Decades are only 'From Hell' if we make them

The decade that we're in now (more on THAT awkward phrasing in a second) is still with us for another 32 days, but the race to define it is already on. Time Magazine -- which didn't dare wait for December lest it be scooped -- jumped out to an early and perhaps insurmountable lead when it declared the last 10 years as "The Decade from Hell," a phrase I've already heard reverberating loudly about the Big Media echo chamber. Unless you've been stuck in a garage since the year 2000 building a giant balloon in order to become a reality TV star, you can probably rattle off all the supporting evidence in your sleep: 9/11, the global economic meltdown, the failures of Hurricane Katrina, the war in Iraq and torture and the rapid loss of U.S. prestige in the world, and so on and so forth.

One potential good thing about "The Decade From Hell" is that it does give the years from 2000 through 2009 the thing they so strikingly lack: A NAME! Indeed, that problem became noticeable just months into the year 2000, when it became clear there was no consensus name (like the Nineties, or '90s) and then 9/11 in some bizarre way just brought that whole conversation to a halt; when it resumed there were some awful suggestions like the Naughts (really?) but I tend to use "the 2000s," any confusion with either the 21st Century or the new millennium be damned. But beyond that, I have some other problems with this whole "Decade From Hell" concept. Was it really? And if so, why was that?

The biggest problem is that the "Decade from Hell" suggests that life can be boiled down to, in "$10,000 Pyramid" terminology, "Things That You See on CNN." What about all the billions of people, literally, who brought a new son or daughter into the world during the 2000s, who found a soulmate or got married (or even both!) or created an amazing work of art during the last 10 years? True, these same folks may have also been pained by 9/11 or suffered a job loss, as well, but they probably won't look back on these years as all hellish.

It's also, appropriately in a weird way, a very America-centric view -- I doubt people in India or China, which grew their economies and gained clout on the global stage, will see the 2000s through a ring of hellfire. But yes, if you look at the United States and from the perspective of all the big stuff in politics, the economy and the ways that we relate as a society, it was not the best of times. But here's the other thing that troubled me about "The Decade from Hell" concept, this underlying assumption that maybe our Decades are somehow fated or handed down to us; that the same fickle Decade Gods who gave us sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll in the 1960s and then whomped us upside the head with Pet Rocks, the AMC Gremlin and "Muskrat Love" in the 1970s are up there deciding our fate in 10-year increments. The Time cover story states that:

If we are now watching the sun set on a Decade from Hell, does it naturally follow that the next decade will be all good and glory? Of course not. And yet there are some hopeful signs...There's also a natural cycle to history. Unless you believe that this country is in the throes of a deep and permanent decline, there's no question that we will rebound. "Usually when you've had a really bad decade like this one, the next decade turns out to be much better for investors," says Richard Sylla, a professor of economics at the NYU Stern School of Business.

That can be some dangerous thinking right there -- and not just because it seems to associate our greater health and well-being with the performance of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. I think that when history looks back with more clarity on the 2000s and how they played out in the United States, we'll see that the bad things that happened were the result not of a fate-driven up-and-down cycle of decades but from events that trace all the way back, for the most part, to the start of the 1970s and to both powerful forces that were outside America's control and to poor choices that were within our control, that we made as a nation.

It was in the year 1970, in fact, that oil production in the United States peaked and began an inexorable decline -- that and the growth of a global economy undercutting high-paying U.S. factory jobs were perhaps first and foremost the signals that the generation of American economic dominance that flourished after World War II was winding down. Ironically, for me personally, I spent the end of the 2000s reliving the 1980s as I wrote and researched a book on Ronald Reagan and his legacy called "Tear Down This Myth";  I was reminded of how early tentative steps toward alternative energy that could have put the nation on a brighter path was chucked aside for a bubble economy that encouraged massive borrowing by both the government and by families trying to survive in a now-consumerist economy where a tiny few reaped windfalls in newly deregulated financial markets and paid lower taxes on their bounty, how preserving our global dominance meant investing billions not in new ideas but on new tanks and jet fighters, increasingly aimed at the part of the world that did still have a lot of oil, the Middle East.

It from those very human decisions -- which were not fated at all, and in fact could have been avoided -- that a "Decade from Hell" arrived in our inbox on 1/1/00. Because it was that unregulated, finance-driven economy that have us an economic meltdown, a decision to spend billions on tax breaks for the wealthy instead of infrastructure that contributed to Katrina's levee collapses and a lethal bridge collapse in Minneapolis, our need for dominance in the world's oil regions that caused us to invade Iraq, with many bad consequences. In the case of the 9/11 attacks, that cannot of course be blamed on America -- it speaks instead to the evil cycle of fanaticism and the power-mad manipulators like Osama bin Laden -- but at the same time I do think it's fair to wonder how the 2000s would have played out differently -- from terrorism to Afghanistan to Iraq -- if we had heeded Jimmy Carter's call in the late 1970s to end our dependence on foreign oil.

As for the 2010s, I don't think we can afford to sit around watching CNBC and waiting for the Decade Gods to automatically turn everything green as some sort of karmic balance for the awfulness of the 2000s. We can't go back in time undo the lousy decisions of yesteryear, but we can at least, belatedly, start to do the right things -- try to get it right on alternative energy and on infrastructure, to remain a leading nation on the world stage not because others fear our weapons, but because they cherish our ideas and also our ideals, as they existed before they were corrupted by the likes of Guantanamo and torture. Those good choices over the next 10 years could bring us not one but a series of more heavenly decades, and demolish the myth of a fated cycle.

Because a "Decade from Hell" doesn't just happen -- unless we make it that way.