Thursday, December 31, 2009

Highlights; Decade # 4 on Earth

END OF A DECADE DEPT., DEC 31 - The third millennium is now 1% over. The tweens are nigh, and supermarket checkout stands bloom with tabloid year end reviews. Here are my own top five grand trends of the aughties. Coincidentally, it’s also my list of top five missed stories of the decade:

1. ROOKIE TIME

American anti-intellectualism is nothing new, and this decade’s incarnations – Glenn, Karl, Sarah, the teabagging lumpen – look pretty tame when stacked up next to Father Coughlin or Joe McCarthy. But this last decade did contribute something fresh to the assault on public discourse; the creeping ideology that amateurs are more valuable than experts. In the 1990’s, America had municipal term limits. In the 00’s, it was viewer tweets on CNN.

Irony: within the grand intellectual triumph of Wikipedia is a monstrous strain of anti-intellectualism, the idea that “common folk” can write an encyclopedia just as well as the experts. It’s a sneaky bit of righty populism disguised as lefty “democratization of knowledge”, one made all the more insidious by a second deception; the lie that Wikipedia can be edited by anyone. The site is governed by a de facto elite of community editors, and, as anyone who has tried to fix an entry knows, corrections are hard to make stick. You can join the de facto elite of community editors, but that’s no guarantee that your facts will make the cut.

I’ve never been concerned by the site’s inaccuracies. What burns me is the idea that some entries are worthy of inclusion and some are not, and that these distinctions can be resolved by consensus. It’s an anti-democratic principle dressed in hippie garb, the slow, soft push of mob rule without any checks or balances. Dozens of my friends have had their entries (biographical and otherwise) deleted as irrelevant, and just as many pals have had to fight to get private information scrubbed. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the sinister future applications of a universal reference site where information control is determined by unidentified and unaccountable committees.

Imagine how great Wikipedia could be if there were an entry for everything. That old bridge two miles outside your hometown? That band you never quite got off the ground? Your lucky pencil? Each gets a page in the book of life. The storage space certainly exists for an all-inclusive online reference work, so what I’m discussing wouldn't be beyond current technological capacity. And it's certainly not any more of a paradigm-shifting vision of an encyclopedia than one edited by rookies and cheesers. Seriously, why not?

2. THE DEATH OF HONOR

Throughout most of human history, assaults to one’s honor had remedy: dueling, litigation, Seppuku. That ceased in the aughties. It is now possible to insult anyone on Earth with airtight anonymity and impunity. Come up with a few hundred bucks for a spam mailing list and you can insult millions of people, entire nations, with one mouse click. Honor is no longer defendable. Anyone with a hint of an online presence can expect routine abuse in the course of their everyday transactions.

Earlier this year, I told a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle that I dreaded reading online comments attached to my articles. He just laughed. “I stopped reading my comments years ago.” A few months later, several scalawags misread a review of an online interview I gave and called me a "hipster cunt". Even ten years ago, I might have attempted to defend my honor online, ala Courtney Love on AOL circa ‘95. Now I understand that honor itself has evaporated, like smallpox. One less thing for me to worry about.

3. RE-BLANDIFICATION

A nice thing happened this decade. Music got bad again. In the 1980’s, it was easy to dismiss pop music as a mere byproduct of a vast overhead cheese machine. Then there were a weird fifteen years where grunge and alternative and dirty southern rap kind of made FM radio OK to listen to in the car. It was confusing. Only in the last half decade have things slid back into their proper order; your (digitized) record collection is where you go to hear good songs, and the radio/MTV is where you go to get demoralized.

Strip away Lady Gaga’s desperate, why-be-normal blandness, and you’re left with reheated Air Supply. What could be more sleep-inducing than an endless roster of hip-hop odes limited to the emotional realms of nightclubs? Happily, Autotune makes it easier than ever to pretend that each new FM hit is nothing more than a rogue computer program.

4. VIRAL MYOPIA

Last month, New York Times columnist Judith Warner, writing of the House-passed Stupak-Pitts Amendment prohibiting federal funds from abortion coverage in a national health care plan, concluded;

Last night, I watched 'By The People', HBO's new documentary on the election of Barack Obama. 'We're gonna change our country. We're gonna change the world," I heard candidate Obama say. But we didn't. At this point, I sometimes wonder if we really wanted to.

This is a perfectly acceptable paragraph if you're writing a paper for fifth grade social studies class. It is maybe not so hot if you are a columnist in the planet’s leading newspaper. But a lot of this sentiment has made the rounds in the last few months. A growing number of grown adults seem quite comfortable expressing dismay that the president of the United States doesn’t agree with their every political belief.

It’s an old phenomenon – think of the countless eons of pundits and barflies complaining about “those idiots” in Washington – given fresh wings by smart people. Liberal dismay at this administration’s Afghanistan policy is a particular stumper. I understand disagreement, or outrage. But from whence springs the anguished shock? Obama’s campaign specifically posed Afghanistan as “the good war”. The Nation’s Alexander Cockburn recently wrote off this entire, well documented stance of candidate Obama as “a one-liner". How do otherwise smart people reach these conclusions? Is this childlike capacity for self-deception viral, like a fast-spreading Internet video? Or more like a bad STD?

5. PENDING HORROR

It’s strange to recall how much less horror was afoot just ten years ago. At this point in the 1990’s, terrorists were still generally regarded as holding their own lives as a self-interest. “Torture porn” didn’t exist, and there were no internet beheadings. There hasn’t been this vast a collective loss of first-world innocence since 1945.

Of several upcoming benchmarks - July 2011 for Afghanistan watchers, Dec 2012 for apocalypse watchers – one date has eluded note: March 27, 2010. As of that date, 3,119 days will have passed since 9/11. Meaning, more time will have passed since 9/11 than elapsed between the original, 1993 WTC bombing and 9/11. For the last eight years, I kept this date visible on my computer’s desktop as a reminder to keep my emergency supplies stocked. 2010 may just be the year I’ll finally get that squared away.

It’s been easy to convert fear into background noise these last eight years. Even now, last week’s Underwear Bomber has reprised the role of the comic, bumbling Al-Qaeda operative. Richard Reed was the last guy to fill this role. But the guy before him was Mohammad Salameh, the gagster who attempted to get his van deposit back after the 1993 WTC bombing. That joke was funny for exactly 3,119 days.