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 2000 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. We were warned that 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 likable 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, trying to make like a good sport, went along with this.
Oops. Eight years of satire ensued.
Satire, it must be said, does not prosper when the news is good. Perhaps the single most famous piece of satirical writing is Jonathan Swift's essay, "A Modest Proposal," written in 1729. 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 when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. The nation's comedians were knocked back on their heels, overwhelmed by what appeared to be an outbreak of national optimism.
This didn't last long.
Obama, like a pitcher facing a line-up of steroidal hitters — Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Raphael Palmiero, say, the very trio who donned suits and ties and appeared at a Congressional hearing in 2005 as see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil — hung a series of curve balls when he faced the country's Special Interests. The results? A home run for Wall Street, thanks to bailouts and lack of meaningful regulation. A home run for the Military Industrial Complex, thanks to escalations of the war in Afghanistan. And a home run for the health insurance industry, thanks to the elimination of anything like a public option.
Satire was back in flower.
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 in the morning 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, Georgia, and it's tee time at the Masters, to pull this off.
In another era, Woods' transgressions might have remained on the level of gossip and hearsay. They might have actually contributed a rakish angle to his persona, they way they did for JFK. Instead, Woods' flagrant inability to judge the company he kept turned him into a satirical punchline.
This was a decade in which public ownership of public figures reached new heights. Indeed, this was the one area in which the public came out ahead. Corporate interests might have been given greater hold over previously public lands, public resources might have been privatized, but the privacy of public figures became 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.