What a Long Strange Trip
As one gets older, chunks of time once thought epochal become mere blips; one may start out to say, “But I just…” and then suddenly realizing, add, “well, ten years ago.” Oops. Yesterday that definitely wasn’t, it only seemed like it. Without clear markers, as we settle into middle age we see, and generally embrace, a sameness that is as comforting as it is deceptive, dulling our senses to the rapid advance of time unless its continuity is shattered by momentous events: deaths, births, marriages, divorces, children growing up so quickly. Or, in this case, our world being turned upside down by an openly extremist political movement run amok.
It seems like only yesterday I was quaffing beers with a Hippie friend of mine, who told me that voting for Nader over Gore was the only way to “send a message” that our political system was broken. Strikingly, the only real reason I felt that it was imperative for we liberals to make sure George Bush wasn’t elected, an argument that won the day with the Hippie, was that the makeup of the Supreme Court was at stake; I naively assumed that Gore and Bush would both be centrists in most respects, and that the social goals of Bush’s fundamentalist “base” was about the only thing we had to worry about. That and deficits again. What a difference ten years makes.
Had I thought, for even a moment, that ten years later, we would be mired in two unwinnable wars, witnessing the simultaneous collapse of our media, banking system, automobile industry, and any remaining appearance of the US as a nation of laws, while talking about torture’s usefulness despite its unpleasantness, well, that conversation would have gone a bit differently, to say the least. The warning signs, however, came early, even after the disturbing coup-like ascension to power; dropping out of Kyoto, then the International Criminal Court, bizarre assertions of power and secrecy; all of this and more fell like rain in the early days, but why? Something new was happening, but it wasn’t clear what it was at the time, until Sept. 11. That day itself, and the bizarre behavior of the administration, especially Bush, has been scrubbed of its strangeness by history already but I remember at the time, glued to the television, that all I could think was that something else was afoot that everyone was pretending not to see. Well, we soon found out. Within days, Attorney General Ashcroft was talking about jailing journalists, Ari Fleischer was telling Americans to “watch what they say,” and a curiously instant Patriot act materialized, fully formed, out of nowhere. Sheesh. I’d been worrying about a black-robed bible-thumper or two.
I was in Seattle when Bush gave the infamous “Axis of Evil” speech, and my friends and I there were a roomful of dropped jaws as Bush announced that we were permanently at war, basically with a growing chunk of the world, and the media seemed to think that was perfectly normal, and maybe even good for ratings, for an American President to say something so frankly Hitlerian, which is the only thing to call it. I kept waiting for the backlash that never came, joining enormous war protests that landed like trees in an empty forest as one doomed war gave way to a bigger, even more doomed one, while otherwise sensible people listened to Wolfowitz saying the war would pay for itself, Kristol saying there weren’t any religious tensions in Iraq, and Rumsfeld saying of the imminent war’s duration, “I doubt six months.” Six years ago. What a decade it was shaping up to be.
Worse, the crazier and stupider the policies enacted routinely and with no debate, the more likely we were told that they were none of our business anyway, and were inevitable, so shut up and go shopping. The media led this chorus, putative watchdogs become lapdogs; more contemptuous of dissent than the rogue government itself, and sometime around the time that Bush managed to win reelection, I was utterly bewildered…. Had it only been five years? A sinister, near-cinematic scenario had unfolded which, in my worst nightmares, I never could have imagined. The night after the election, I threw in a familiar REM CD, and cranked it up, only to be interrupted by the telephone. It was my Mom, asking what I was doing. I told her I was drinking and listening to REM. ”It’s the End of the World as We Know It?” she asked. ”Yes. How’d you know?” was my laughing answer. And it really was. At this point, why not laugh?
The financial collapse, torture scandal, exploding deficits, Katrina, Lewis Libby being freed, warrantless wiretapping, Nancy Pelosi taking impeachment “off the table,” it didn’t matter anymore. Outrages became commonplce with dizzying rapidity, and even keeping up seemed redundant, almost. The worst decade the world had ever known was underway, and decades, perhaps centuries, later it would be remembered as such, I had no more doubt. Sometimes decades just pass you by. As has become abundantly clear, this last one never will.