Sunday, January 3, 2010

Dubious Decades

Here we are three days into a new “decade” as pundits struggle to hang a name on it. If I took decades seriously, I’d call it the Potty Decade because of all the shit that’s been dumped on us over that last ten years.

But, therein lays the problem. I don’t do decades for the simple reason that they distort the past. The very word implies a discrete unit of time totally unrelated to the decades that preceded it and the ones that will follow. The implication is that when the clock struck twelve on New Year’s Eve, all the evils of the last decade vanished and the new decade would mean a clean slate and a new beginning.

The sad truth is that the old decade is still with us because it is part of a continuum that stretches back into the past. Nothing really new happened in the last ten years. All we saw was the strengthening of trends that run like toxic threads through our history.

Obama is tanking because he stepped into a raging torrent of momentum that quickly swept him away despite his noble and lofty intentions (if they ever existed in the first place.) We made the mistaken assumption that he would represent a clean break with the Bush administration. What we failed to realize was that the Bush administration was simply a farcical extension of a mob paranoia that began with the Cold War mentality of the late forties. And that had its antecedents in the Palmer Raids that followed World War I in which innocent people were swept up in a dragnet driven by hysteria.

It is in the Palmer raids that we find an antecedent for the further degradation of the law that has aided and abetted the erosion of our Constitution. The law is a positive force only when it is kept balanced by an ethical gyroscope that makes of the law a firewall against our baser mob instincts. 9/11 shattered that gyroscope and since then the law has run amok as it tramples over rights that had their birth in English common law.

Nor is there anything new about our paranoia. We have a long history of it. Woodrow Wilson was so frightened of dissent during World War I that Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1918 that made it a crime to protest against the war or to utter any statement that could be construed as a criticism of the United States government. As with the Patriot Act and the Military Commission Act, many an innocent person was jailed.

The law, once our protector, has become an enemy and a threat. But then as the scholar John B. Roche once pointed out, “The first precept of constitutional interpretation is whose ox was gored.” Our Supreme Court is as easily swept along by mob psychology as the Fox News fans.

Our knee-jerk military response to world problems is nothing new. It began with Wilson’s gunboat diplomacy and festered and grew with the birth of a military establishment to fight World War II. The irony is that we haven’t won a war since. (Sorry, Grenada and Panama don’t count,) But that hasn’t stopped us from trying. When you start thinking in decades, the past ceases to exist, so the same mistakes are repeated over and over.

When we view the past as a series of discrete decades, it is easy to convince ourselves that the Great Depression never happened, or that it was a unique phenomenon confined to a specific decade. This made it easier to set ourselves up for our current depression, which our leaders tell us isn’t since a depression is something that happened so far back in the past that it can never happen again because this is a different decade.

Karl Marx once said that history repeats itself—first as tragedy and second as farce. The last decade was the decade when farce came into its own.


Cirze said...


or farce?

Admittedly Marx got a whole lot right and is remembered entirely wrongly by our educated masses.


Case Wagenvoord said...

Can't believe I did that. Thanks for catching it.

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