Editor's Note: David Hoppe is on vacation this week and we revisit a Hoppe column originally published Dec. 23, 2009.
I might have known what sort of decade this would be when good friends Ed and Sharon turned up at our front door on New Year's Eve 1999 wearing Groucho glasses. Satire was about to become the national style.
The truth — whatever that was — hurt. And so we laughed at it. The Onion became our newspaper of record. Jon Stewart became the most trusted anchorman since Walter Cronkite.
It started with Y2K, the idea that our computers were out to get us. As the clock turned to midnight and a new millennium began, our technologies would start to eat themselves, leaving us all in the dark, living off canned goods and singing the bits of songs to which we could still remember the words for entertainment.
This didn't happen. In fact, something like the opposite occurred: Our computers ate us.
Or we ate each other. This began with the first presidential election of the 21st century. Al Gore, who tried to make himself more likeable by satirizing himself on TV shows like Saturday Night Live, actually got the most votes that November. But the outcome in one state, Florida, was disputed. Votes were counted, recounted and lost in the shuffle. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of George W. Bush, making him, in effect our first appointed president. Al Gore, not wanting to further disrupt the country, or to show good sportsmanship, or something, went along with this.
Oops. Eight years of national disruption ensued. Satire thrived.
Satire, it must be said, does not prosper when the news is good. Perhaps the most famous piece of satirical writing is Jonathan Swift's essay, "A Modest Proposal," in which the author suggests that the destitute Irish turn their babies into food for their English masters. Let it suffice to say that Ireland, in those days, was in pretty bad shape.
By contrast, look at what happened toward the end of the Noughts, when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. The nation's comedians were seemingly knocked back on their heels, overwhelmed by what appeared to be an outbreak of national optimism.
But satire prevailed.
Obama, like a pitcher facing a line-up of steroidal hitters — Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Raphael Palmiero, say, the very ones who donned suits and ties and appeared at a Congessional hearing — hung a series of curve balls when he faced the country's Special Interests. The results? A home run for Wall Street, thanks to a bail out and lack of meaningful regulation. A home run for the Military Industrial Complex, thanks to an escalation of the war in Afghanistan.And a home run for the health insurance industry, thanks to the elimination of anything like a public option.
Obama, at least, could take comfort in his family. The same could not be said for The Athlete of the Decade, Tiger Woods. Woods, who was virtually raised on a golf course, dominated his sport the way few athletes can. But while golf can be a metaphor for life, it is not life itself — a subject where Woods has proven himself to have an outsized handicap. After crashing his Cadillac Escalade (gas guzzler of the decade for millionaire jocks) at 2:30 a.m. outside his Florida home, Woods reluctantly confessed to cheating on his wife with a conga line of bimbos. Now he says he'll take a break from competitive golf to see if he can patch up his marriage and make peace with his kids. The smart money bets he has until the spring, when the azaleas bloom in Augusta, Ga., and the Masters tournament begins.
In another era, Woods' transgressions might have remained on the level of gossip and hearsay. They might have actually contributed to his persona, the way they did for JFK. But this was also a decade in which public ownership of public figures reached new heights (or lows). Indeed, this might have been the one area in which the public actually cleaned up. Corporate interests might have been given greater hold over previously public lands and public resources might have been privatized, but the privacy of public figures became fair game, the bone the rest of us were thrown to gnaw upon.
And so off-the-wall misadventures of the rich and famous that once seemed trivial in the broader scheme of things assumed the stature of what, in junior high, we used to call "current events." Some decried this as prurient distraction and escapism.
But we were living through a time in which ice caps were melting, sea levels rising, deserts expanding and wild fires spreading. The decade closed with leaders from over 100 nations gathering in Copenhagen to try and think about the unthinkable things happening to our planet. The trouble, though, was that the unthinkable turned out to be just that.
Enter satire, Groucho glasses and all.