Ballot Box

In Defense of the ’90s

In a matter of days after Sept. 11, a cultural cliché was born. We had traded in a decade of triviality for an era of profundity. “That fat, daydreaming America is gone now, way gone,” wrote Frank Rich in the New York Times on Sept. 15, “as spent as the tax-rebate checks, as forgotten as the 2000 campaign’s debate over prescription-drug plans, as bankrupt as our dot-com fantasies of instant millions.”

Rare was the columnist who did not repeat this formula in some form. We had finally said farewell to the 1990s, a period of conspicuous consumption, insularity, and media froth—O.J., Di, Monica, Gary Condit, and shark attacks in the familiar litany. Sweeping away all this insignificance was something more like the Second World War—an epoch of emergency, patriotism, and sacrifice. Maureen Dowd wrote of the “pampered, narcissistic culture” we had left behind. In a news column this week, a Washington Post reporter referred to New York in the 1990s as “”the city that defined America’s New Gilded Age.”

The most developed version of this argument I’ve seen so far is David Brooks’ essay on the “Age of Conflict,” in the Nov. 5 issue of the Weekly Standard. In the 1990s, “an easy cynicism settled across the land, as more people came to believe that national politics didn’t really matter,” Brooks writes. “What mattered instead, it seemed, were local affairs, community, intimate relations, and the construction of private paradises.” Though Brooks disdains Dowd in particular, he seems to share her gratitude that American life has finally gotten serious again.

It’s axiomatic that American life has turned vastly more serious; we’re at war and under a kind of siege. What I take issue with is the other half of this equation: that before terrorists disturbed our slumber we were all living some kind of mindless idyll. Like most bits of conventional wisdom, the view of the 1990s as a decade of excess has some truth to it. Wealth exploded as never before since … the 1980s. The decade’s media extravaganzas were ridiculous in themselves as well as distractions from duller things that should have mattered more to more people. But hey, I was there too, and it didn’t feel quite so superficial to me. I would argue that the Zeitgeist of the 1990s wasn’t purely frivolity and selfishness. To the contrary, the decade that just ended was one of remarkable economic, technological, cultural, social, and even moral advancement. Some puritanical instinct tells us that doing well, personally or collectively, must have a dark side. But to paraphrase Elvis Costello, what’s so awful about peace, love, and prosperity?

Let’s look first at the assumption that there was something flawed about the economic boom of the 1990s. It’s certainly true that the long bull market produced amazing concentrations of wealth, multiplying the population of millionaires and billionaires. But if you want to know whether this phenomenon was socially healthy or unhealthy, you have to ask some additional questions. How did the boom affect the non-wealthy? And how did the newly rich use their money? Each of these issues merits a longer discussion, but on both counts the ‘80s boom compares poorly to the ‘90s boom. Only in the later period did a rising tide lift all boats. From 1979 to 1990, the poverty rate for families rose from 9.2 percent to 10.7 percent, according to Census data. By 2000, it was down to 8.6 percent, the lowest level since the statistic was first collected in 1959.

As for the nouveau riche, “greed is good” may have been the ethos of the 1980s, but it wasn’t in the 1990s. Financial market excess this time around was typified not by Michael Milken, the junk bond trader who went to jail, but by Henry Blodgett, the preposterously bullish tech-stock tout. The people who made a lot of money in the ‘90s were more into novelty and authenticity than conspicuous consumption. Like previous generations of jackpot winners, they eventually began giving way what was left of their money in a constructive fashion. And sure, there was a technology bubble, a classic episode of mass delusion. But that bubble arose from excessive faith in innovation and entrepreneurship, factors central to American economic success. What’s more, it popped last year without bringing the rest of the economy down with it.

Culturally, it’s probably too soon to pronounce on the era’s achievements or compare them to those of other periods. But the way to form a tentative opinion is not to focus on trashy popular culture, which will always be with us, but to try to understand something about what happened in the mainstream in various fields of artistic and intellectual endeavor. From this vantage point, it looks as if the general movement was a positive one, away from the academic and obscure and back in the direction of broader democratic engagement. In fiction, the thin gruel of minimalism gave way to meatier novels with more social content. In the visual arts, theory-heavy work yielded to a revival of traditional craft. Architects dropped the ironic game of postmodernism and began designing for a wide public once again. (Frank Gehry is both great and popular like no one since Frank Lloyd Wright.) High-quality independent films turned up even at multiplexes. The Sopranos meant there was even worthwhile entertainment on television. And then there was the rise of online magazines …

Socially, or if you prefer morally, the 1990s saw the bottoming out and reversal of all sorts of baleful trends underway since the 1960s. Violent crime, nonviolent crime, welfare dependency, teen pregnancy, births out of wedlock, the number of children living in two-parent families—such things finally stopped getting worse and began getting better. Fewer people drank to excess, smoked cigarettes, and did crack. What’s more, most of these encouraging numbers improved disproportionately for African-Americans. For instance, birth rates for black teen-agers fell 31 percent, to the lowest level ever recorded. What matters about the 1990s from a moral point of view—that the president had a tawdry affair with a White House intern, or that these statistics finally started moving in the right direction?

A telling aspect of the backlash against the 1990s is that it was well underway before Sept. 11 and even before the decade itself was over. One saw the stirrings of it in the explosion of interest in “the Greatest Generation” and the phenomenon of GI Envy. Baby boomers, with their streak of self-disgust, seemed especially disposed to thinking that they were too self-centered and their lives too soft. (They’ve gotten what they wished for.) You could read their secret wish for a more meaningful, less abundant life in the clever, pre-Sept. 11 Citigroup ad campaign: “Being filthy rich is so 1999.” And you could read it fleshed out at length in Haynes Johnson’s The Best of Times, a book about the Clinton years finished some months ago. Johnson writes, not surprisingly, of an “America dazzled by celebrity and scandal” and a “people lulled by the rush of success and the diversions of the Nineties.”

That fact that these chestnuts were already roasting on an open fire before the twin towers fell suggests that the phenomenon of ‘90s-bashing reflects not just our new wartime perspective but an eternal tendency to sneer at the recent past. Northing looks more ridiculous than a decade freshly ended, especially if it’s an easy time that gives way to a troubled one. The 1920s looked superficial and silly from the perspective of the 1930s, as did the ‘50s from the ‘60s and the ‘70s from, well, ever since. But I’m not sure you can sustain any of those glib stereotypes at the level of serious argument. Sure, American life turned a lot heavier after Sept. 11. But that doesn’t mean it was all folly before.