Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Fondly remembering the decade of nothing 

Are you ready for the 1990s nostalgia yet? I'm not, but it seems many are:

"Though they ended not even half a decade ago, the '90s - the decade that gave us grunge, Ghost and Generation X - are showing signs of a revival to rival our recent fascination with such '80s icons as slouchy boots and slashed sweatshirts...

" 'The cycle is shortening very quickly in terms of when people are ready to get nostalgic about the past,' says Cliff Chenfeld, Razor & Tie [music compilation company] co-owner. The company released its '70s albums in the early '90s, its '80s records in the mid-'90s, and its '90s collections just after 1999. Witness the speed of pop culture: 'The Spice Girls seems like it was a century ago,' and the group reached No. 1 in America in 1997."
Yet laughs aside, it's easy to see why many would be tempted to cast a longing look back at the 20th century's fin de siecle:

" 'The last three or four years have been so depressing on so many levels that it makes people even more nostalgic for the '90s,' Chenfeld says. Back then, 'we were basically at peace, the economy was really good, and our biggest worry was whether the president acted inappropriately in his private life'."
Stuck between the end of the not-so-bloody yet still quite unsettling Cold War and the beginning of the war on terror, the 1990s provided us with a breather from reality. The wheels of history seemed to have if not quite ground to a halt then at least somewhat slowed down, and for a brief, shining moment we stopped thinking about the serious things, and thought instead of nothing much. And we loved it. Just think of the '90s highlights:

- "Seinfeld" - the sitcom, which its creators proudly proclaimed, was about nothing;

- Clinton Administration - the presidency about nothing;

- the new-found reverence for the UN, multilateralism and the "international community" - institutions, which spent the decade largely doing nothing, particularly as far as the Rwandans, Bosnians, Kosovars and many others were concerned;

- the IT bubble - irrational enthusiasm about companies that owned nothing and produced nothing (and in the end provided nothing by way of long-term return);

- which brings us to the New Economy - the economy about nothing;

- Y2K - the technological Armageddon, which in the end turned out to be a nothing kind of disaster;

- boy and girl bands - manufacturing music about nothing.

And so on.

Then, we wondered if the President of the United States really got sucked off by an intern in the Oval Office. Now, we wonder if the President of the United States sent the country to war based on faulty intelligence. And yet, despite having elevated oral sex to a respectable topic of political conversation, it's the 1990s and not the current decade that seems so innocent.

No wonder so many want to go back. The John-John presidential ticket in many ways embodies the longing to turn back the clock. All the talk about the need for America being respected again internationally, the elevation of trial lawyer as a hero and cultural icon, the importance of good haircut; it all sounds so September 10, so "Clinton II: Revenge of the Nerds".

Yet, as always, there is no going back. The reality is there is no "end of history" (even if Fukuyama didn't quite mean it like that) and decades that combine peace, prosperity, progress, optimism and exuberance are an exception rather than a historical rule. We always fool ourselves that this time will be different, but reality always manages to outwit us and have the last chuckle at us, the privileged few - for, of course, the 1990s were the decade of nothing for only a few scattered peaceful islands somewhere in North America, Western Europe and East Asia.

And so, we, the happy islanders, managed to sleepwalk through one whole decade. Then, at 8.50am, September 11, 2001, the alarm went off and we walk up. The wheels started turning again; history resumed its march.

Historians like to think of "short" and "long" centuries. Thus "the long 19th century" lasted from 1789 to 1914. "The short 20th century" can be said to stretch from 1914 to 1989. When the history is written sometime in a hundred years' time, I have a feeling the 21st century will be seen to have started in September 2001, and the magic, surreal, gilded twelve years between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers will remain a "long decade" adrift, neither here nor there, a never-never time when for a moment we thought we have almost managed to regain innocence before it slipped out of our grasp and we lost it, irrevocably, again.


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