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A hot mess of a decade, a reason for the American Left to be hopeful

Five years ago, give or take a couple of months, I was in Denver at a concert on the Plea for Peace tour. I was a rock and film writer just cutting her teeth on her first political column, and it was 2004—the year when rock’n’roll banded together to try to get rid of Bush.

We failed. But you know that story. That night, though, Saul Williams performed, and he said something that has stuck with me for those five years, echoing in my head over and over again.

“This country is undergoing a cleanse,” he said. “And you know what happens when you do a cleanse. All the scum rises to the top.”

In searching for a frame to put around the last ten years (and yes, for the pedantic out there, I know it’s not technically the end of the decade. But eras end when they will, and in the public consciousness in the U.S. at least, this is the end of something) I struggled a bit until I recalled Williams’ words.

We’ve certainly seen the scum rise to the top in the last ten years, literally and figuratively. Since the economic crisis, it’s been even more obvious that the top is rotten through and through and the rot is what’s trickled down far more than any wealth. The tea party protests and public anger often seem like nothing less than a purge of some particularly vicious elements in the national character, an acknowledgment of sentiments that have been there, buried, now bubbling to the surface.

It was a decade of unfettered capitalism. The cold war was over, the U.S. won, and market worship in the name of “freedom” was at its height. Naomi Klein traced the roots of Milton Friedman’s capitalism in The Shock Doctrine, and certainly the 90s laid the foundation for the outsourcing explosion of the Bush years.

The deregulation, privatization, globalization agenda pursued (under a Democratic president) through the 90s allowed the already-blurry lines between exploitation and outright theft to almost disappear. Witness the 2000 election, which was not just bought as almost all elections in the U.S. are bought, but stolen—with the aid of cash and well-placed connections. It was white-collar crime, and we’re used to white-collar crime going unpunished.

The 00’s have been a decade of fighting our way back from that moment. From a Democratic campaign so lackluster that Bush’s crew could steal the election without much protest, from general apathy created by the veneer of success–”f*ck you, Jack, I’ve got mine”–to a reawakening, over and over again, to what happens when you don’t pay attention. 9/11. Iraq. Katrina. The economy. Each one hit us like a particularly badass return of the repressed, smacking us with something we’d been ignoring or hoping it would go away.

On GRITtv, Mark Green called this decade the uh-ohs, and Nancy Giles the ought-nots, and it certainly was a decade full of uh-oh moments, full of things we ought not to have done. Adele Stan wrote of the traumas of the decade, describing the U.S. as suffering from collective PTSD, saying:

Here in the home of the brave, we’ve endured a decade that shattered nearly every notion of what it meant to be an American, whether you live on the left or the right. And so we shout. Or hide. Or startle too easily.

It’s hard to remember, looking at the beginning of 2000, that in 1999 one of the biggest victories for the left since the 60s had come in the streets of Seattle. Popular protest seemed stunned into silence after the election, after 9/11, and only started to revive at the buildup toward war in Iraq. Through the (thoroughly deregulated) media’s refusal to acknowledge it, the antiwar movement grew, and little tendrils of dissent sparked.

Some of the best tools for helping us fight back, organize and communicate came in with the Internet, the blogosphere, social networking, Twitter. Political blogs multiplied like rabbits in the Bush years, in some cases growing (metastasizing?) into news outlets to rival venerable old newspapers. But unlike the talking heads on cable and network TV solemnly telling us what was real news, the two-way communication on the ‘net let us decide for our damn selves what was news. Sometimes it brought out the worst in us, but without it, what would we have done? Would we have had a Howard Dean, a Barack Obama?

As a former New Orleanian, I can’t help but look at Hurricane Katrina as the fulcrum on which this decade turned. We might have known that the scum was on top, but Katrina brought into daylight the absolute lie of “success” and “wealth.” It showed us just how much we had allowed to slip away—and how much left we had to lose. As much as the Web made Obama’s victory possible, so did Katrina.

More connected, more aware, more involved, we refused to be shocked and traumatized into staying silent anymore. We threw off Bush, our collective abusive lover, but the cleanse isn’t over. It’s deeper than one president, deeper than one problem. There’s a lot still to be rooted out—one glance at the health care fight can tell you that while Obama is no Bush, the Democrats are still nearly as deep in corporate pockets as the Republicans were, if they temper it with some crumbs for the rest of us.

But we are more prepared than ever to keep fighting. We saw not just the tea party protests but the National Equality March in 2009. Voter turnout was at record levels in 2008, even if still nowhere near high enough. The word “organizing” reentered the national vocabulary, even if Sarah Palin sneered at it. The world watched protests in Iran, and even if gestures of solidarity on Twitter helped little, we all remembered what it was like to be inspired by everyday people working together for a better country.

“Change” didn’t just come about with the 2008 election, just like the decade didn’t wrap up neatly at midnight. In looking back, though, we should remember not only the events that shook us, wounded us—we should remember our reactions to them, the steps that we took toward really understanding what was broken and what needed to be fixed. Let’s have that be the real legacy of this decade, whatever you want to call it.

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Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is former deputy editor of GlobalComment. She’s interested in politics and pop culture, and has a special place in her heart for comics.

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