Over the past week or so, as we’ve approached the second year in the second decade of this century, my Twitter feed and various other corners of the internet have been rife with statements of relief to see 2010 end. The general feeling, out their in cyberville, appears to be that this was a particularly no-good year.
And I wonder: Has it really? Or, rather: Aren’t they all bad, give or take?
Surely other years have been seen bloody wars and diplomatic failures, high unemployment and the further enrichment of the rich. This was not the only year in which a sitting President, beloved by some, lost the midterm elections, and the political class spat rancor and spewed bile. Every year, we see rank xenophobia, catastrophic ignorance, and natural disasters. It’s in the nature of things for things to suck.
Of course, it’s also in the nature of things for us to take steps to decrease the suckage. Some years we’re better at this than others; occasionally, it seems to be entirely out of our hands. But mostly, we slog along and push ahead and grunt and groan and weep and gnash our teeth and try our best and bit by bit, we chip away at the worst of things, and slowly, the world gets better.
This year, we saw it in Health Care Reform and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. We saw it in crowds of Americans who stood against hatred and with their Muslim brothers and sisters. We saw it as the entire world held its breath and watched los mineros de Chile! emerge from the depths of what by rights should have been their grave. None of these events were perfect, and none of them promised a happily-ever-after to anyone. All left destruction, of one kind or another, in their wake.
But that’s the way we do. We can only be human. We can only keep trying — fucking up and trying, fucking up and trying.
In thinking about this tonight, I started to wonder what things looked like back when Americans were nearing the second decade of the last century — in part (I admit) because that’s when my house was built and I love wondering about the people who went before me, but mostly because there’s no better way to see how much things have improved, than to consider what life was like in the good old days.
So let’s start here: When my house was built, in the late 19-aughts, life expectancy for the American woman was a little better than 47 years (which is to say – I’d be nearly dead). For men, it was a touch more than 46, unless the men were African Americans, in which case, life expectancy was 33. The fourth leading cause of death was “diarrhea, enteritis, and ulceration of the intestine.”
The average worker put in nearly 60 hours a week, and much of the industrial revolution was being implemented by children. In 1909, the Cherry Mine Disaster saw 259 men and boys killed (more than half the mine’s workforce) when a massive fire trapped them underground; twelve would-be rescuers also died.
Only 97 Americans were killed in car accidents in that decade (there were only 8,000 cars), but 115 were lynched. In 1908, race riots erupted in Springfield, Illinois, stemming in part from a false accusation of rape (the accuser later admitted to lying to cover up an affair). The black business district was methodically destroyed, forty black homes burned, two black men lynched, and four whites died in days of melee — but then, “anti-black race riots in northern cities were nothing new in the first decade of the twentieth century.” After all, PBS tells us, “race [was] invoked to explain everything: individual character, the cause of criminality, and the natural superiority of ‘higher’ races.” Schools and baseball were segregated, and it goes without saying that Barack Obama would not have been able to vote, nor, indeed, allowed through the front door of the White House.
Hillary Clinton wouldn’t have been allowed to vote, either, and had she attended the first suffrage parade, in 1910, she would have likely be wearing an organ-crushing corset to define her waist. Higher education was almost unheard of for the women of the time — in 1900, 2.8% of American women attended college; twenty years later, that number had risen to 7.6%. And of course, for every 1,000 live births, six to nine women died in childbirth; about 100 of the babies would die before their first birthday.
All this, and Americans still hadn’t faced the First World War, the 1918 flu pandemic, the Great Depression, or the Second World War.
Do you know how long 100 years is? Zip. It’s the potential life-expectancy of a baby born today (and given that infant mortality rates have dropped more than 90% in the last century, those babies are already starting out with a better shot).
So, yeah: 2010 sucked.
It sucked, and we may decide ten years from now, or a hundred, that 2010 was more than sucky, it was abysmal. But then, 2020 and 2110 will likely suck, too.
Human history suggests, however, that as terrible as things always are, the suckage grows less over time — because we put our minds to making things better.
I agree: A lot about this year was nothing to write home about. I know I’m not the only blogger who failed to post now and then simply because the world was too ugly to look at.
But here’s to making 2011 better.
Peace out, and may you and yours have a very happy new year. May the good dreams come true, the bad dreams be buried, and friends and family hold fast and true!