The Decade's Missed Opportunities

How to best sum up the first decade of this century? Frank Rich, the New York Times columnist, recently used the Tiger Woods story to suggest that the 00's were years of fantasy and denial, where we believed what we wanted to believe, despite facts and evidence. He's right.

I'd broaden Rich's analysis to focus on the result of our cognitive dissonance: A decade in which we missed historic opportunities to change course - opportunities that are rare and precious. Big events repeatedly offered us a chance to step onto the road less traveled - a road we can walk together to a better, more just, more sustainable, and more peaceful future. Yet we took familiar, often foolish paths.

The '00s began with a presidential election that highlighted the deep, structural flaws in our electoral system. That includes an Electoral College scheme that excludes two-thirds of Americans - those living in "safe states" - from meaningful participation in choosing a president, makes a mockery of the democratic principle of "one person, one vote," and enables partisan shenanigans in one closely divided state to change the national outcome.

But we did little. Politicians elected under the current system are loathe to change "what brung 'em," lofty speeches about democracy notwithstanding. Despite new awareness, and the tireless of efforts of dedicated reformers, no broad-based movement for democracy reform was born. The system remains largely the same.

The murder of innocents on September 11 created an historic opportunity to rally the world to a new way forward, one in which international cooperation routinely triumphs over division, conflict and war. Much of humanity stood by our side, ready for bold American leadership. Instead, led by small-minded ideologues, we further entrenched militarism and violence as acceptable tools of foreign policy, and the opportunity soon vanished. We rewarded those ideologues with four more years in office.

We bombed and invaded two nations, killing hundreds of thousands, displacing millions, spending trillions. And for much of the decade, our use of mechanized, high-tech violence has been just another story on the news - and rarely the lead story.

Has the result of this bloodshed been greater security? At decade's end, a hapless criminal intent on murder - and known to our intelligence services - bought a plane ticket with cash, traveled internationally with no luggage, and still boarded an aircraft with a bomb.

When more than 1,000 of America's poor and mostly black residents of New Orleans died during Hurricane Katrina, we were outraged - at incompetent decision-makers and our own indifference to poverty and injustice. In our national anguish, we vowed to address systemic poverty across America. Have we? Today, the gap between rich and poor is wider, more families survive on food stamps, and long-term unemployment has skyrocketed.

In the latter half of the decade, a financial system that handsomely compensates those who make money on money led us to disaster, hollowed out our economy, eliminated millions of jobs, and destroyed the savings of tens of millions. Our response? We rewarded the perpetrators with bailouts and trillions in low-interest loans they quickly flipped into easy profits by doing the same things they always do. Fool me once? Twice? A thousand times?

Have we used this opportunity for substantial change? It seems not. We continue to focus too much of our wealth of human capital - creativity, ingenuity, imagination, compassion - on production and consumption and growth-at-all-costs, rather than on solving longstanding, intractable problems. (See "poverty," above.) We do this even as we learn, day by day, how our extractive, consumption-based economy pushes our fragile ecosystems to the brink.

The decade was capped by a president accepting a peace prize with a speech defending war, an address that wholly misrepresented and ignored successful, nonviolent movements for change in eastern Europe and elsewhere. He perpetuated the myth that a just cause can be advanced justly with violence - a belief shared by murderous fanatics.

Will the next decade be different? Will we seize opportunities for change instead of being distracted by pop-culture spectacle or retreating into the short-term comfort of denial? Can we move away from greed, competition, consumerism, and violence - and toward community, sustainability, commonwealth, and love?

Of course we can. Opportunity exists in every moment, should we choose - individually and collectively - to seize it.

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