Friday, December 31, 2010

Best of a Bad Decade

I'm one who firmly believes that decades (or centuries/millennia) begin with numbers ending with 1 and end with numbers ending in 0. To bolster my position, one factual argument: You will never find a reference to the Year 0--either B.C. or A.D.--because there isn't one. Therefore, the first millennium A.D. must've begun with Year One (just saw the movie, by the way--good fun!), and, logically, this one began with 2001.

In terms of the worst events of this decade now ending, then, the 2000 election, or even the Supreme Court decision which finalized it, was clearly disqualified from consideration, totally last century. Bush's inauguration was the inauspicious beginning to this decade, century, and millennium, and that level of dissatisfying event has pretty much maintained. It is much easier to come up with the worst 10 things of the decade (see below)*, so I'm going to focus on the more difficult task of identifying the good.

(Note: Last year I did yield to the prevailing mode and list the 10 best rock albums of 2000-2009 and my 10 favorite movies of that 10-year-period last year. I refer you to those for some detail in those two critical cultural areas, and I'd add that 2010 hasn't changed those judgments much or at all.)

I will go fairly broad with these, by category, adding more commentary as we approach the decade's best.

10.Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes I'd say the decade in popular music was pretty foul, probably the worst since the '50's, but Our Man from Nebraska has been prolific with quality product (a new Bright Eyes release is expected in February, 2011). As with Bob Dylan, one never knows what's next. Honorable mention to Dylan and to U2 for keeping it going, and to Green Day for their brilliant album "American Idiot". Finally, my friend Roger McNamee and his wife Ann McNamee have enriched my experience of this decade with their bands the Flying Other Brothers and Moonalice, and I will of course mention my personal favorite, the uncredited cut from the FOB's "52-Week High" CD, the satiric "Dubya".

9. Broadband/Wi-fi Writing from a home in which I have to go outside to talk on my cellphone, I'm one who thinks American mobile is less than it's cracked up to be, and I don't want more apps, just basic functionality for my phone. I'm not all that impressed with the progress in other digital applications, like iPod, video games, or YouTube, either. The speed and capability of the Internet, and the ease of access, though, are real improvements in American lives.

8. Satellite TV Offsetting the continuing, precipitous decline in the quality of network television is the broadening of broadcast alternatives, headed by what is inertially still called "cable"--examples being HBO, the Comedy Channel, expansion of sports availability, business news, etc. And while satellite doesn't always deliver--bad weather has more effect than it should--it's on the right track. And on the subject of broadcasting, satellite radio is Sirius-ly a positive, too.

7. The Coen Brothers And I say that without even having seen "True Grit" (I'm planning to go today). My Best of Year posting will come out next month, when normal people like me will have had a chance to see the late releases, but the body of work in the past ten years from Joel and Ethan is most impressive, even if not uniformly brilliant. Same comments go for Clint Eastwood, though I think he's running a bit dry on ideas.

Two more areas of note in film: Fantasy production has clearly taken off, probably in a sustainable way, with "Lord of the Rings", "Avatar 3-D", and the continuing pipeline of quality animation being three landmark examples. In the reality-based world, the BBC's "Planet Earth" documentary series provided the most stunning natural photography ever seen--given the trends in natural extinction, probably the best there will ever be. I mistakenly omitted it from my best film list last year.

6. David Mitchell This guy has risen to the top of my heap of writers of book-length fiction, with Cloud Atlas (2004) being the best of the best. In non-fiction, I didn't get to Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) until 2001, but its impact remains unsurpassed.

In a personal note, got to give a plug to my friend Muhammad Cohen and his first published novel, Hong Kong on Air (2007); a very rewarding read on China's takeover of Hong Kong, TV news production, and ladies' lingerie.

There's some hope that the digital tsunami will not wash away book publishing the way it seems to be doing to music. If I'm not mistaken, the last decade set all-time records for number of new titles. The kindles and such will still provide royalties for writers; while editors are still very much needed, book publishers as gatekeepers may not be so critical.

5. Fareed Zakaria He's my headliner for what I mean to be discussion of "other print" (and I use the latter word loosely), but he's also got a strong TV show (GPS, on CNN)--"strong" may be the wrong word, as he has probably a minuscule audience but exceptional informational value. Mr. Z. has a prodigious range, covering economics and politics everywhere (including the US, which he puts in proper perspective) with depth of knowledge and wisdom. His departure from Newsweek, though, means I'm going to cut down on my periodical time (a subscription to Time seems unlikely), which I hope to make up by reading more books.

The decline in the business model for newspapers and magazines is well-reported (what could be closer to journalists' top of mind?), but I'm not sure if that necessarily means a decline in the level of public information--it's certainly out there, and easier to consume than ever before. In the long run, I can anticipate government payouts to individuals who are willing to keep themselves informed (and be tested on it)--if we're going to subsidize good behavior through tax code, why not subsidize our civic education? If we were to do that, though, we should require individuals to read something other than just echoes of their own opinions. I'd watch Fox News and read the National Review if I got paid for it!

I should also mention the rise and rise of blogs and websites with broad participation. None of this can be bad for literacy, even if it's not apparent. Twitter, not so much; Facebook, the jury's out.

4. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Ted Turner, Bono. The downside of the economic crisis has been the collapse of small-scale charitable contribution; the economy is impoverishing all but the upper crust. This is finding a silver lining in the gathering storm of economic inequality, but the four I've mentioned (and some others, like Hollywood celebs, ex-Presidents) are establishing new standards for transnational, big-money philanthropy. Not just megabucks, but very carefully considered, globalized manna for the suffering masses.

Do they make up for the failures of foreign aid (in the US, ever more closely tied to military objectives) and international organizations like the UN? Not even close. Their efforts might even perpetuate false notions about the benefits of capitalism, but at least they are aimed at decreasing dependency.

3. Third World Rising OK, it's a misnomer: the Second World--who remembers?--was the Communist empire headed by the Soviet Union and Mao's Red China, and it no longer exists. The countries I'm referring to--India, Turkey, Brazil, Chile, and the Commie/capitalist chimera China heading the list from this decade--should now be considered the Second World, along with a few, like South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Israel, who'd already made the grade. The Third World should refer to countries like Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, South Africa, Argentina, UAE, and Russia, ones which are making real progress but unevenly, and the Fourth World are the states that are failing or in danger of doing so.

Anyway, the emergence of this Second World is an unmixed benefit to global society; those in the First World who react with fear to its rise are way out of line. "American exceptionalism" is a valid concept, in the sense that the US has a great gift--or several of them--for the posterity of humanity, but not if it means that we have to focus on our separation from the advancement of everyone else in a zero-sum struggle for superiority. Fortunately, I see no chance that that sort will be able to have their way.

2. The 2008 Election.And while we're at it, throw in the surprise success in the 2006 US Congressional elections which helped the stage for '08.

I'm not sure how much more I need to say about it. Even for those who supported the losing side, the event--and the '09 inauguration of President Obama which followed--had its appeal. The setbacks of 2010, for me, were just the low energy trough following the 2008 wave's peak. I'm not sure whether the waves of 2012 and beyond will carry to new heights or just bear the ship of state a bit further along, but I'm optimistic they won't suck us under. Maybe the ardently-desired demise of the Republicans as a major party is too much to ask, but I see plenty of evidence that time and demography are working against them.

1. Family and Friends. As I've often said, most Americans are either over-employed or under-employed. I switched from the first category to the second in 2003, and the benefit has been in the amount of time I can devote to family and friends--no regrets in that regard. Although I have lost some relatives and some dear friends in this decade, for the most part mine have been healthy and happy. In particular I am grateful that my parents--both in their eighties, now--are surviving and still undiminished, and for the vigor of my wife and children.

Happy New Year--and Happy New Decade!

*Bottom 10: 10. Reality TV and amateur performance shows. 9. CSI TV shows and 24. 8. The 2009 Citizens United decision, and the removal of limits for campaign contributions for certain organizations (but not for individuals?) 7. The 2004 Election (and its predecessor, the 2002 election). 6. Climate Change (and the failure to do anything about it). 5. The Economic Crisis (a/k/a The Great Crater). 4. Natural Disasters: Earthquakes, tsunami, Katrina, and Haiti, Haiti, Haiti. 3. September 11, 2001 and its aftermath. 2. The Iraq Invasion, and Bushite Misrule (2001-2009) generally. 1. Vampire movies and books.


Chin Shih Tang said...

In item #10 about popular music, I should've also given kudos to Coldplay and Radiohead for outstanding releases in the decade, keeping it together like U2, Green Day and Dylan did.

Chin Shih Tang said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

My daughter: I agree with everything.......... except for #1 of the best of the decade; VAMPIRE BOOKS AND MOVIES!!
TEAM EDWARD!!!!!!!!!!!

Chin Shih Tang said...

I probably should have something about sport in here, as I probably spent at least 10% of my waking hours during the decade watching sports events.

I would rate the two sports highlights of the decade personally as the rise of Chelsea's football team in England, and the pro tennis rivalries of Federer-Nadal (and occasionally others) and the World vs. Williams Sisters on the women's side.