A stolen election. Great skyscrapers falling. Meaningless wars in distant countries. Floodwaters destroying a great city. Acts of torture in American-made prisons. We had seen the sights and sounds of this decade before.
But only in the movies.
The decade won't technically end for another year, but people are calling this the end of the 00's, and with good reason. The past ten years have a structure, a form, a shape that could almost be mapped out in one of those Syd Field books for aspiring screenwriters. So at the risk of becoming a character myself - maybe the chatty old hobo who's seen "weird things" in the desert - let's recap our movie.
Act One: This is where the peaceful (home, neighborhood, town, etc.) of (a happy family, a New England hamlet, a North American nation) is suddenly taken over by (a murderous stepdad, an alien masquerading as the sheriff, a politico/corporate cabal) through the act of (marrying Mom, persuading the townsfolk he's a kindly lawman, rigging votes and manipulating the Supreme Court.) Act One establishes the peaceful scene beforehand and then shows the sudden invasion of the Other.
That was 2000-2001, as the prosperous Clinton years gave way to the coming darkness.
Act Two: A single, horrifying event crystallizes just how different things have become. In our story, that event is 9/11. We all felt the horror (and I lost friends). Act Two is where the antagonists reveal their true nature. In the story of the USA circa 2000 AD, the Other revealed itself through manipulation of tragedy for political ends, through invasion of our privacy, through the inception of a war via lies and manipulation, and through the use of torture methods so gothic even Stephen King might have had a hard time dreaming them up.
Act Two is also where some of our (family members, townsfolk, fellow citizens) show themselves to be shockingly willing to submit to the Other. In our story, too many politicians embraced the torture and spying. Journalists repeated lies without feeling any obligation to separate truth from fiction. Ancient freedoms and values were discarded without a second thought. Act Two is where the world seems wrapped in shadows, held fast in the grip of Evil.
That was 2002-2006.
Act Three: The Forces of Good appear on the scene. A glimmer of hope is seen amid the despair. In our case, the Democrats' electoral victories at the end of 2006 showed us that the voters of this country were not hopelessly enthralled to the forces of fear mustered by Cheney, Bush, and Rove. Maybe, we thought, just maybe, we can escape from the dark cloud that enshrouds us.
Then came the election of 2008, the hoped-for happy ending. Decisive electoral victories for the Democrats and, even more surprisingly, our first African-American President. At last the needless wars and gothic tortures were about to end. The invasion of our privacy was over. The corporate cabal that nearly hijacked a nation had been defeated. Progressives, and for that matter all Americans, could be forgiven for feeling like it was the concluding scene.
But wait. There's another horror-movie convention, one that people keep forgetting. It's that final plot twist, the last horrifying revelation that wrings a final scream out of the exhausted audience. You've seen it a hundred times: The ambulance driver taking the battered victims to the hospital grins ... and he has fangs. A close-up shows that the shambling, good-natured GI taking the townsfolk to safety has the marks of alien spores on his neck. The kindly stranger who's given you a bed for the night is really ... well, you get the idea.
The events of the last decade have been so eerie and strange, so unreal, that people can be forgiven for thinking it might have been a movie. And if the horror has been cinematic, it stands to reason that the conclusion would be, too. But instead, all is not well in Happy Ending Land. The invaders of our civil liberties are being protected. A pointless war drags on. Health reform is being co-opted by cynical politicians and special interests. What else can it be but a Horror-Twist ending to a Horror-Movie Decade?
But here's the thing: We're not in a movie. Sure, silly journalists and right-wing politicians want to believe we're in a war flick. That means they can flash their credit cards, get a new Burberry's trench coat, and hold a photo op in the latest combat zone. But we're not in a war film or a horror film.
And if this isn't a movie, there are no heroes. And no demonic invaders. If the President and the Democrats aren't fearless protagonists, they're certainly not vampire medics or alien-infested soldiers. They're politicians. Sometimes they'll do what we believe is best, and often they won't. They're part of a cash-dominated political system, so it's inevitable that they'll disappoint us sometimes. It makes no sense to idolize them or to assume that whatever they're doing is the best we can expect.
But it doesn't make sense to demonize them, either. This isn't a clash between good and evil. It's a difference of opinion and a clash of interests. After all, the #1 interest of any politician is re-election.
As the philosophical old hobo in our movie, allow me to offer a moral for our story, as all such characters do: To idolize politicians is to become a follower. To demonize them is to become a victim. So, let's do neither. Instead, let's consider them tools to be used for the greater good. Help them do the right things and make it difficult for them to do the wrong things, acting without undue loyalty or resentment toward anyone.
Because if this is a movie, the only protagonists are us.
RJ Eskow blogs when he can at: