The Dickensian Decade

Hasan Zillur Rahim

Posted Dec 31, 2009      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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The Dickensian Decade

By Hasan Zillur Rahim

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way …”

Can we use the stirring words of Charles Dickens to describe the first decade of the twenty-first century, the “Oughty-Noughties” (2000-2009 or the 00s) as it has come to be called?

Answer: A qualified “Yes.”

The decade began with the bursting of the dot-com bubble in March of 2000. Eight months later, George W. Bush claimed the presidency of the United States after the “hanging chads” farce in Florida and a strange and unprecedented 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

On September 11, 2001, homicidal maniacs claiming Islam as guidance hijacked commercial airliners and crashed into what they perceived as American symbols of power, the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

In response, the U.S. went after the Taliban in Afghanistan with almost universal support. The Taliban were swiftly routed but victory proved elusive as a quagmire set in, reminiscent of Vietnam. Eight years later, the war continues as a corrupt Karzai regime hangs on to power.

Support for American policy quickly dried up as President Bush used the pretext of weapons of mass destruction and a manufactured Al-Qaida connection to attack Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in March of 2003. The invasion, boasting technological “shock and awe,” seemed at first to be as easy as winning a video game but the occupation proved catastrophic. America’s moral authority came undone in waterboard torture pits and in the horror dungeons of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

As of now, the Iraq war has alone caused almost 100,000 civilian deaths, murder by any other name but euphemistically called “collateral damage.” Sectarian violence is a daily occurrence and the Iraqi government remains weak and dysfunctional. The toll the two wars have taken on the families of American soldiers killed and injured is incalculable.

In technology, the Internet gold rush that collapsed in 2000 regained some of its luster, as social networking became all the rage. MySpace (2003), Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2007) became household names. Web 2.0, the read/write Web, turned everyone (well, almost everyone) into a blogger and a “pundit.” How far the democratization of ideas and opinions go and what influence it has in speaking truth to power, however, remain to be seen. Apple revolutionized the music industry with its iPod products and leading universities of the world made many of their courses in various disciplines available online. Cloud computing went mainstream and software and hardware breakthroughs blurred the distinction between smart phones and PCs.

Amazon’s success with the Kindle, introduced in November of 2007, raised an intriguing question: Will eBooks replace physical books, and if so, when? “When” is difficult to say but it is clear that, where the technology is available, sale of eBooks is rising dramatically against the sale of ink-on-paper books. As Amazon chief Jeff Bezos has noted, however, the Gutenberg model has had a 500-year run, making the physical book probably the most successful technology ever.

In 2008, Barack Obama was elected the first African American president of the United States. Americans were drawn to his platform of change and hope. The world breathed a sigh of relief and the nation’s stature in the world went up almost overnight. But a global economic meltdown, brought on by Wall Street charlatans, Ponzy schemers, unscrupulous bankers and hedge-fund hucksters, threatened to undermine his presidency from day one.

Massive stimulus money pumped into the economy seems only to have rescued the industry titans and their acolytes, however. Financial future of the average American appears bleak at this point, with job losses and home foreclosures not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The crisis has spread worldwide and it will clearly be a long while before the Great Recession is actually over.

Still, the election of Barack Obama to the highest office of the land was like light breaking forth after an unending night of darkness. Disappointingly, the president has committed more troops to Afghanistan and hasn’t specified a clear timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. 2010 will test the young president’s mettle and his ability to deliver on the message of hope and change that carried him to victory. This is the year that will probably dictate whether Obama will be a one or a two-term president.

Perhaps the most significant global issue of the decade was climate change and our response to it. Most of us, with the exception of rabid right-wingers and congenital contrarians, recognize the existential threat that global warming poses to the earth. Yet consensus on how to mitigate this threat has fallen prey to nationalism. For the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases – China, the United States, India, Russia, Japan – national economy trumps the survival of the planet.

Still, the Copenhagen Climate Summit in December of 2009 raised the expectations of common and indigenous people around the world to soaring heights, a reflection, perhaps, of the hope they invested in Barack Obama.

But while it roared in like a lion, to many observers, the Summit left like a lamb. There were no lasting binding agreements. A limited deal was reached in which both developed and developing nations agreed to “list national actions and commitments” on cutting carbon emissions. Wealthy nations also offered billions in aid to help countries like Bangladesh and the island nation of Kiribati, threatened with the worst effects of climate change. Significantly, leaders also gave their assent to a 2 degree Celsius cap on global warming.

The real success of the Climate Summit probably lies in the impetus it has given to green technology and clean energy. Entrepreneurs are racing to produce energy-efficient devices with small carbon footprints, ranging from innovative fuel-cells and green building materials such as ultra-insulated windows and glass to roof-top gardening, clean-coal technology and high-efficiency solar and wind systems.

It is also not without irony, and some measure of justice, that Al Gore, who lost the muddled 2000 presidential election to George Bush, won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to raising global awareness of man-made climate change.

So there you have it, a decade dominated by terror, bad governance, war, unregulated greed and financial terrorism, but also a decade in which sanity replaced insanity toward the end, in which Muslims overwhelmingly rejected Al-Qaida’s message of nihilism and asserted their message of moderation (the Nidal Hasans and the Abdulmutallabs reflect systemic failures), in which awareness of the earth’s fragility entered our consciousness and spurred us to action, and in which we recognized, as never before, that our prosperity and well-being depended on the status and education of women throughout the world.

We may have begun this decade in the winter of despair but perhaps it is not too far fetched to suggest that a spring of hope beckons as we end it.

Happy New Decade!