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Ten years ago, I speculated on what this first decade of the 21st centuryought to be called. The choice wasn't obvious, and the alternatives weren't very appealing. I used this conundrum as a way to talk about purpose: would this be the decade of zeros--the postmodern, consumer society, corporate dominated nothingness-- or the decade of the Oughts--when we assumed responsibility for what we ought to do, our responsibility for the future?

So how did that work out?

Here's part of what I wrote:

For as smugly or dazedly blank as we might feel and the future might seem, we hear convincing voices suggesting that the early decades of the twenty-first century will be crucial and defining. If humankind really sees its duty to the planet and does the right things, it may survive intact (but not unchanged) and continue without serious setback (though with altered course), in concert with the natural world that nurtures all life. If this duty towards this living planet is not met and the right things are not done, the coming century could be more cataclysmic than any previous one, taking us to the tipping point of an inevitable downward spiral.

That’s perhaps hard to believe when according to conventional wisdom we’ve solved the problem of perpetual prosperity. By this logic we should do nothing different, and so the name of the nothings, the zeros, would be fitting in more ways that one, for it would indicate just how clueless and gutless we are.

The alternative I proposed was the double meaning of "the Oughts," reviving a word for o's or zeros, while stating a purpose for the decade:

"Perhaps this is the Ought that we ought to be concentrating on as we begin the 21st century. Instead of buzzing about the profit opportunities of globalization, we ought to be attending to our duty to the globe...But if we revive the old meaning and give it a twenty-first century twist, we might give ourselves a goal and a guide as well as the decade a name. Maybe we ought to call them the Oughts."

As it turns out, the problem of what to call the decade was solved by ignoring it, which pretty much sums up how that responsibility idea went. How the decade turned out, according to Paul Krugman, is the alternative:the Big Zero:

"Maybe we knew, at some unconscious, instinctive level, that it would be an era best forgotten. Whatever the reason, we got through the first decade of the new millennium without ever agreeing on what to call it. The aughts? The naughties? Whatever."

In terms of economics, he writes, this was "the decade in which we achieved nothing and learned nothing."

My 1999 piece questions the whole enterprise of dividing experience into decades with their defining characteristics. At best, it's shorthand for an image, a mood. Mostly it's advertising.

It may be a matter of age, but while I can locate a complex of feelings and images for "the 50s" or "the 60s" which more or less correlate to those decades (give or take a few years on each end), when it comes to the decade we're now leaving, I've got nothing.

I have images and memories, of course. But nothing defining. This decade for me is nameless because it is incoherent, without defining characteristics. Except perhaps for the cell phone. That's not much to hang a decade on.

It wasn't bland. It was extreme, but in every direction. How can you define a decade that began with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and ends with Barack Obama?

If you figure this decade really began on 9/11, you might say this decade was about American response to terrorism, and again, "we achieved nothing and learned nothing," or very little.  We're going through the same irrational responses now as we did 9 years ago.

But in a larger perspective, this may be remembered as the decade of lost opportunity, of too late a start, of fatal delay and suicidal strangeness. Or maybe it will be remembered for a glimmer of hope near the end, beginning in 2008.

Of course people who grew up, got married, etc. in this decade will always remember its textures. But apart from what began in 2008, the best thing for this nameless decade may be to remain nameless. And that the next one is very different.

Originally posted to Captain Future on Tue Dec 29, 2009 at 06:01 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (7+ / 0-)

    "The end of all intelligent analysis is to clear the way for synthesis." H.G. Wells "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there." Bob Dylan

    by Captain Future on Tue Dec 29, 2009 at 06:01:08 PM PST

  •  I think we should call this decade (6+ / 0-)

    the "Ought Nots".  Because there was so much done during this decade that ought not to have been done.  Barring that, I think Krugman's suggestion of calling it "The Big Zero" is pretty good.

    -7.12, -7.54 / "Health care reform will never take place until Rahm Emanuel is strangled with the entrails of Frank Luntz." - Diderot

    by Big Tex on Tue Dec 29, 2009 at 06:07:53 PM PST

  •  Given how the GOP behaved this decade, (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Big Tex, Reetz, bobsc

    call it 'The Onesies'

    "Go well through life"-Me (As far as I know)

    by MTmofo on Tue Dec 29, 2009 at 06:12:58 PM PST

  •  Decade of Disaster. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Big Tex, Louisiana 1976, asterkitty

    Bush v. Gore - 9/11 - Iraq - Katrina - Torture -
    Warrantless Wiretaps - Recession - Sarah Palin -
    so many disasters, couldn't begin to think of them all

    "I think if aliens came down from space and killed everybody, they would spare Radiohead and make them play every night" - stevethemod87

    by DemandTruth on Tue Dec 29, 2009 at 06:25:00 PM PST

  •  Last week on NPR (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Gooserock, Big Tex, Eloise

    they discussed what to call this about-to-be-past decade. My favorite was the "uh-ohs".

  •  The Ohs (0+ / 0-)

    The best way to save the planet is to keep laughing!

    by LaughingPlanet on Tue Dec 29, 2009 at 06:50:22 PM PST

  •  When I think of this decade (0+ / 0-)

    two images immediately come into my mind: the burning twin towers and the election of Barack Obama as president. It's like two bookends on the decade, and the feelings around these events are very, very strong. What happened in the middle is really a blur.

  •  I like aughts or oughts, (0+ / 0-)

    though naughties is growing on me.

  •  The Lost Decade... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Big Tex

    flushed down the toilet, the years, the economy, the environment, international good will, moral standing, everything.

    Mark Twain -Let me make the superstitions of a nation and I care not who makes its laws or its songs either.

    by Kingsmeg on Tue Dec 29, 2009 at 07:39:29 PM PST

  •  I feel like in a lot of ways (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    things haven't changed that much since the mid 90s to now in order to give the 00s any kind of distinct identity...I mean think about least culturally you can see definitive differences between the 50s,60s,70s,80s,90s...and then it sort of stopped halfway in the 90s...fashions haven't changed all that much, music, almost feels like the 90s never ended to me.

    Politically speaking, yeah the 00s are best forgotten.

    "People place their hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution. They don't put their hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible." --J.R.

    by michael1104 on Tue Dec 29, 2009 at 08:02:23 PM PST

  •  The Bush Reign of Terror (0+ / 0-)

    That's how I see this decade. The memory of just how bad things were fades a bit over time. Non-stop media lockstep with the Bush Reign of Terror. In 2002, I attended a so-called "Support the Troops" rally, just to see if it was really a pro-troop or pro-war rally. We weren't protesting, just keeping a low profile. I overheard people nearby saying they hoped that protestors would show up so they could kill them. We didn't stay for the whole thing, but Godwin be damned, the whole thing was very much like one of Adolf Hitler's rallies.

    I remember when Air America came on, some of the early callers compared it to being behind the Iron Curtain listening to Voice of America. There were other rays of light in the darkness, such as Democracy Now, but they were pretty scarce for a time.

    So, I'm ready for a decade that has a lot more light.

    The wolfpack eats venison. The lone wolf eats mice.

    by A Citizen on Tue Dec 29, 2009 at 08:34:06 PM PST

  •  It's the noughties. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MT Spaces

    The Economist magazine had this debate back in 1999. Although I cancelled my subscription earlier this decade because a foul neoconservative aroma started to seep into their news coverage, I heartily endorse their selected name. "Noughties" is short, sweet and rhymes with most other decade names.

    Noughties is fast becoming standard usage in Britain - it's become the BBC's term of choice.

    Now what the hell are we going to call the decade starting in 2010? "Teens" doesn't work for me - what about 2010-12?

  •  The Low 21st Century ... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    ... much like the first sack of Rome in 410 A.D. brought on the "Low Middle Ages."

    I'm hoping to see a "Bright 21st Century" before I die.

    ... public service is a privilege. It's not about advantaging yourself, it's not about advancing your friends or your corporate clients.

    by MT Spaces on Wed Dec 30, 2009 at 10:21:11 PM PST

  •  Lost Decade (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Economically, culturally, this decade has been lost. We stumbled out of the 90's looking for purpose. I remember that most of my friends and myself who were coming of age thought that there were no big defining struggles out there. And 9/11 happened and the struggle was right there on top of us. Somehow when you look back all that you see is fog.

    Who were the defining bands of the 00's? The defining movies? There was plenty said but there was precious little definition.

    The Great Depression: Now In Color!

    by TheChop on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 02:47:33 AM PST

  •  you summed it up well... (0+ / 0-)

    let us hope the nex decade is much more genuine in true prosperity for all, including the planet herself. I will keep on fighting the good fight, but these old bones are getting a bit weary. I do have some hope that the younger generations now in play will help turn us towards the light.
    thanks to the diarist and the 'rescuer'.
    happy last day of the decade...happy to see it go!

    "I'm asking you to believe not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington....I'm asking you to believe in yours."~Barack Obama~

    by TULIPS4DOLPHINS on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 03:05:55 AM PST

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