The Corner

Ought-a Here

From my column on the ought decade.

But perhaps the best reason to call it the oughts is that one is left with the sense that this decade ought to have been about something, and yet it really doesn’t feel that way.

As flawed as the American habit of dividing our history into decades may be (the ’60s didn’t get started until the ’50s ended around 1964), it’s always made at least some intuitive sense. For instance, the popular conception of the ’70s — self-indulgent, tacky, kind of gross — closely jibes with my memory of it, even thought it didn’t begin until the end of the Vietnam War and died soon thereafter. The fatal blow was probably the “Disco Demolition Night” riot in Chicago’s Comiskey Park in the summer of 1979 (even staunch law-and-order types have to admire anti-disco riots), and it ultimately staggered to its death about the time of Ronald Reagan’s election.

Likewise, the 1980s and 1990s felt like real decades, whether you hated them or not. Reagan and Bill Clinton, through force of personality alone, helped give the ’80s and ’90s a coherence.

But it doesn’t feel like we can say the same thing about George W. Bush’s oughts, in no small part because Bush showed neither the interest nor the ability to dominate the culture.

Neither the pro-Bush nor anti-Bush segments of society seemed to control the commanding heights of the popular culture. After 9/11, the Bushian forces seemed to dominate — freedom fries, 24, the Dixie Chicks’ implosion — but that didn’t last long. And, with the exception of a brief counter-Bush surge led by the lefty blogosphere, Jon Stewart and the re-imagined coffeehouse rock version of the Dixie Chicks, the battle for decade dominance has been between a fizzle and a deadlock.

The war on terrorism doesn’t define young peoples’ lives, but neither does Bush-hatred. Virtually all of the antiwar or anti-Bush screeds put out by Hollywood over the last year, including Oliver Stone’s latest doggerel, have bombed.

It was during the oughts that Americans started drinking more bottled water than beer. As Susan McWilliams of Pomona College observes, you can tell something about a society that chooses clever water over humble beer. Bottled water is personal, inward-driven. Beer is social, outward-driven. Beer gets the party started. Water is the thirst quencher of choice for the solitary fitness addict, marching to the beat of his or her own drummer, digitally remastered for the iPod.

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