January 29, 2010

A new decade, a new word

Our neighbor Lorraine Collins always has an interesting perspective on a wide range of topics. Here's another that should catch your interest -- and perhaps spur a comment or two. Her commentaries appear regularly in the Black Hills Pioneer, and this one helped launch us into the 21st century. She graciously allows us to share it with on-line readers here.


I was one of those who thought that the first decade of the 21st Century wouldn't be completed until the end of 2010. When we start counting, we begin with the number one, after all, and when sorting things by tens, whether years or pennies, we end with the number 10. So why was everyone insisting that 2009 ended a decade? I suppose it was because we started with zero, or three of them, in 2000. So by 2009 we'd lived through ten years, and thus a decade, but it still didn't seem right to me.

A decahedron has ten faces, a decagon has ten angles and ten sides, and the Ten Commandments are a Decalogue. Knowing all this, it's just hard for me to accept that the number 9 ended a decade. I'll have to get used to it, I know. Just as I've had to accept the fact that when people talk about an event that "decimated" a town, they really mean it devastated the town, not that only 10% was ruined. Originally, I believe the word decimate meant that a conqueror would line up the defeated troops and count off, selecting every tenth one to be killed. In this case, only those unlucky fellows would be decimated and the other 9 in the group were spared.

At the end of one decade and the beginning of another, pundits and prognosticators have a tendency to recall momentous events of the previous ten years and try to predict what the next ten years will bring. I read and heard quite a few of these the first week of January. There was some hope for peace and prosperity, for the end of the wars, the flourishing of science and art, the building of a stable economy. Of course others predicted even more armed conflicts, natural disasters and the disintegration of civilization as we know it. Given the violent attack on our homeland, economic collapse, and the misguided adventure of invading Iraq, we can see why Apocalyptic predictions do have a certain appeal. Enough bad things happened in the last decade to make us fear what might happen in this one.

So, are we getting better and better every day, or are we just waiting for the next catastrophe to show up as a distant blip on our radar screens, moving inexorably and ominously closer? In a delightful book titled "Archie and Mehitabel" written by Don Marquis early in the 20th Century, he wrote that "An optimist is a guy that has never had much experience." By now I've had a lot of experience, but I'm going to be optimistic anyway. I'm going to be optimistic because I think maybe we are actually going to start paying attention to something called accountability.

I tend to think that citizens in the United States and several other countries are fed up with lame excuses and such non-accountable explanations as "mistakes were made." We've heard too much of that over the last decade. We're fed up with people, whether on Wall Street or Washington or in state government or in business not being held accountable, not accepting personal responsibilities for their actions. This gives me some reason for optimism, if not "irrational exuberance."

When people start demanding accountability, not only from those in positions of political and economic power, but from themselves, and how they conduct their lives and the decisions they make, then I do think there's hope for the future. Democracies depend on an informed and literate population, which means people have to think, to be able to distinguish mindless rants from reasoned argument, and to be willing to hold themselves as well as their leaders accountable.

If there's a word I want to hear in this new decade, it's accountability. Let's see how much of that we find in this new year of the new decade. It may tell us how the other nine years will go.

Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish. She can be contacted at collins1@rushmore.com.

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