Friday, January 03, 2003

The Ought Decade

Happy New Year Three of the---the---what the hell are we calling this decade anyway?

Say the 60s, and everybody knows what you mean. Say the 70s and they laugh, and do a disco move. Say the 90s and they smile, feel their wallets and groan. But we're three years into this decade, and we don't know what the hell to call it.

So the 60s are retro, the 80s are nostalgia, the 90s are but a memory, and we're going into the third year of the---the-the whats?

Could it possibly be? Two whole years of a Decade Without A Name? How could this happen-here in America, where marketing is our most important product---so important in fact that we don't need a product, we've gotten that good.

We'd have to call this a major embarrassment. It's a tricky problem, certainly. There's no easy solution. The zeros? The double o's? The blanks? The nothings? It's a dilemma. But as the world's only marketing superpower, we should be up to the challenge.

Sure, it's an artificial dilemma, but isn't that what marketing is all about?

Still, this practice of dividing the centuries into decades, and acting as if these divisions mean something, was pretty much a twentieth century fashion. Maybe this is an opportunity to just let it quietly die off. At best it produces images that don't really correspond to the ten year spans they label. Everybody knows what "the Sixties" means. It means a few soundbites from 1961 to 1965 ("Ask Not," "I have a dream," etc.) plus music and fashion and other eye candy from 1966 to some time in the early 1970s, with roots in the 1950s and before. Unless it means something else.

As far as that goes, the ideas we have of what the centuries mean are also deceptive. The 19th century and the 20th century conjure distinctly different images in our minds. The 19th century is the Civil War and horsemen in the western dust. The 20th century is atomic power and the automobile. But in fact only 40 years separates Abraham Lincoln from Einstein's special theory of relativity. Less than a decade went by between Wounded Knee and the Model T, with the quantum theory, the first airplane and radio popping up somewhere in between. Many if not most of the scientific theories and discoveries, the basic technological breakthroughs, and a good deal of the art that dominated the twentieth century were accomplished between 1880 and 1920. The century marker means no more than the division into decades, which is nothing.

But at least until now such arguments haven't cut any ice when the marketing people, the trend writers and media pop historians. But then, it used to be easy. You just called the decade by its numerical name. But now, the going has gotten tough. And apparently the tough have stepped away from their desk.

Because if you want to call this decade by the numbers, what numbers will you use? There seems to be no easy answer. Call them the 2000s, but that's the whole century. Can't call them the 20s, unless like legislators approaching Social Security, we simply want to give the problem to the next generation, and let them figure out what to call the decade before the thirties.

We could call them "the ohs", if we want a whole decade to sound like a generic breakfast cereal or a California baseball team or a very weak expression of recognition. Considering our current befuddled view of the future, that last may be appropriate.

Especially considering who we have in the White House, some of us would be tempted to call this decade the Zeros. If things get any worse, we might wind up calling them the Voids. Or somebody else will, probably extraterretrial historians. Since there hasn't been anything particularly noteworthy in terms of style, fashion or ideas so far, maybe it's accurate to think of them as the Nothings. There's the war on terrorism, of course, but that's turning out to be 1914 crossed with "Nineteen Eighty-Four."

The problem is the absence of 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 mutable 20th century, due in part to its obliterating technologies of war combined with mendacious politics and economics, and floods of sociological and science-inspired changes: so many shifting borders and frames of reference. Then 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 this decade 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 all life, past and present and to come, is not met and the right things are not done, this young century could be more cataclysmic than any previous one, taking us to the tipping point of an inevitable downward spiral. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this century could be the last in the series.

It's probably not going to happen this year, and it's not going to happen at all without some mighty big changes, but we can hope that by the time this decade acquires a name it will mean something, as a goal and a guide. That is, if the name we can legitimately give to this decade turns out to really be the Oughts.

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