Doesn’t it seem like yesterday we were holding our collective breath as time got closer to Dec. 31, 1999, 11:59pm? All of a sudden, it was 2000, and all the warnings about the Y2K bug seemed so farfetched; we felt silly with our duct tape and canned goods stacked in the basement. I was lucky enough to be working in D.C. on the National Mall for the millennium celebration at the U.S. Capitol. We watched and waited and showed barely concealed relief when nothing happened. Until the next day, anyway, when we entered the Decade That Changed Everything.
No one could have predicted the tumultuous events that would happen over the next 10 years: the unprecedented terrorist attack on American soil; the commencement of two wars after two decades of relative peace; the complete polarization of our two main political parties. We had been lulled into a sense of tranquility after two decades, more or less, of economic growth and prosperity. Today, we spend hours in airport security lines, we endure full-body scans, we’re watchful of anyone looking or acting “different”; we report unattended bags or vehicles in public spaces. Mine was the first generation in years, perhaps a century or more, that didn’t grow up in the shadow of war. Yet for children born after 2000, war is all they’ve known. How unbearably sad that the bright new millennium basically began with a horrific terrorist attack and basically ended with a failed terrorist on a plane on Christmas Day. Thank God for brave passengers and faulty bombs. Thank God for the incredible courage shown on that flight.
Our political discourse has always been lively and passionate — that’s what makes our electoral process so interesting and often electrifying. Yet something happened during the 2000 election, when, as many believe, the presidency was stolen from Al Gore by George W. Bush, courtesy of a compliant, partisan Supreme Court. Ten years later, things are worse. More talking heads representing both sides of the aisle got more cable shows and more and more used them as bully pulpits, stretching the truth to make ratings and even making up lies to further their agendas — and by agendas, of course, I do mean their celebrity. The decade some call the Aughts really was the decade of ought-nots. It was a decade of war — including wars of words that took no prisoners and largely soured the nation on the political process.
The Aughts saw a further dumbing-down of politics — and, sadly, a further dumbing-down of the electorate. It was the decade of seeing which talking head could scream the loudest, which one could out-shout the opposition. The years of civility in politics, already very weak after the Clinton years, went out the window entirely as “news-lebrities” grew louder and more hyperbolic. Fox News, especially, took aging beauty queens, slathered them with hair shellac and makeup, and sat them down beside Ken-doll counterparts: these automatons replaced the Dan Rathers, Walter Cronkites and Peter Jennings of yore. (MSNBC did no better yanking Keith Olbermann from ESPN and giving him the job of bashing Fox News. But I do enjoy watching him lambaste Rush Limbaugh night after night. I’m sorry I’m not a better person.)
In the last two years of the Aughts, we saw the growth of belief systems that would have never left someone’s basement in earlier eras, like Orly Taitz’s ridiculous birther movement, the aptly-named teabaggers or the radical right’s cowardly use of senior citizens to fight a government healthcare proposal that, like Medicare and Social Security, will keep them healthier longer. We saw the rise of the Super-Conservative Woman in Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. Congratulations on your fear-mongering, ladies! The lies about death panels and irresponsible blowhardiness of those women have forever tainted the American political process. Something that took more than two centuries to build they would tear down in two minutes if they could.
The Aughts saw the rise of intolerant screechers like Laura Ingraham, too. Despite growing up in (elite) Glastonbury, CT, despite attending (elite) Dartmouth, despite attending law school at the (elite) University of Virginia, Ingraham loves to blast the “elite” liberals, such as with this quote: “Terrorists, and their facilitators and friends, aren’t jealous at all. Like our own self-hating elites, they genuinely detest democracy and the principles enshrined in the constitution.”
But no mention of self-hating, white, conservative women would be complete without citing that undernourished stick, Ann Coulter. As a tribute to my late, great friend Thor Hesla, who was killed in a terrorist attack at the Serena Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan on January 14, 2008 while working to rebuild that nation and doing actual good in this world, I am adding this link to the best article ever written about Ann by anyone, ever.
Fortunately, the Aughts also bore witness to some heroic behavior. With Hurricane Katrina bent on destroying New Orleans, I’ll never forget the sight of neighbors, firefighters, and National Guardsmen helping save those stranded on rooftops and plywood rafts floating down their streets. I marveled at the generosity of those who opened their homes and wallets to do whatever they could to keep that city and its people alive. And the decade ended with the amazing East River landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549. What could have been a tragedy turned into a story of courage and leadership by Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and his entire crew.
Clearly, one of the biggest stories of the Aughts was the growth of social networking sites and how they’ve changed the way we think and communicate. MySpace, Friendster (RIP), LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter — all define a new generation of people reconnecting (have you had enough of old high school friends tweeting you?) and “unfriending.” These were undoubtedly the tools that also helped propel an African-American man with a funny name, a Kenyan father, raised by his divorced single white mother and her parents, to the highest office in the land. Standing on election night with those who fought for civil rights 40, 50 years ago and sharing in their joy is something I will never forget.
While the Aughts saw much to be ashamed of, we also have much to be joyous about. We’re surviving the financial meltdown. Science is making incredible breakthroughs. And with stem cell research back on the table, who knows what amazing discoveries lie ahead? Regardless of your political persuasion, 2008 saw the biggest electoral turnout in over 50 years — and we elected a biracial man to the presidency! We’re reacquainting ourselves with the rest of the world, re-establishing alliances and friendships that were given short shrift during most of the Aughts. I feel more positive about where this country is going than I have in 10 years, and, yes, I am once again proud to be part of that group of malcontents and troublemakers called Americans. Owing to our disparate cultures and backgrounds, we have a remarkable resilience, and our tremendous sense of humor helps us endure whatever adversity comes our way. Our ingenuity will make us leaders once again in science, technology, the arts, and, I hope, kindness and empathy. This is the Decade to Think Big, people. So let’s start thinking Big.
Elizabeth Burke, a New York-based actor, has been involved in politics since her first campaign at age 16. Burke’s Law does not necessarily represent the views of The Clyde Fitch Report.