The Explainer: The Noughties

That was Queen Victoria’s funeral in 1901. The writer H.G. Wells said that when she died, it was as if a giant paperweight had been lifted off people’s minds, and ideas began to blow around like so many papers scattered in the wind.

Las year was such a traumatic year, it’s easy to overlook how this year ushers in the end of the of the first decade of the 21st Century. And so tonight I thought we’d pause to ask, how will we recall the first decade of the new century? Let’s look at the past decade, not as a catalog of events but instead, to see if there’s a theme to be found.

Let’s be Noughty –not naughty- tonight. What’s the difference? Stay tuned. I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.




Let’s start with a problem: how do we refer to the first decade of a century? It gets easier with the 20s, 30s, 40s,  but what about the first two decades? The Oh-ohs? The Preteens? Followed the Teens? In his column, Michael Tan decided to adopt the term coined by the British newspaper, The Guardian: The Noughties, from Nought, or Zero.

Except as Richard Evans of the Guardian pointed out, in our rush to mark the new millennium, the Noughties began in 2000 and ended last year; the Teens begin this year. But that means the 20th Century only had 99 years. Oh well. These things happen.

Even as people debate what to call the decade that just ended –or whether it ended last year or ends this year- the January 2 Inquirer editorial pointed out that most of us consider last year to have been so bad, 89 percent of us,according to an SWS survey, are optimistic about 2010. We should be optimistic, the Inquirer says, because we have a chance to elect a new government.

But as this Free Press editorial cartoon by the late EZ Izon from the early 1960s shows, looking forward to change also means looking back at the broken promises of elections. We mark our lives by cycles of 10 –by decades- more than by the electoral cycle; and if that’s the case, ask yourself, what will be the iconic picture of the Noughties?

In the 1970s the iconic image was of the strongman, of dictatorship.

The iconic image of the 1980s was of People Power, and toppling dictatorship.

The iconic image of the 1990s was the baby tigerhood of our newly-restored democracy, the potential of economic progress.

And what promised to be the iconic image of the Noughties, at first, seemed to be this: the populist revenge of the underclass, left out of the 1990s economic boom.

Then it seemed the iconic image would be this: People Power II, except that over the last few years the government has tried to downplay and even disown, Edsa Dos.

Could this, then, be the iconic image of the Noughties, since officials want to erase Edsa Dos? Will the first decade of the 2st Century go down in history as a catalog of increasingly ridiculous military demonstrations like the Peninsula Caper?

Or will the iconic image be this: of the young post-Edsa generation overcoming the disillusioning effects of Edsa Dos, and reclaiming their place in the streets and in the public arena?

Or will it be this already famous image from the Boston Globe, of how officials and ordinary citizens, rich and poor alike on all sides of the political divide, were as ants in the face of natures wrath?

Newspapers of record like the Inquirer chronicle, on their front pages, the worst that humanity can do, whether well-intentioned political bumbling;

Or events that get bogged down in debates over whether they were simply freak accidents or cold-blooded acts of terrorism;

Or greed taking people with it to the grave, and our institutions being unable to do anything really serious about it.

One thing is sure: this is the picture officialdom wants as iconic: a glorious regime, but out of the mouths of babes, as they say, come the darndest things. One of these prett little kids tolds over the weekend, “I want grandma to be president forever.”

And that, sad to say, is the dominant theme or the Noughties: rightly or wrongly, intentionally or not; while image that will be iconic still has to be determined, the theme’s already in a sense, set in stone. If, in 2001 to 2004, the President was in a sense held captive by allies,

Since 2004 she’s taken down allies too big for their britches one by one. Along the way, each point scored by the president’s led to a public counterpoint.

Every means has been tried to find a way to change things but each path’s ended up problematic. If you had People’s Initatives,

You had scrutiny by the public and the courts that threw out those initiatives.

Culminating in public protest over official acts, specially when Congress tried to get into the act.

If you had officials trying to damage control by handing out CDs, or issuing statements,

You had legislators trying to scrutinize those actions, but each attempt at oversight led to new and creative executive tactics to keep a lid on things.

Which in turn led to frustrated people going out into the streets to express indignation.

If you had officials coming up with schemes to fight what they considered destabilizers, by any means necessary,

Again it provoked a hornet’s nest of outrage each and every time, even if officials mocked the outrage as the usual statements by the usual suspects.

And even the built-in safety valves of our society, elections, ended up becoming pressure points themselves.

Which only emboldened officials to propose changing elections as we know them, in tur provoking people to oppose such proposals as self-serving.

Along the way, the theme has become larger than a single chief executive, it’s become in many ways about institutions being in the hands of experts, the politicians, and a public unable to do anything about it aside from symbolic expressions of distaste.

Whether Christian or Muslim, the crudest expression of the political pros has hogged the headlines, too: and underscores the theme of the incumbents doing anything, even if it involves a backhoe, to get rid of a problem.

But some problems won’t go away; they refuse to die. Like Joseph Estrada, who was bumped off the political stage in 2001, they continue to want to make a come back and thus, divides us still.

Since 2001, all questions have ended up returning to Edsa, whether Dos or Tres.

The decade has seen the main cast of characters get older, and the candidates for iconic picture of the decade just get more and more surreal.

But there are other candidates too: we aren’t just divided politically, we are divided spiritually; we are divided over whether our society should be more secular, or retreat into the limbo that recognizes no line separating church and state.

We’re divided on how to deal with the rest of the world and the powerful nations that have gotten used to dictating terms. E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post calls this, the first decade of the 21st Century, the “squandered decade.” He’s writing from an American perspective, of course: but the same could be said of us.

The Noughties has been a decade of survival: of leaders trying to ensure their survival, of our democracy trying to survive, of our poor, our OFWs, our middle class, trying to survive mismanagement at home and economic crises abroad. And yet overall, its, sad to say, Apolinario Mabini said at the turn of the 20th Century what can be said of the first decade of this new one:

“To sum it up,” he wrote in La Revolucion Filipina, “ the Revolution failed because it was badly led; because its leader won his post by reprehensible rather than meritorious acts; because instead of supporting the men most useful to the people, he made them useless out of jealousy. Identifying the aggrandizement of the people with his own, he judged the worth of men not by their ability, character and patriotism but rather by their degree of friendship and kinship with him; and anxious to secure the readiness of his favorites to sacrifice themselves for him, he was tolerant even of their transgressions. Because he thus neglected the people forsook him; and forsaken by the people, he was bound to fall like a waxen idol melting in the heat of adversity. God grant we do not forget such a terrible lesson, learnt at the cost of untold suffering.”

When we return we’ll talk with a veteran columnist and political scientist, about his view on what the enduing theme of the first decade has been.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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