economic crash become “vicarious traumas,” puncturing individuals’ myth of the “just world,” as they discover that “no longer do bad things only happen to bad people – or to others – but they can happen to anyone, including themselves.” Some then succumb to a “detached, hopeless (not even daring to hope) state of passive victimhood,” what Dr. Martin Seligman termed “Learned Helplessness.”
Long-term trends intensify the collective PTS – post traumatic stress – Americans are exhibiting these days. The twentieth century was a centrifugal century. The revolutions of capitalist consumerism, individuating technologies, and personal liberty, all celebrating the “I” not the “us,” cut ties to community, dismissing tradition. Even Ronald Reagan’s supposedly traditional post-Sixties counterattack propelled Americans away from the past and each other. The Reaganite Eighties were an age of conservative libertinism, encouraging individualistic disconnection and less social responsibility. Right-wingers demonstrated the great conservative blind spot, denouncing many social changes without acknowledging how the capitalist consumerism they championed undermined the traditions they cherished. From the left, Barack Obama and others have also talked about the need for community while ignoring how rights-based liberalism helped shape our epidemic of selfishness and failing to shake the status quo boldly enough to restore a sense of American engagement and empowerment.
Great pessimism during economic busts is as characteristically American as great optimism during boom times. The oh-ohs’ whateverism is less fleeting and thus more dangerous. A culture of denial, disengagement, dissociation is dysfunctional. We need a culture of engagement and responsibility, even with all our traumas, distractions and high-tech toys.
NOTE: If you have other suggestions regarding how to label this decade, please post here or email them to me at: [email protected]
by Gil Troy
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Visiting Scholar affiliated with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.
Reprinted with permission from the History News Network.