This isn’t the column I planned to write when I woke up this morning — December 31, 2019, the very last day of those 10 years that we just recently (thanks to the need of journalists to fill Christmas news holes with end-of-the-decade lists) started calling the 2010s. Well, actually, in a way it is. I did want to share some deep thoughts about the 3,652 days that just flew past, but when I flipped on my TV at 6 a.m. Tuesday all I felt was shock and despair.
The decade was ending, and the world was literally on fire.
In Baghdad, those fires are small for now, but the not-again shockwave of an angry mob shouting “Death to America” and overrunning our $1-billion-yet-somehow-inadequate embassy compound inside the walled “Green Zone” suggest that the payback for a 17-year policy of dropping bombs across the Persian Gulf and elsewhere — while losing the thread on just who exactly we were bombing and why — is just beginning.
But in Australia, the flames are apocalyptic, with the skies now an unbelievable hue of blood red and thousands of desperate residents huddled on the beach in a scene that was predicted by a 1950s sci-fi classic, even if the culprit proved not to be an atomic bomb but a lump of coal. It’s become something of a cliche over the last year or two to shout “climate change is already here!” after every Category 5 storm and 1,000-year flood, but what else is the world to make of the 120-degree days, choking pea-soup-thick air and dying koala bears happening Down Under, right now?
The last-day-of-the-decade crises in Iraq and Australia are thousands of miles apart and at first blush have nothing to do with each other. And yet they also have everything to do with each other. Each is the result of year after year of political inertia and its first cousin, lazy denial, larded with an unearned sense of American exceptionalism and imperial hubris (shared, in the case of climate change, by too many of the world’s motley crew of mediocre-to-pure-evil leaders). The 2010s offered us 120 long months to ponder the consequences of killing civilians around the world with flying death robots and flooding the skies with carbon pollution.
We decided to pass.
If you’ve ever watched Hairspray — and given all the remakes and high-school musical permutations, I assume everyone has — then you know the bouncy opening number, “Welcome to the ’60s.” It’s perfect in every way, with both the music and lyric capturing the optimism that, building on 15 years of post-war affluence and a rising middle class, the next decade would be a time when any and all things were possible. The viewer has the hindsight to know that did prove true but in unpredictable ways that were both better and worse than what anyone expected at the start.
Now, welcome to the B-side of that 45-RPM disc, the crash of America’s great musical crescendo. The 2010s — such as they were — were a decade of decadence and denial, with a shrinking middle class and wealth that was hoarded by a kleptocratic One Percent. Many looked at America’s dark turn toward authoritarianism on November 8, 2016, as a day of reckoning, but Tuesday’s mist from the smoke of the distant fires suggested any real reckoning from a decade of sleepwalking through history is just beginning. I’m not even sure what a song called “Welcome to the ’20s” would say. I just know it wouldn’t be bouncy.
Were the 2010s even a decade? In many ways, America’s obsession with decades like “the Swingin’ 60s” or the ’70s “Me Decade” are a reflection of mass-culture consumerism that thrived with jukeboxes and only three channels on the TV and died with your Spotify playlist and must-see “hit” shows on streaming channels you’ve never heard of. What remains — grown-up stuff like wars and elections — never quite fits in our tidy box of calendars.
In an era that — contrary to every intention of America’s Founders — we obsess over and sometimes worship our imperial presidents, the United States has had two during the 2010s, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. On the surface, the two men might be the two most opposite POTUSes the nation has ever seen. One was cool jazz, the other death metal. One spoke of uniting red and blue America while the other revels in “American carnage.” The country’s first black president was followed, perhaps inevitably, by a pathetic race-baiter.
Yet both, in the their own ways and styles, allowed America’s deeper problems to fester over those 10 years. Start with America’s penchant for tackling international problems with the most powerful military force the world has ever known. Yes, Obama brought troops home from Iraq — until he sent new ones — and (to his great credit) spent much of his presidency seeking and winning a fragile peace through the Iran nuclear deal. But “the leader of the free world” lacked the mojo to close a human-rights disaster at Guantanamo Bay, failed to hold the torturers of the Bush era accountable, greatly increased drone strikes with little or no oversight, and actually expanded a war in Afghanistan that our military leaders, we now learn, can’t explain or justify.
Candidate Trump — for all his quasi-fascistic foibles — said all the right things on curbing U.S. militarism. Then he became the 45th president and all of the opposite things happened. Civilian deaths from U.S. bombing increased. Trump’s America inexplicably worked with, or bombed, or abandoned various factions or militias in the Middle East with no rhyme or reason and then blew up the Iran peace deal ... because Obama. (Meanwhile, his inability to end a war in Afghanistan that he rightly wants to end raises disturbing questions about civilian control of the military.) This week, the U.S. dropped bombs on militias in Iraq — against the wishes of the Iraqi government, while also angering the Iranians — and then seemed grossly unprepared when our embassy was attacked.
As I write this, the situation in Baghdad is very much up in the air. I pray for the safety of the American diplomats, soldiers and others who may be trapped inside, but I also pray for a coherent, less militaristic U.S. policy in the Middle East, something that wasn’t even on the table during much of the 2010s.
The story of 2010s climate-change denial is a more familiar one, discussed in this space many times. Here, again, Obama was an on-one-hand-on-the-other-hand president who signed the Paris climate accords and (at the very end of his presidency) imposed some decent pollution regs, yet saw the U.S. become the world’s biggest oil producer largely under his watch. That teed it up for Trump and his cadre of oil and coal lobbyists to undo any good that was accomplished, and watch carbon emissions actually rise. Incredibly, America’s climate denialism — despite the quickening pace of floods and wildfires — is a contagion that has spread to the likes of Australian prime minister Scott Morrison (a liberal!!), who famously waved a chunk of real coal around his parliament in 2017 and was sunning himself in Hawaii when his nation started to burn.
These are the stories that got next to zero coverage on TV news while its producers thirsted for ratings victory by entertaining America to death with serials. They tried the mystery of a missing Malaysian flight and then switched to a series that proved even more popular, a honest-to-goodness reality-TV president who managed to both play on people’s legitimate anger over a decade when social and economic inequality grew even worse and yet also provide a circus of distraction with his tweets and his feuds and a golf-course White House that would have been deemed too crude for Caddyshack.
But when the wiring underneath the foundation of the house is rotten, you may not see the smoldering at first but eventually the blaze becomes too hot to ignore. Baghdad is burning, and so are the beaches of Australia. The last day of the 2010s was really the first day of the 2020s — a time to wake up and actually do all of the things, because they are hard.
Hey, I know that sounds pretty bleak on a day that’s meant for party hats, ball drops and Champagne. But the truth is that decades don’t descend from the sky with pre-cast personalities. They are merely what we humans make of them. If we spend the next 10 years finally figuring out how to wage peace instead of war, if a spirit of shared sacrifice brings us together to seriously curb greenhouse-gas pollution, if we do the math and see that an economy for the 99 Percent is better than one for the 1 Percent, and if America’s brush with autocracy makes us fall in love with democracy all over again, then this is going to the best decade any of us has ever seen.