Does anyone know what we're supposed to call this decade? Is it the 2000s? The twenty-ohs? We're coming up on the last year of it and I still have no idea. Personally, I always liked the "oughts," as in, "Back in ought-six, I ate a brick of cheddar cheese in one sitting."
But perhaps the best reason to call it the oughts is that one is left with the sense that this decade ought to have been about something, and yet it really doesn't feel that way.
As flawed as the American habit of dividing our history into decades may be (the '60s didn't get started until the '50s ended around 1964), it's always made at least some intuitive sense. For instance, the popular conception of the '70s -- self-indulgent, tacky, kind of gross -- closely jibes with my memory of it, even thought it didn't begin until the end of the Vietnam War and died soon thereafter. The fatal blow was probably the "Disco Demolition Night" riot in Chicago's Comiskey Park in the summer of 1979 (even staunch law-and-order types have to admire anti-disco riots), and it ultimately staggered to its death about the time of Ronald Reagan's election.
Likewise, the 1980s and 1990s felt like real decades, whether you hated them or not. Reagan and Bill Clinton, through force of personality alone, helped give the '80s and '90s a coherence.
But it doesn't feel like we can say the same thing about George W. Bush's oughts, in no small part because Bush showed neither the interest nor the ability to dominate the culture.
Neither the pro-Bush nor anti-Bush segments of society seemed to control the commanding heights of the popular culture. After 9/11, the Bushian forces seemed to dominate -- freedom fries, "24," the Dixie Chicks' implosion -- but that didn't last long. And, with the exception of a brief counter-Bush surge led by the lefty blogosphere, Jon Stewart and the re-imagined coffeehouse rock version of the Dixie Chicks, the battle for decade dominance has been between a fizzle and a deadlock.
The war on terrorism doesn't define young peoples' lives, but neither does Bush-hatred. Virtually all of the antiwar or anti-Bush screeds put out by Hollywood over the last year, including Oliver Stone's latest doggerel, have bombed.
It was during the oughts that Americans started drinking more bottled water than beer. As Susan McWilliams of Pomona College observes, you can tell something about a society that chooses clever water over humble beer. Bottled water is personal, inward-driven. Beer is social, outward-driven. Beer gets the party started. Water is the thirst quencher of choice for the solitary fitness addict, marching to the beat of his or her own drummer, digitally remastered for the iPod.
And the iPod hastened a trend toward the personalization of music, and entertainment generally. Turn on a "rock" radio station today and you'll find most of the fare is somewhere between 10 and 40 years old, appealing mostly to those who are nostalgic for a time when music had the power to define an era. YouTube, the natural extension of iPod culture, is a mix of self-promotion and atomization; broadcast yourself, indeed. The digital abattoir of the Internet is taking apart old media dinosaurs at the joints, finally delivering the long prophesied (and, perhaps, lamentable) demise of the post-World War II mainstream media. Time magazine's 2006 decision to declare "you" the person of the year will likely be remembered as a capitulation to the trend.
Meanwhile, many of the most popular and defining TV shows of the last decade have been about me, myself and I. "Survivor" premiered in 2000, launching a parade of reality shows that rewarded will-to-power, ambition and self-centeredness. The "Sopranos" was nominally about the Mafia, but it was really a biting commentary on bourgeois life, centered on a narcissistic sociopath who nonetheless won our sympathy. Series such as "Dexter," "House" and countless others have elevated egomania, self-absorption and narcissism to admirable character traits.
This may sound like the usual conservative caterwauling about social unraveling and balkanization. But it isn't. I don't know that society is any less healthy because it lacks a theme, and I'm certain I don't want Washington to invent one for us.
Still, I do think society craves a theme, which is one reason why Barack Obama's airy rhetoric of unity appealed to so many people, particularly recent college grads, the wealthy, journalists and others most directly immersed in, and responsible for, the self-indulgence of recent years.
The interesting question is whether Obama can -- with the aid of his accomplices -- impose a meaning on our age, or whether the age of meaning itself is over.