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A Name for the Decade: The Ooze

By / 12.31.2009

As the 2000s come to a close, prominent publications (here and here) have joined in the name game: what to call these nameless past ten years. This post, by former PPI stalwart Mark Ribbing, was originally published by PPI in August:

The time is coming to give this decade a name. We are four months from its end, and still we have no handy moniker that captures the spirit of the 2000’s, their odd blend of dislocation, dissolution and hope.

Back at the start of the millennium, commentators offered various spoken shorthands for the 00’s, but none have caught on. The most logical choice, “The Two-Thousands,” is unwieldy. Playing on the multiplicity of zeros, some pundits suggested “The Zeros” or even—in an antiquarian turn—“The Aughts.”

Others chose to see all those circles not as numbers, but as letters, and to pronounce them as such—“The Oh’s.” This, it turns out, was a step on the right track. But let’s consider a different pronunciation, one that captures not only the numerical identity of the 00’s, but also their historical essence: “The Ooze.”

This name’s been suggested before, mainly as a gag entrant in the dub-the-decade sweepstakes. Now it’s time for us to embrace its aptness for our times. Let us ponder ooze.

My desk version of Webster’s dictionary lists its first definition of “ooze” as a verb meaning “[t]o flow or seep out slowly, as through small openings.” The second is “[t]o vanish or ebb slowly,” and offers as an example the following phrase: “felt my confidence ooze away.”

But “ooze” is not just a verb for things that seep through small openings (like an infiltrating terrorist, or a flu virus) or for things that vanish or ebb over time (like Arctic ice, or the U.S. manufacturing-job base).

For “ooze” is also a noun. It is mud, goop, gunk, but its meaning goes a bit, well, deeper than that.

Back to the dictionary. It turns out that ooze is the “[m]udlike sediment covering the floor of oceans and lakes, composed mainly of the remains of microscopic animals.” In other words, it is the inert decayed matter of that which was once alive, and moving, and whole, however fragile it turned out to be.

This was our national condition all too often in the 2000’s—a perceptible wearing-away of living, intact structures that upheld our sense of security, liberty, prosperity, and mutual obligation.

This sense of national loss and unsettlement was a continual theme of the first eight years of the decade. It was an undercurrent running from the September 11 attacks to Hurricane Katrina, from the abuses at Abu Ghraib to the implosion of our financial sector.

Yet before we mire ourselves in pessimism, let us once again consider the floors of oceans and lakes, where microscopic beings settle and separate into the mud. The resulting stew is a vital staging ground for life itself. It is a place where ecosystems filter and regenerate themselves.

In short, ooze need not only signify decay. It can also represent the conditions for lasting growth and renewal—the kind that emerges from the ground up.

Such emergence is often hard to see at first. Ooze does not lend itself to clarity or rapid fruition. But down there, beneath the surface, things are happening that will one day become visible to the wide world.

Somewhere, a laid-off worker is taking her career into her own hands and starting up a new business. An abandoned building is reborn as a charter school. A vacant lot becomes part of the growing nationwide push toward local, sustainable sources of food.

The American instinct for renewal was crucial to Barack Obama’s electoral appeal, and it may yet manifest itself in a national willingness to confront such challenges as our deeply flawed health-care system, our educational dysfunction, and our increasingly costly dependence on fossil fuels. These are big problems, and anyone who expected them to be solved easily or without opposition has forgotten the basic truths of human nature, and of democracy.

What matters is this: Progress toward change is indeed taking place, on all of these fronts and others besides. That progress may seem too slow, and it may send its tendrils down the occasional dead-end channel, but it’s nourished by something quite real — a keen desire to see our nation do better, to reclaim its inventive, expansive soul. The Ooze is where we have been, and our future is forming in its depths, nourished by the broken shells of what had come before.