Frank Rich gets it right more often than not, and his column in the Times last Sunday swept the entire decade into a neat little dustpan and dumped it in the garbage. His insight is that Tiger Woods is truly the person of the decade, a fraud capping a decade of frauds that started with Enron, wound its way through a phony war, went broke with phony financiers, and concluded with a phony hero. Fortunately Rich ended with a spiritual and uplifting finale that, at least for me, had me singing on the way out of the theatre.
Actually, in the spirit of Rich's phony decade, I lied about that last part. There was no happy conclusion to his piece. But it caused me to keep wondering -- why are we so untethered? What happened to the basic judgment of a previously sensible people?
Authors swim in the memes of the times. If there are strong currents, we go with them and occasionally bring understanding to the great issues of the day. But when we are surrounded by eddy currents, we too find ourselves stuck in little currents, unable to find the great tide that, as Shakespeare said, "When taken at the flood, leads on to fortune."
Before the era when the New York Times was distributed to its printers around the country electronically, all of the papers were printed in and around Manhattan. On any Sunday, airplanes would leave New York, weather permitting, and the massive bundles would spread out across the country, bringing a measure of coherency to many of the major memes that flowed through the culture. At the very least, the Times provided a sensible, apparently complete view of what had happened in the past week. And it also provided an agenda for the near future.
Later, the roll-out of the Sunday Times became almost simultaneous and national. On the West Coast, that meant our Sundays could start earlier. We were even more in sync with New York. That phase has mysteriously eroded away with the onset of the Internet. That steady weekly pulse of the Sunday Times has given way to a continuous flow of information from an infinite number of sources. The Times as authority has been drowned out. No institution has taken its place.
We find ourselves in a new Wild Wild West, and, as predicted, the snake oil salesmen are having a grand time of it --those rubes will believe anything and buy anything. We might take some comfort in remembering what came next: newspapers arrived in those frontier towns, courageous reporters, editors and publishers began to shine a light on the forces of corruption and to rally public opinion on the side of good (sometimes.) The towns eventually hired sheriffs, and built jails. Judges rode the circuit and dispensed justice.
Fortunately, order will prevail over the current chaos. Visionary and courageous publishers in all media will invest mightily to make the most of the new opportunities. A New New York Times, either on the ashes of the old or a new enterprise altogether, will arise. Out of the sheer force of brilliant and persistent reporting, deep commentary, and visionary leadership, the nation will find its way once again. Memes will cohere, and authenticity will once again be the currency of the culture. That's the way it's going to be. Really. Trust me.
A Merry Christmas to all those celebrating, and Happy Holidays to all!