x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The Noughties: A decade summed up rather poetically

It is Auden's pithy description in his poem of the 1930s - 'a low dishonest decade' - that really crystallises the era that gasps its last breath tonight.

Rarely, if ever, does a piece of poetry seize the attention of the US public, but after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, it was a 62-year-old poem that began in a bar that accomplished the unheard-of. "I sit in one of the dives/On Fifty-second Street/Uncertain and afraid," WH Auden, reacting to the start of the Second World War, wrote in his poem "September 1, 1939". The reasons for the poem's resonance are plain, not least in its description of how the "unmentionable odour of death/Offends the September night" and its bold injunction that "we must love one another or die".

As we say goodbye to the decade, it is worth recalling Auden's poem, but not because it distils what is for many the era's most pivotal event. It is Auden's pithy description in his poem of the 1930s - "a low dishonest decade" - that really crystallises the era that gasps its last breath tonight. How "low" and "dishonest"? Even a cursory accounting of the dreadful decade's swindles, deceptions and flimflams would fill all the pages of today's newspaper. So would a listing of its more prominent liars, juicers, scammers, spin artists and con men.

In the opening hurrah of the 21st century, it seems, if they pitched it, we usually bought it. We were spun, bamboozled and lied to so often in the past 10 years that it is a wonder that we trust anyone. Biography and hagiography became virtually indistinguishable, and success at "reinventing yourself" became the ultimate accolade the media could confer. In the financial world, it was a decade that began with the collapse in 2001 of Enron in the United States.

The Houston-based energy company had convinced corporate America and almost everyone else, it seems, that it was in possession of a financial Holy Grail; Fortune magazine had named it "America's most innovative company" for six straight years. It turned out that Enron executives were especially "innovative" with something called "special-purpose entities", which were designed to remove debt from its balance sheet, unscrupulously and illegally. The entities - this should have been a tipoff - were named after Star Wars characters.

One would have thought that the lessons of Enron would have rippled across the financial world and down through the rest of the decade. Wrong. Instead, the decade ended with an unfazed Lloyd Blankfein, the chairman and chief executive of the investment firm Goldman Sachs, claiming divine sanction. Mr Blankfein recently told John Arlidge of The Times of London that he was just a banker "doing God's work" to sustain the free-market system.

What is striking is the gap between the "tiller-in-the-field" image that Mr Blankfein was keen to project and his firm's immodest acquisitiveness in a year of record job layoffs and economic recession in many parts of the world. After earning billions flogging credit default swaps and other inexplicably exotic financial instruments, as well as being a beneficiary of a US$12 trillion (Dh44trillion) infusion of US taxpayer money into the banks and the economy, Goldman was on course to set aside more than $20 billion for salaries and bonuses, according to Arlidge.

Many were willing to cut Goldman slack lest another purported pillar of the financial community be further tarnished. Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone magazine was not. In July, he memorably described the firm as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money". Nowhere were we taken so often in the past decade - and with such deadly consequences - than in the realm of politics. Two lies smoothed the way for the wasteful 2003 invasion of Iraq, the first that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and the second that he harboured or gave aid to members of al Qa'eda.

The machinations associated with the US-led "war on terror" are still only dimly known, but slowly, they are emerging. This month, for instance, a Lithuanian parliamentary committee reported that the CIA had set up two secret detention centres for terrorism suspects in that eastern European country in 2004 and 2005. Poland and Romania have already been reported as sites of similar centres. In short, to circumvent domestic law, Washington was willing to exploit the still weak legal institutions and unaccountable security agencies of former Soviet bloc countries whose repression it deplored and freedom it demanded during the Cold War.

When it came to Israel, the credulousness of US and European politicians remained unstinting, even as Israel expanded Jewish settlements in the West Bank and made increasingly untenable any hope of an independent Palestinian state. That willingness to suspend disbelief was apparent most recently in November, when the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, told Barack Obama, the US president, that Israel was ready to be generous in scaling back West Bank settlements.

No western official apparently thought to ask: "If not now, when?" Like a false physique produced by steroids, the costs of a decade awash in hype will not disappear overnight. The consequences of near global financial collapse and the profligate war in Iraq, which that hype and suspension of disbelief helped produce, are likely to endure for years. For this "low dishonest decade" soon to pass into history, Auden provides little solace. "All I have is a voice/To undo the folded lie,/The romantic lie in the brain/ Of the sensual man-in-the-street/And the lie of Authority/ Whose buildings grope the sky."

cnelson@thenational.ae