Monday, December 28, 2009

The Decade With No Name

In the final days of the 21st century's first decade--a busy time for trend pieces--I'm posting a piece I wrote just before the decade began, on what it was going to be called. My suggestion of "the Oughts" (as explained in this opinion piece) didn't catch on. But neither did any other name. As it has turned out, we really didn't call this decade anything. Some late attempts (like "the noughties") may turn out to be what the future calls this decade. But so far, nothing.

A version of the following piece was published in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in late 1999.

What We Ought to Call the Decade to Come

by William Severini Kowinski

So what are we going to call them? The zeros? The double o’s? The blanks? The nothings? Sandblasted to a stony silence by millennium hype, annoyed and preoccupied with Y2K bug preparations, we’ve pretty much ignored what we’re going to call the decade following January 1. But the nineties will be over. The question is, what will begin?

We’ll have to call them something, even though we know it’s all pretty artificial. Dividing history into decades may be handy shorthand but the habit distorts at least as much as it names. Consider that everybody knows what the Sixties refers to, although few could actually agree: does it mean the antiwar movement (mid 1960s to mid 1970s), Civil Rights (late 1950s to late 1960s), or the counterculture, with its’ roots in the 1920s, 30s and 50s, that didn’t hit most of America until well into the 1970s?

Even dividing the past into centuries produces images that distort more than they enlighten. We may think of the 20th century as modern (airplanes and automobiles to atomic bombs) in contrast to the 19th (Civil War and horses in the western dust.). But in fact Abraham Lincoln (died 1865) and Einstein’s special theory of relativity (1905) were well within a single lifetime. Little more than a decade went by between the Wounded Knee massacre (1890) and the first airplane flight (1903), with the car (1893) and the quantum theory (1900) in between.

But of course such arguments won’t cut any ice with the marketing people, the trend writers and media pop historians. Without a name, the decade can’t fulfill its greatest function in recent, well, decades: the all-purpose excuse. Tagged with cynicism, superficiality, mindless obsession with speed and lust after quick riches from the stock market, we can stare at our accuser and simply say, hey--it’s the nineties. Just as we absolve ourselves of past indiscretions, such as selfishness, veniality and lust for quick riches from junk bonds, because that was the eighties-- what else could you do?

So we’re going to have to face this problem. Because what seems a simple matter of succeeding numbers (70s,80s, 90s...) turns out not to be. We can’t call them the 2000s, since that’s the whole century, maybe the whole millennium. We can’t call them the 20s, unless, like legislators who use Social Security funds to balance the budget, we want to steal from the future and let them deal with it.

What’s interesting about the alternatives is the effect of our selection on the collective psyche. What would it mean if we called them “the zeros”? (or even the “double zeros”)? That we’re starting over, like the odometer of a new car? Or that we’re bankrupt--without ideas or ideals, that our civilization has come to nothing?

“The nothings” would seem to carry post-modernism and 90s cynicism an appropriate step farther, foreseeing a decade without qualities. Or we could call them the “oh’s,” if we want an entire decade to sound like a generic breakfast cereal or a baseball team, or an ambiguous expression of recognition, disappointment, delight or surprise. But even with “the ohs” the sense of a void still clings.

The problem arises mostly because there is no satisfactory precedent. Naming the decades wasn’t so popular as the twentieth century began. There was however a way people referred to dates in that first decade. They might refer to the year 1902 as “nineteen ought two,” with “ought” meaning zero. Popularized in England when a version of Tick Tack Toe was called “crosses and oughts” for x’s and o’s, it’s an archaic alteration of “naught,” or nothing. But that’s an obsolete use of “ought” that hasn’t been used for generations, except sometimes to refer to that antique decade.

Still...there’s a certain appeal. “Ought” is a word that seems to have gone out of our public language in more ways than this one. In its sense of moral imperative, the English “ought” developed over centuries, always associated with obligation and duty. Duty became a complicated concept during the tumultous 20th century, due in part to its obliterating technologies of war and floods of political, economic, sociological and science-inspired changes: so many shifting borders and frames of reference, and so much mendacity and betrayal. Yet there was that planetary portrait from the lunar point of view, and duty seemed poised to undergo another transformation.

In defining “ought”, the Oxford English Dictionary cites this 19th century example from William Gladstone: “The two great ideas of the divine will and of the Ought, or duty, are the principal factors in the government of our human world.” Perhaps this is the Ought that we ought to be concentrating on as we begin the 21st century. Instead of buzzing about the profit opportunities of globalization, we ought to be attending to our duty to the globe.

For as smugly or dazedly blank as we might feel and the future might seem, we hear convincing voices suggesting that the early decades of the twenty-first century will be crucial and defining. If humankind really sees its duty to the planet and does the right things, it may survive intact (but not unchanged) and continue without serious setback (though with altered course), in concert with the natural world that nurtures all life. If this duty towards this living planet is not met and the right things are not done, the coming century could be more cataclysmic than any previous one, taking us to the tipping point of an inevitable downward spiral.

That’s perhaps hard to believe when according to conventional wisdom we’ve solved the problem of perpetual prosperity. By this logic we should do nothing different, and so the name of the nothings, the zeros, would be fitting in more ways that one, for it would indicate just how clueless and gutless we are.

Knowing these dangers and doing nothing about them is appropriately expressed with the weak and cynical irony of “oh.” But if we revive the old meaning and give it a twenty-first century twist, we might give ourselves a goal and a guide as well as the decade a name. Maybe we ought to call them the Oughts.