Let's just call it a decade and move on

Jeremy Kinsman on the decade that cyncism and the internet wrought.

The commentariat clearly struggled to coin a moniker for this past decade. It would of course be nothing upbeat like the Jazz Age or the Roarin' Nineties for the first 10 years of the 21st century.

A pall of despond has been hung over the era by the dreadful facts on the ground.

The Lost Decade is the most frequent appellation, a reference to the lack of progress on everything from climate change to Middle East peace.

If you can't sleep because of financial concerns and declining net worth, the Wall Street Journal's label — Nightmare Decade — qualifies.

As the Journal observed, the last 10 years represented "the worst calendar decade for stocks going back to the 1820s," when records began.  

"Decade of the con" is the title bestowed by New York Times columnist Frank Rich. His reference points for the period were rung in by Enron's fraud and finished with the flourish of Bernie Madoff's giant Ponzi scheme.

The World Trade Centre's south tower bursts into flames after being struck by hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 on Sept. 11, 2001. The event that marked the decade. (Sean Adair/Reuters)

Public intellectual Timothy Garton Ash has called it The Nameless Decade, which does raise a question: If the last 10 years were so forgettable, couldn't we just get back to where we were?

The event of our time

The decade started well enough. Though now that seems so long ago, like an innocent childhood.

For my part, I was in Rome on January 1, 2000, participating in the special Rome Millenium Marathon, whose sun-filled start at St. Peter's Basilica was launched by a greatly missed hero, Pope John Paul II.

The slowness of my pace for my last such race ever I am blaming on all those meaningless midnight conference calls with Ottawa officialdom on a global Y2K crisis that never happened.

Today, we barely remember the Y2K anxieties because, looking backward, we find it hard to see past 9/11 to our more worry-free past.

We can't forget about those people jumping from the World Trade Centre, the central event of our time.

We knew then things would never be the same. So began what has been called The Long War — Iraq, Afghanistan, pick your militant trouble spot. It's not over yet.

Daily life has been whacked, of course. Air travel is a trial of waiting in queues with shoes and belts in baskets and now even more stringent rules to try our souls.

Rights advocates worry about the hit that privacy and civil rights are taking from all the extra surveillance and controls, and the trumping power of "security first."

The Canada-U.S. border has thickened.

The once dreamy picture of Canada's integration into a growing continental economy has been blackened by Homeland Security, resurgent U.S. protectionism, and a devastating hit to the world's confidence in U.S. economic management.

Cynicism reborn

Today, cynicism is rampant, in part in consequence of the Bush-Blair coalition in the early part of the decade beating the war drums and conning their respective publics.

Was it any wonder, then, that the decade brought on the triumph of the reality TV shows — which represented anything but reality — and came to be dominated by ever more dumbed-down program schedules.

Tabloid fodder: the cover of US Weekly on Dec. 14, 2008. (Associated Press)

The shaming of Tiger Woods was the decade's last cynical laugh.

For the full scale of global cynicism, you only have to look at the hits to budding democrats and human rights defenders in places such as Russia and China where modest gains were rolled back by tough state leaders.

Or the dictators who clubbed ideals to the ground in Rangoon, Harare and Tehran?

Good grief, Charlie Brown, was the decade really as bad as all that?

Is there no blue in the sky, no light under the door, when we look back?

Re-set button

Let's take a step back for a minute and look below the surface.

On the health front, there were several gains — organ replacement technology, for example — that made this a leap-frog decade for medical science.

Over the past 10 years, the number of people with HIV/AIDS declined by 17 per cent.

Google rode out the decade supreme. Vastly greater access to information and connectedness are now in the hands of billions daily, including 338 million internet users in China, which the regime tries to supervise with diminishing success.

"Netizens" with cellphone cameras see and upload to social networks such as YouTube what repressive regimes or officials want to hide, including at Vancouver Airport.

Looking back, it was a decade in which cynicism was duelling with empowerment, and as far as democracy is concerned, the empowerment of ordinary citizens was given a boost.

Western democracies have tried to spread their values around the globe, sometimes clumsily. What happens in other peoples' countries depends on the people who live there, not outsiders.

Today, the internet makes democratic norms understood in the dimmest corners of the world.

China's turn

As for global empowerment, nothing compares to the rise of Asia. Consider that in 1999 the Chinese produced 600,000 vehicles. In 2009, it was 15 million.

The Chinese and Indian economies grew to 15 and 6 per cent respectively of the world's gross domestic product (in 1973, they were at 5 and 3 per cent).

U.S. President Barack Obama attends a state dinner with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Nov. 17, 2009. (Jim Young/Reuters)

China now rivals the U.S. and Europe, which have declined to roughly 19 per cent each of global GDP.

Along with Brazil and others, these so-called emerging economies are insisting on a re-shaping of global governance to admit their somewhat different perspectives.

The Atlantic-centric monopoly on power that is held through the UN Security Council, the G8, the IMF and other institutions fashioned in the image of Western market-based capitalism is coming in for change.

This is also taking place when, for the first time in 300 years, there is no strategic rivalry among great powers, as Robert Legvold wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs.

Yes, there is competition and fractious argument at times, but not rivalry in the existential sense of the Cold War, or the imperial appetites of years gone by.

Networked world

Indeed, if you look at the past 10 years through an American lens, you find a decade in which the U.S. first sunk to historic lows in terms of world support and is now near an all-time high.

The latter is due to the election of the first African-American president who came to power on the winning slogan of "change you can believe in."

Within the U.S., the climate of partisan cynicism and polarity that characterized the last decade of American politics is a huge challenge for Barack Obama. But his dedication to international engagement promises benefits to a world that is now revelling almost formally in its diversity.

Over at the U.S. State Department, Anne-Marie Slaughter, now in charge of policy planning, wrote about "power in the networked century," by which she meant more than just diplomatic power.

In her essay, she cited psychologist Carol Gilligan who wrote 30 years ago about "differences between the genders in their modes of thinking."

Gilligan observed that "men tend to see the world as made up of hierarchies of power and seek to get to the top, whereas women tend to see the world as containing webs of relationships and seek to move to the centre."

In Slaughter's view, these two lenses capture the differences between the 20th and the 21st centuries.

A multipolar, networking and democratizing world is one in which a creative democracy of middle-power status such as Canada can thrive.

But can we see through the correct lens? We would need to marshal Canadian talents, energy, and our national vocation for humanist internationalism that the world once saw as credible.

Let's see in the next decade how many Canadians care.