It ain’t all pretty, but 2009 looks a lot better than anything this millennium has witnessed so far. As in all things psychological and political, the signs point every which way. So here are my predictions — some grim, some gleeful, some substantiated and some woven of the holey cloth of dreams. Here’s to a really new New Year.
Class struggle, welcome back
“JUMP, you fuckers!” This placard, carried at a September rally protesting the financial industry bailout, may be too explicit for some of you random-acts-of-kindness practitioners. But its underlying sentiment is probably a healthy one.
Admit it. Unless you’re a hedge-fund investor laying off your gardeners or listing your yacht on Craigs-list, your heart is not flooded with compassion for the Masters of the Universe whose universe has suddenly deflated. You are not moved to tears by the suicide of Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, the financier ruined by Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. The Villehuchets were so rich they lent money to Louis XIV; for such crimes many of them ended up on the wrong edge of the guillotine blade. Yet Rene-Thierry believed that the rich would forever get richer, and never pay.
Sisters and brothers, you are feeling a scintilla of schadenfreude, that slightly guilty pleasure in the misfortune of those who justly deserve it. Savor the emotion. The baby bankers throwing back $20 martinis in SoHo, the private-plane weekend commuters cluttering up Vermont’s woods with their 40,000-square-foot ski chalets, complaining all the while about their property taxes — these people’s needs and values have afflicted the rest of us long enough. Then crank your spite up to anger, a necessary ingredient of class struggle.
Not to worry, post-partisans. The U.S. isn’t on the verge of condemning Bill and Melinda Gates to the fate of the anciens Villehuchets. But when John McCain failed to convince voters that ending the Bush tax cuts would lead directly to Venezuelan-style communism, we may have witnessed Americans waking up to which side they are on. (Note to Joe the Plumber: I didn’t know Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, but I know you’re no Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet).
You’re a Wall Street investor? Me, too. Don’t let that confuse your loyalties. Your retirement fund is probably hovering in the high four figures. Sign a card, comrade. This year, we eat the rich.
If the rich, having faces, are not on your list of comestibles, you are in 2009’s avant-garde. Our food co-op is selling “artisan tofu.” Watch for the Gourmet Magazine  feature on root vegetables.
But if designer rutabaga is the rage, its purveyors may be out of luck. Shoppers tell pollsters they are cutting back on organic veggies because of high prices. Magazine editors are deep-sixing their green issues. Hybrid-car sales are sluggish, while lower gas prices are boosting purchases of SUVs. Red (as in the deficit column) is shaping up to be the new green.
The lesson here is not that we should all build saunas, sit back and enjoy the Earth’s rising temperatures. It’s just that we can’t rely on consumer desire to save the oceans from boiling. Want gas-guzzlers off the road? Implement emissions standards that prohibit their manufacture. With climate-change experts and activists heading Obama’s new White House Office of Science and Technology Policy  and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration , that just might happen.
The White House heats up . . .
It won’t satisfy aficionados of extramarital fellatio and cigar play, but when Michelle puts on that red dress, Mama, somebody’s going dancin’ tonight. The Obamas bring some much-needed mojo back to a household that has gone frumpy and depressed. And for America’s growing girls and boys, the First Woman is living proof that smart, strong and serious can be sassy and sexy, too. Abstinence only, RIP?
. . . and sells out
So Rick Warren, the “purpose-driven,” anti-gay pastor of California’s Saddleback  megachurch, has been chosen to deliver the invocation at Obama’s inauguration. Is this trip to the dark side our new leader’s idea of crossing the cultural aisle? Or is it truly his first political faux pas? We’ll know after January 20, when he either pulls his own don’t-ask-don’t-tell or puts his money where his mouth isn’t and appoints some pro-equality judges. The question is how long queers will lie still and be sacrificial lambs to excessive ecumenicalism — and what we will all do if Obama doesn’t come to his senses.
This Christmas, Republican National Committee  chair candidate Chip Saltsman sent committee members a little gift: a CD featuring “Barack the Magic Negro,” a song by conservative satirist Paul Shanklin of “The Rush Limbaugh Show.” In it, Shanklin regales listeners with an impression of Al Sharpton and ridicules not only Obama but also Snoop Dogg and Louis Farrakhan. Another highlight of the CD: “The Star Spanglish Banner,” an anti-immigration tune that begins, “Jose can you see . . .” And you thought the GOP had loaded neo-fascism, along with its cheerleader Sarah Palin, on a plane back to the permafrost. Dream on. Politico.com makes a good case  that the flap over the CD could help, rather than hurt, Saltsman’s chances.
The new neo-atheism
Pastor Rick is giving that invocation. We still have not one but two prayers at the inauguration, not to mention one at the start of every Congressional day. The Washington National Cathedral , though it receives no government funding, is the congressionally designated “national house of prayer.” Conservative Christianity still exerts a deep influence on the politics of this purportedly secular nation. (Read Jeff Sharlet’s brilliant book The Family  and shudder to learn how deep it is.) Still, there are signs that God may be taking a back pew in Washington. Obama has promised to nix the global gag rule, which prohibits reproductive-health providers in U.S.-aid-receiving countries from mentioning abortion to their clients. I’ve lost track of the number of times the word science has been spoken around Capitol Hill lately, uncoupled from its longtime companion, creation.
The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual , or DSM-V, won’t be out until 2012. But this year the controversy will keep heating up over whether the bible of psychological disorders (and guidebook for insurance-claim arbiters) should include Apathy Disorder, Caffeine Withdrawal Disorder, Internet Addiction and a host of other dubious diagnoses. These days, new psychological illnesses are almost invariably “discovered” by pharmaceutical companies that just happen to have devised drugs to treat them. The plot thickens when you learn (as the Center for Science in the Public Interest  reported last May) that more than half of the new members of the DSM-V writing group have ties to Big Pharma. As the manual gets fatter, and more former human discomforts are enshrined as disorders, there will be fewer of us who are not certifiable — that is, certifiable consumers of psychotropic drugs.
Revenge of the nerds
First, the improbable happened: Republican pundits defected when McCain chose a dimwit as his running mate. Then the unimaginable: A candidate was elected not despite but because of his gift for uttering elegant sentences describing subtle and informed thoughts. Then that glimmer of possibility became reality in a Cabinet composed almost entirely of class valedictorians. Could the intellectual be making a comeback? Book sales are down, it is true, but publishers may be shedding mostly those customers who buy books (especially books by the likes of Tina Fey and Jamie Lee Curtis) and don’t actually read them. Call it the audacity of hope, but I’m putting my money on a brand-new product line that will pull the publishing industry out of the ditch: books for readers, written by authors.
Reports from Iraq tell us the courts are travesties of justice and the prisons are torture chambers; freedom of speech and the press are nonexistent (the journalist who threw his shoe at Bush was allegedly beaten brutally and faces seven years in prison); and women are in purdah. In other words, the U.S. “liberation” of Iraq has produced . . . Dick Cheney’s “democracy.” Next year in Afghanistan!