Home > Critic-At-Large > End of the Year As We Know It
End of the Year As We Know It
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
I'm always astonished at how quickly cable television is able to take current events and repackage them into historical perspective programming — it's a full three weeks before 2010, and I've already seen a 2009 restrospective of shocking/notable events that happened the past year. This commitment to immediacy meant that the program whiffed on the biggest scandal of 2009; namely, Tiger Woods' remarkably prurient sex fiasco. I'm sure the producers are kicking themselves for not waiting a bit longer for the show's starting date. But audiences for end-of-the-year anthologies are so strong that cable channels rush shows into production well before all the stories have been told. I have no doubt that this lapse will be rectified in 2010, though, and I expect a number of hour-long, hard-hitting, "news" programs devoted entirely to the scandal to begin airing in January on all the celebrity cable channels.
It's hard to believe now, but the "Biography" channel once devoted many hours of airtime to legitimate, history-making heavy hitters — Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Albert Einstein. In recent years, though, the channel as focused on profiling ridiculous pop-culture blips, giving a full hour of programming to Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, the Olsen twins. What is remarkable about this trend isn't the insipidness of the people featured, but rather the impossibly short lag time between the subjects infamy and their enshrinement into the public record. It is a curious, modern phenomenon, the need to place the most trivial of modern instances into some sort of immediate perspective. It's like the nation has developed the attention span of a fruit fly, and can't distinguish the noise of the current from the relevance of historical precedence.
There's no point in getting upset about bad television, I know, but it's worth noting that the arrogance suggested by this short-sighted thinking extends everywhere. After President Bush left office in 2009, a flurry of instant polls appeared in newspapers and the internet, asking, pointedly, if the much-maligned president was the "Worst" in U.S. history. A strong number of Americans responded, and not surprisingly, a large percentage reported that, indeed, the 43rd president was the worst of all time.
The arrogance of this contemporary judgment is amazing--to properly place a president's achievements or failures in context requires years, if not decades, of perspective and study. It requires intellectual rigor and an educated analysis of causation and effect, and the data would need to accumulate over a lengthy period of time. A snap judgment days after the president's term has ended is of absolutely no value. And you can't help but wonder how well versed the respondents were of the political achievements of Warren Harding, Ulysses S. Grant, Herbert Hoover, to make such a comparison. A person more cynical than I might even suggest that many respondents probably didn't know if those three men ever occupied the office. The only rational response to the poll, therefore, is to reject the premise of the question. There is no answer.
But historical perspective and well-reasoned arguments are hard sells in an attention-challenged age. As we approach January and the end of the "aught" decade, be prepared for immediate assessments of what 2000-2009 "meant" in historical terms. We will get the usual, instant pronouncements about the impact of the previous decade, and it's a sure bet that they will be as simplistic and inaccurate as judgments were of other decades. There is a prevalent "Time-Life" approach to looking at American history today, a method that reduces the complexity of each era to simple images and phrases — the 50's were Eisenhower and innocence, the 60's were Woodstock and turbulence. It is an absurd view, to pigeon-hole the grand and intricate landscape of history into snapshots, to reduce a large epoch into convenient, ten-year demarcations.
The 50's weren't nearly so innocent — domestic violence was chronically unnoticed, and heinous racial hate crimes still occurred regularly throughout the South. Similarly, the 60's are commonly referred to as the counter-culture decade, but really, how prevalent was hippie culture? Looking at the newsreels make you believe it was ubiquitous, but remember, the un-hippielike Richard Nixon was president, Ronald Reagan was governor of California, and the John Birch Society was flourishing. Not exactly the hippest group of radicals, that. No matter how compelling it is to generalize, historical simplification is never accurate. History will always refuse to lie still. I went to college in the 80's, and I kept my eyes opened, but damned if I can recall a single pair of cargo pants or anyone with a Flock of Seagulls haircut.
There will be one event that historians will point to as the most newsworthy of the decade, and that, obviously, is the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. It will be interesting to see how accurate the assessments of that day will be in future years. Already I'm sensing a willingness to misinterpret the ramifications of that day's horrible events. The history books will claim that modern history was changed irrevocably after the planes hit the towers that day, but I'm wondering if that is a true statement. Like most Americans, I was shocked and horrified by the attacks. I was fearful for my country. I was concerned for the future. And then, a week later, I wasn't. Suddenly, shockingly, I wasn't. My angst lasted seven days, and no more. It would be dramatic to say that I was scarred by the day, but outside of removing my shoes at airports, I never think of it.