I have this theory that decades, from a historical perspective, don’t really start or end on the years that end in 0. A casual look at the last hundred years or so suggests that real changes in the zeitgeist don’t become apparent until the third or fourth year of any given decade.
That’s a facile rule, I know, and one full of exceptions. But if you cherry-pick the history, you can make a plausible case.
For example, it’s hard to argue that the memories we associate with the Sixties started on Jan. 1, 1960. It’s more like 1963, with the birth of Beatlemania and the Civil Rights movement coming to a head and the assassination of JFK. That was also the year the Viet Cong really became a thing – which would end up killing more than 50,000 Americans over the ensuing decade.
The seventies, in turn, didn’t start until 1973 or so, with the rise of Disco and the formal end of the Vietnam war and the beginning of the end of Richard Nixon in the form of Watergate. That was also when OPEC decided to school Americans in the laws of supply and demand and petroleum addiction – a hard lesson with which we still struggle.
Looking even further back, it may be that the Thirties didn’t really get rolling until 1933, when Hitler rose to power and the Great Depression reached its nadir and Prohibition ended.
You could argue that the terrible thirties only came to a close in 1942 or 43, when Hitler’s mojo was permanently punctured at Stalingrad and the Japanese took a beating at Midway. The forties then lasted until about 1953, with the inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower and the biggest economic expansion this country has ever known. Elvis had his first big hit the very next year. Talk about a historical marker.
More recently, maybe this new century didn’t start in 2000, but in 2003. You know, with the birth of Facebook, which turned out to be ground zero for this global pandemic we now call Social Media. It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic shift than that, especially coupled with the rise of the smartphone at around the same time. Then there was the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a debacle that continues to make all other American follies seem small by comparison.
All of which I ponder in these closing hours of 2023. History might judge this a big year too. It was the year Artificial Intelligence began to dominate the internet, and if you believe the many folks smarter than me, AI might turn out to be bigger than the Renaissance or the Industrial Revolution in its impact on humanity. Not in an especially good way, either. Then we’ve got the expanding wars in Gaza and the Ukraine, both of which now seem likely to explode the pre-2023 world order. Such as it was. This was also the year Taylor Swift conquered the world. I’m not sure what that portends, but it doesn’t feel like a bad thing just yet.
The coming year will be even more dramatic – for good or ill. How could it not be? It will decide whether the virus of Trumpism finally dissipates or mutates into something far worse. I have a bad feeling about it, but I take comfort in the fact that I’ve been wrong before. Either way, I will confidently predict that historians will long remember 2024. As will we all.