Good Riddance, 'Naughties'

A Decade Of Disappointments - In War, The Economy, Even Television - Comes To An End

December 22, 2009|By Thomas F. Schaller

As the 1990s drew to a close, a friend and former student of mine with a shrewd marketing sense inquired into copyrighting "the Naughties" as a term referring to this decade.

You can understand his objective - and confusion. There's no confusion about what to call the Sixties or the Eighties. Even for most of the coming decade, we can use the "Teens." But the first decade of any century, when the second-last digit is a zero, is difficult to label.

The "Zeroes?" The "Oughts?" The "Ohs?"

Ten years later, I wish the "Naughties" had caught on because, with the benefit of near-term hindsight, I suspect the years 2000 through 2009 will be remembered for how little good they brought us. Unfortunately, for America, it was a big doughnut of a decade.

With the holidays here, I apologize in advance for being a downer. In any decade, there are many things worth celebrating: life-changing inventions, new music, great movies, marriages, newborns, exciting moments in sports, and so on.

But the lessons of this decade are mostly about the limits of American power and poise, of our haste and our waste.

The defining moment of the decade was, of course, Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks forced us to reconsider how we approached the rest of the world and the way we look at ourselves.

We learned that American interventionism in the Muslim world in order to eradicate Islamic fundamentalism is going to be a lot more difficult and painful than our 20th century adventures in Latin America and in trying to combat communism. We haven't been attacked on our own soil since, but there have been plenty of terrorist acts elsewhere in the free world - and more bloodshed and human suffering for our troops and natives of Iraq and Afghanistan than we'd care to admit.

We aren't without accomplishments in either Iraq or Afghanistan, but most Americans now view both wars with ample regret. That means that, in retrospect, the costs in blood and treasure of fighting outweighed the benefits. The emerging consensus is that it was all for naught.

We also realized that torture and the imprisonment of detainees in Guantanamo are zero-sum games: Whatever gains we make in intelligence collection and security are offset by losses in America's moral authority as the planet's example-setting democracy. "Black ops" often result in black eyes.

On the domestic front, we learned that bubbles inevitably burst - and when they do, a lot of people end up with naught. We discovered that Enron and WorldCom were cooking their books, and that accounting giant Arthur Andersen turned out to be a big fat zero in terms of oversight. In the aftermath, the pensions employees for some of these companies were counting on turned out to be worth nothing.

Fast forward from 2002 to 2008, and the story was similar for AIG, GMAC, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, and other Wall Street financial firms that leveraged themselves too heavily in mortgage-backed securities. Most ended up turning for help to a federal government with an already less-than-zero balance sheet; as a result, Uncle Sam's pockets are even lesser-than-zero than they were before.

Our incomes have stagnated - a whole decade's work for naught. Well, that's not entirely correct. Employee compensation actually increased during the Naughties: The problem is that potential wage gains were gobbled up by skyrocketing insurance premiums. This is the decade we finally owned up to the fact that the health of the nation is undermining the health of our individual and national economies.

Culturally? Maybe I'm becoming kind of a curmudgeon, but the cultural decline of the past 10 years is depressing.

Reality television was not born this decade, but it became more pervasive and popular. The better shows - like "Project Runway" or "So You Think You Can Dance?" at least require talent of some sort. But the worst shows demand only a talent for naughtiness: gossiping, backstabbing, tantrum-throwing, phoniness, voyeurism and a willingness to shed one's integrity or clothing. Nothing good came of such junk.

Too many of our sports heroes proved to be naughty. Tiger Woods' recently revealed personal escapades closed out a decade littered with news of illegal drug use by everyone from slugger Manny Ramirez to sprinter Marion Jones. If taking drugs wasn't bad enough, former star Baltimore Ravens running back Jamal Lewis ended up in prison for dealing them.

It wasn't a decade all for nothing, however.

We made some progress in race relations, for example. We elected our first minority president, of course, but also witnessed the first African-American male and female secretaries of state, and male and female Oscars for leading-role acting. There is now a Latina on the Supreme Court, too.

Technological advances had a mixed but mostly positive impact on our lives. We reconnected with lost friends from high school and college via Facebook and downloaded our favorite tunes to our iPods. We are driving more fuel-efficient vehicles and recycling more materials.

As far as I'm concerned, bring on 2010 and the Teens to follow. Hopefully, the coming decade will cause us to become a more humble, more thoughtful and more long-range-thinking nation.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is schaller67@gmail.com.

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