F or a laugh, Google “Y2K panic.” It all seems so innocent now—really, anything before 9/11 seems like it happened a very long time ago. There was the Ohio family, chronicled in Time magazine in 1999, that had stored away a couple of rifles, a shotgun, and a handgun. Mom was learning basic dentistry and field medicine … just in case. Dad was shutting off the power to see how many appliances could run on a portable generator. Then, in the early days of the World Wide Web, even postapocalyptic prophecies seemed more innocent. Tim LaHaye, who, along with a former sportswriter named Jerry Jenkins, was selling millions of copies of the Left Behind novels, which predicted a cataclysmic Second Coming, warned that Y2K could “very well trigger a financial meltdown, leading to an international depression, which would make it possible for the Antichrist or his emissaries to establish a one-world currency or a one-world economic system, which will dominate the world commercially until it is destroyed.”
Rationalists like us laughed at all this, and of course the world didn’t end. But now it’s ten years later, and we’ve had to tolerate the Bush presidency—born amid what was essentially a Supreme Court coup—9/11, the Iraq War, global jihad, the collapse (almost but not quite, but maybe still) of the global financial system (thanks, Dubai!), states dancing dangerously close to bankruptcy, and an ongoing global quasi depression whose ramifications we’re only now starting to glean. Even if you don’t believe Lloyd Blankfein is the Antichrist presaged in the Left Behind books, it’s hard to argue that there wasn’t at least some animating folk wisdom to the Y2K panic.
Y2K may not literally have happened, but the fear that underlay the panic—that of a dangerously matrixed, overleveraged world, open to massive self-compounding error, vulnerable to manipulation by unseen forces—seems, given recent events, to be pretty spot-on. Most important, the nagging sense that the agents of chaos are now so diffuse and powerful that no central authority can counteract them is no longer something just kooks believe.
The aughts were one of those decades that will be looked back on as transformational. Considered metaphorically, it was a big-bang decade; the center exploded (literally), shooting power, opportunity, and status to the margins, culturally, geographically, financially. Most of the promise, and peril, of the digital revolution, despite the naysaying in the wake of the 2000 dot-com bust, proved true by 2009, creating huge opportunities for people (mostly younger) who understood the potential of subcontracting their lives to the digital cloud and beginning to disenfranchise people (mostly older) who persisted in analog. In a decade when institutions failed us one after the other—Bush was arguably the worst president in history; Wall Street was revealed (again) largely as a semi-legal cabal—opportunities went to the self-reliant, the self-starters, the hustlers. Whether we wanted to, or had to, we all become “brands of one.”
Like a movie that doesn’t show you the monster until the last 30 minutes, the aughts kept the leviathan hidden until almost the end. Despite 9/11, despite the dot-com crash, despite Iraq, life in the aughts was pretty swinging, even in (or especially in) New York, which fully shed the baggage of urban fear that dogged it well into the nineties. Murder rates continued to drop as Harlem and even parts of the Bronx became gentrified. Restaurants grew glammier and ever more overproduced. The meatpacking district, a place where people used to get rolled by transvestite hookers on their way to Florent, made the world a safe place for hordes of international douchenozzles (indeed, the word douche came back into vogue, probably as a result of the proliferation of hellish clubs here and in the West Twenties, which filled the city with all manner of nightlife detritus). Wall Street players and hedge-funders splashed mad cash on bottle service before taking the after-party back to their ever more excessively outfitted eight-figure pads. Meanwhile, smug Brooklynites of a certain age turned a once down-at-the-heels borough into a stroller-jammed bobo paradise as Brooklynites of a certain other age grew significant facial hair and pursued parent-supported lifestyles in Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and once-blighted Bushwick, creating art installations, digital mix tapes, and ostentatiously handcrafted somethings that they put up for sale on Etsy. For all of us, it felt a bit like a fool’s paradise, and that in the end is what it turned out to be.
Elsewhere in the country, this paradise never really achieved full flower, and the aughts’ rapidly metastasizing cultural and economic order hit home much earlier. Those feeling left behind manifested their fear in increasingly noisy paranoia. Movement Republicans and conservative Christians were uncannily early in channeling this new undercurrent of fear. Their ping-ponging fifth-column attacks—Fox News to Drudge to Breitbart, drawing on daily talking points from the “GOP Theme Team”—on mainstream-media institutions like the New York Times and network news, combined with the Bush administration’s contempt for “reality-based” analyses of world politics (to use an unnamed presidential senior adviser’s deathless 2004 coinage), were almost Stanley Fish–ian in their postmodern sophistication: The attacks were never on the facts. The attacks were on the idea of truth itself. Truthiness was Stephen Colbert’s word of the day on his debut broadcast in October 2005, at the height of Bush insanity. “Fair & Balanced”—Fox News’s tagline—was another brilliant joke. Only enraged liberals didn’t see the humor. Of course Fox News was not fair and balanced. But the subtext of the joke was: What is? The “truther” movement argued that the real story behind 9/11 was being hidden from the public. A 2006 Zogby poll found that 42 percent of those polled believed the 9/11 Commission was covering something up. Sarah Palin’s 2008 vice-presidential candidacy was not so much filled with lies—all politicians lie. It lived in a separate universe of meaning (post-truth?) inhabited by voters who believed that facts, at least those recognized by the Establishment, were hopelessly compromised.