Recently, a writer in The New York Review of Books characterized 2019 as “dystopian.” If he believes that 2019 is dystopian, then how might he characterize 1919, 1929, 1939, and the other ninth years of decades between then and now?
In 1919, a segregationist was serving as president, Jim Crow laws governed race relations, and the flawed Treaty of Versailles set the table for World War II. The year marked the tail end of the Spanish Flu epidemic, which killed about half a million Americans, and it also saw the enactment of Prohibition—which, depending on one’s perspective, could be utopian or dystopian. Ten years later, 1929 saw the stock market crash that prefigured the Great Depression, during which the U.S. unemployment rate would reach 25 percent.
In 1939, Nazi Germany allied with the Soviet Union, and the two nations invaded Poland, starting World War II. Japanese atrocities in China, commencing earlier in the decade, continued unchecked. In 1949, the Soviet Union tested a nuclear bomb and blockaded Berlin, Mao came to power in China, the FBI ramped up domestic political surveillance of Communists, and Howard Unruh, a New Jersey war veteran, killed 13 of his neighbors in 12 minutes, one of the first of the random mass killings that would come to menace modern American life.
In 1959, the U.S. and Soviet Union pointed thousands of nuclear-armed missiles at each other and the first American advisors were killed in Vietnam; 1969 marked continued American involvement in the Vietnam quagmire, government surveillance of student protests, and the Manson killings; and in 1979, the Islamic Revolution took control of Iran, with some of its adherents seizing the U.S. embassy in Tehran and holding the diplomatic staff hostage while the U.S. economy struggled with high inflation, no economic growth and fast-rising interest rates.
Getting closer to our present day, 1989 saw the Berlin Wall fall and Eastern Europe liberated—making a good case for a happy year ending in “9.” But that same year, China mowed down protestors in Tiananmen Square. Ten years later, in 1999, Vladimir Putin took power in Russia, and the specter of a global computer meltdown caused by the Y2 glitch spread concern verging on panic. In 2009, the Great Recession and the loss of 800,000 jobs per month induced the American government to spend trillions of dollars in order to prevent economic collapse.
Each of those decades had more pollution and less per capita income than we have today. We have our problems in 2019, but it’s by no means “dystopian” compared with all but one or two of those years.
The good old days were never as good as people want to believe. Rather than inflate the past, focus on improving the present.