(Roughly) Daily

“There was a clarity to the Nineties”*…




From Captain Marvel (set in 1995) through reboots and revivals like Twin PeaksFull HouseRoseanne, and The X-Files to the recently announced re-reunion of the Spice Girls, we are awash in 90s nostalgia.  But perhaps we’d be wise to rethink our rage for the retro… and to do our best to learn from that history…

North Americans tend to take a rather rosy view of the nineties, with some pronouncing them as “the last great decade.” That was the title of a three-part documentary TV series that aired on the National Geographic Channel in 2014. The following year, a New York Times commentary written by Kurt Andersen – an alumnus of Spy magazine, another fixture of the nineties zeitgeist – wore the headline, “The Best Decade Ever? The 1990s, Obviously.” Mr. Andersen went so far as to suggest that the decade “provoke[s] a unique species of recherche du temps perdu” that puts it apart from the usual cycles of nostalgia. “[L]ooking back at the final 10 years of the 20th century,” he wrote, “is grounds for genuine mourning: It was simply the happiest decade of our … lifetimes.”

Mr. Andersen seems to make a compelling argument on the nineties’ behalf. For much of the decade annual economic growth in the United States averaged around 4 per cent, a number it’s only since come close to matching now. Unemployment, he wrote, shrank to new lows, median household incomes grew by 10 per cent, and stocks quadrupled in value. Here in Canada, the decade got off to a rougher start economically, with the country going even more deeply into recession than the United States in 1990-91; and then, mid-decade, enduring a period of severe restructuring that saw dramatic cuts to social spending thanks to ballooning federal and provincial budget deficits. By the last years of the decade, however, Canada’s economy was in a similarly healthy position, in time to enjoy such other fruits of the nineties as Viagra and the internet, with all its democratizing, utopian promise. It was the decade, too, when we first became tethered to our mobile devices, with market penetration of cellphones nearing 40 per cent by 2000, and the way we consume culture and interact with politics began to evolve to the point we’re at now, after decades of staying more or less the same.

Mr. Andersen neglects to acknowledge how income inequality would spike during the decade, or that some combination of technological change and newly signed trade agreements would contribute to the hollowing out of the North American manufacturing base that working people depended upon. Near the end of his essay he allows that the decade was not without its problems – noting the failure to heed the growing danger presented by climate change, and how passage of the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999, with bipartisan majorities in both houses of the U.S. Congress and the support of President Clinton, would help pave the way for the financial crash of 2008. Of these problems, however, Mr. Andersen blithely remarks, “But they weren’t obvious, so … we were blissfully ignorant!”

Which is entirely the point. In the introduction to his 2008 essay collection  Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, the historian Tony Judt argued that, in time, we would come to regard the period between the fall of communism (1989-1991) and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 as “the years the locusts ate: a decade and a half of wasted opportunity and political incompetence on both sides of the Atlantic.”

Quite suddenly, Mr. Judt argued, we fell under the notion that history could have little to teach us, except in the most narrow triumphalist sense. “With too much confidence and too little reflection we put the 20th century behind us and strode boldly into its successor swaddled in self-serving half-truths: the triumph of the West, the end of History, the unipolar American moment, the ineluctable march of globalization and the free market.”…

In an essay eminently worthy of the read, five-time National Magazine Award-winner Chris Frey argues that our nostalgia for the 1990s obscures the story of how the decade created the crises of the present: “How the Nineties are coming back to haunt us.”

* “There was a clarity to the Nineties. It was pre-9/11, before that anxiety kicked in that exists right now about the financial crisis or terrorism. We were all just going to move forward into the millennium and everything was always going to get better. Then, whoops, that didn’t happen.”  – Carrie Brownstein


As we learn from the past, we might recall that it was on this date in 1994 that Auburn Calloway, a Federal Express employee facing possible dismissal for lying about his flight hours, boarded FedEx flight 705 as a deadhead passenger.  He carried a guitar case concealing several hammers and a speargun, intending to crash the plane after injuring the flight crew in a way that would seem consistent with an accident; but the flight crew succeeded in subduing him.  At his trial it emerged that he was trying to commit suicide in a way that would allow his family to collect $2.5 million in life insurance proceeds.  Calloway pled insanity, but was convicted of air piracy and attempted murder and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences; federal sentences are not subject to parole, so he remains imprisoned at Lompoc Penitentiary.  The aircraft, N306FE, is still in service.





Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

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