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Arts + Culture Culture Bingeing on dystopia: The politico-cultural decade in review

Bingeing on dystopia: The politico-cultural decade in review

Foresight is 2020. So what do we make of the fraught and contradictory 2010s, our last chance?

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Gore Vidal once remarked that the three saddest words in the English language were “Joyce Carol Oates,” but from the vantage point of late December 2019, it’s actually “decade in review.”

It’s impossible not to pull a reverse Orpheus — which is to say, sneak an apprehensive glance forward while trying to train your steely glare back into Hades. All signs point to unimaginable — yet also well-imagined — horrors in the decades to come, from rising neo-fascism to rising oceans. However frightful the 2010s may look to us now, future generations will almost certainly view the present grinding chaos as doubly unforgivable, because we know it is our last chance and we have squandered it away. 

History — in the dialectical, Marxist-Hegelian sense — supposedly ended after 1989. [Boy was that ever a whopper! —Ed.] But we are deep into the future now, rudderless and alarmingly passive. In 2020, we will be halfway between the television debut of Star Trek (Sept. 8, 1966) and the date of First Contact between Earth and the Vulcans (April 4, 2063). 2020 is also the 30th anniversary of “Hey, it’s the ’90s!” an expression that roughly meant, “Girls can kiss girls and I’m cool with that because history has recently ended and we’re just mopping up, Laura Palmer, Milli Vanilli, Molly-you-in-danger-girl.” 

In 2020, Jadyn Malone turns 10, Willow Smith turns 20, The Weeknd turns 30, Macaulay Culkin turns 40, Mariah Carey turns 50, RuPaul turns 60, Bill Murray turns 70, Ringo Starr turns 80, Dolores Huerta turns 90, Wayne Thiebaud turns 100, and a Disney animator named Ruthie Tompson who worked on Sleeping Beauty, Dumbo, and Fantasia turns 110. If you were born on or before Dec. 31, 1979, you will soon have been alive in six different decades. The future has dislocated itself. 

Writing in Buzzfeed, Katherine Miller observed that the 2010s have indeed broken our sense of time, with social media and the urge to dig out our phones gobbling up every last liminal moment. It’s no surprise that Netflix, which brought us the instant gratification of binge-watching the decade after it kept us waiting for red envelopes in the mail, was the best-performing stock of the decade, up 4,000 percent. And what did we watch? Dystopia! The 2010s belonged to the Walking Dead.

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But the dystopian strain of popular culture seems to have faded over the last three years, subtly incorporated into daily life. We know we’re doomed (though some of us staunchly refuse to believe it) and the needle isn’t moving, so when a climate messenger from Sweden sails over to warn us in no uncertain terms, we either mock her or make a towering idol of her, exactly as Greta Thunberg asked us not to do. 

Apocalypse has likewise fallen away, largely folded into the cleaner moral schema of the Marvel Universe. No one has cinematically blown up New York City in years. After getting decimated in Contagion and obliterated in San Andreas, Pacific Rim, and at least a couple Planet of the Apes, nobody’s touching San Francisco, either. If anything, Silicon Valley has become a net exporter of destruction, undermining efforts to consume less energy on a roasting planet and threatening to vanquish liberal democracy entirely. But maybe Charlottesville channeled the fervor for near-future spectacular destruction into Handmaid’s Tale-style torture porn far more than 9/11 ever could. 

2001 was probably the beginning of this end. The year 1999, Bill Clinton’s “bridge to the 21st century,” felt like a portal to endless nano-improvement, when a digital public square and e-democracy felt promising. Obama-era nudge-ocrats inherited that sentiment and giddily tried to expand upon it. But all decade long, we’ve been fighting over universal health care, the era’s singular achievement (to put it charitably). And look where we are now. Other ends-of-decades weren’t off-center like this. Even 1969, hip-deep in the indigenous American berserk, had plenty of optimism amid all the insanity. So did 1979, in its inverted Reaganite way. But not since 1939 has the appraisal of past required an unflinching look ahead at probable doom.

What is it we see? The hopeful liberal program for the 2020s runs approximately as follows: Trump is defeated decisively enough to render non-viable any plans to stay in the White House, and Democrats recapture the Senate, too. They rally the country under a World War II-esque climate mobilization program that effectively de-carbonizes the economy in 15 years, sucking billions of tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere via technologies we’ve barely invented let alone scaled, all the while while palpably reversing 50 years of mounting income inequality and racist voter suppression. Reclaiming America’s Sorkin-esque world leadership under a new mantle of democratic socialism and broadly shared prosperity neutralizes the worldwide populist tide and more or less saves the planet from a chain of events that could lead to the end of industrial civilization and mass extinction. The end. [I can hear the Leftist eyeballs rolling from here—Ed.]

A decade-and-a-half is a brief window to transform the world, but keep in mind the iPhone is not yet 13 years old. The beginning of a new decade calls for answers now, but the Magic 8-Ball will be murky until at least Super Tuesday. Of course, current polls indicate that the eventual nominee will be former vice president Centrism Silver. 

Therefore, the considerably more plausible nightmare scenario for the 2020s involves Trump winning by repeating his 2016 inside straight — which is to say, holding Texas and Arizona while narrowly sweeping the Upper Midwest as 4 million excess Democratic votes pile up in California. He then bumbles from self-made crisis to self-made crisis for another four years, eroding institutional checks and reversing the entire 20th century as the Republican Party further hardens into a cult. Roe v. Wade is overturned 5-4, and voting in red states becomes a de facto privilege. 

This is awful on the merits, but worse because that level of degradation might be irreversible. Let’s say that in 2024, a younger, browner, and more drought-prone America overcomes GOP-imposed structural obstacles, resulting in a Democratic landslide. The demographically guaranteed progressive utopia that is always one election away finally arrives. With a mandate for change, Congress ushers in a racially enlightened Green New Deal — but an ossified judiciary packed with so many retrograde judges halts almost all of it, rendering progressive legislation moot. Dysfunction becomes permanent, every year is hotter than the last, and xenophobic populism remains potent. 

We had 12 years, and then we had Five Years, and then we had none. Among elites and pundits who just want to “get things done,” China’s success breeds new envy for top-down authoritarianism. Big Tech happily obliges, and by 2030, all human activity becomes monetized in an inescapable corporate surveillance state that spends untold trillions to incarcerate climate refugees as the planet slowly dies. Bummer.

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As of last month, the Blade Runner title card reading “Los Angeles November, 2019” became another artifact of the not-too-distant-future’s past. The typeface is Goudy Old Style, an almost perversely brilliant choice to evoke a hybrid of time, since it belongs in a cookbook from 1924.

This was the future, and we warped it. The decade began with a PG&E explosion in San Bruno — also not unlike the pyro Blade Runner intro — and ended with the utility in bankruptcy again, having helped burn down half the state. It began with a Japanese earthquake that almost no scientists predicted, an ended with wildfires and hurricanes that all scientists predicted. California burned, over and over. Australia burned. London’s 24-story Grenfell Tower burned. The Amazon never stopped burning — and Brazil’s National Museum in Rio caught fire, too. 

Universal Studios burned in 2008, but the truth about just how much was lost didn’t emerge until this year. Indeed, it was a decade of data breaches — Yahoo, Cambridge Analytica, Equifax — whose ever-increasing breadth mirrors the trend of Hottest Year Ever. It was also a decade of whistleblowers, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning and the Panama Papers and #MeToo. Appallingly little has changed.

It was a decade of speed records: the fastest transatlantic flight, the fastest completion of a Rubik’s cube, the fastest game of Super Mario Bros., and the fastest cross-country road trip known as a Cannonball Run. I got my first-ever speeding ticket on my last of many road trips to visit all 50 states during this decade. Hypersonic missiles even drive a new arms race. 

Food got better. Makeup got better. Facial recognition got better. Cars got better — on the inside, at least, since their exteriors look much as they did in 1995 — although we’re not even safer on the road for having forfeited style. Our collective understanding of the gender-nonconforming and the neurodivergent is better. The widespread recognition that gender exists on a spectrum and not a binary might be the most significant shift in Western thought in a century or more — and the same alt-right that denies gender is mutable still believes eating a soyburger will do the trick.

There is “hope.” Star Wars drew to its conclusion based on that premise, completely knocking The Hobbit trilogy out of the public mind in the process. The 2010s arrived with Mark Zuckerberg as Time’s Person of the Year, and, incredible as it now sounds, a recent potential presidential candidate. Now Zuckerberg’s a Holocaust-denial excuser and crypto-sociopathic boogyman, and even avowed capitalists want to break Facebook up. Zuckerberg’ll make out just fine, but that arc should give us encouragement. We can learn. 

We can learn. When this decade began, I silently judged people who used too many exclamation points in an email. Now my heart is tenderer and I tack one on to every other sentence, plus I blurt out “I love you!” as a casual form of goodbye to people I barely know. There is hope. It is now, to paraphrase Slavoj Žižek, as easy to imagine the end of capitalism as it is to imagine the end of the world. We can make of that grim equation what we will, because we have no choice. Happy new year.

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