Trivial Pursuits

In defense of the unnamable '90s


As the 1990s recede further into history and seeming irrelevance to our terrifying new world of suicide bombers, anthrax scares, flat-lining stocks, and comebacks by Michael Jackson and Garth Brooks, perhaps the oddest thing about the past decade remains its inability to generate a pithy, generally agreed-upon descriptor. Such sobriquets needn't be particularly accurate nor comprehensive to stick: Rightly or wrongly, we all remember the '80s as the Decade of Greed and the '70s as The Me Decade.

Despite an unprecedented economic boom and countless media spectacles downloaded directly from the libido of Geraldo Rivera (best remembered in this context as the author of the 1991 kiss-and-tell autobiography, Exposing Myself), the '90s somehow turned out to be every bit as unnamable as a Sam Beckett novel—and twice as difficult to figure out.

Yet post 9/11, as Slate's Jacob Weisberg has observed, a new consensus is forming that the '90s were not simply unworthy of a clever catchall term, but downright contemptible. Forget that the Cold War ended, that everyone got richer in the '90s, that divorce leveled off, that crime fell, and that illegitimate births dropped. "In a matter of days" after the attacks, wrote Weisberg, "a cultural cliché was born. We had traded in a decade of triviality for an era of profundity."

The important thing to take away from the murder of 5,000 innocents, wrote The New York Times' Frank Rich, was that the attacks "awakened us from a frivolous if not decadent decade-long dream." Rich's colleague in banality at the Times, Maureen Dowd, gratefully waved goodbye to the "pampered, narcissistic culture" of the previous decade (a culture, it's worth noting, that awarded Dowd a 1999 Pulitzer Prize for her "fresh and insightful columns on the impact of President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky").

On the conservative end of the political spectrum, The Weekly Standard's David Brooks—who made a name for himself by chronicling the emergence during the '90s of "bourgeois bohemians"—sniffed that "the top sitcom [of the previous decade] was Seinfeld, a show about nothing." Summed up Weisberg, "Though Brooks disdains Dowd and Rich, he seems to share their gratitude that American life has finally gotten serious again."

Such high-minded scorn for the '90s and the general affluence and calm they represented is an eminently understandable sentiment. War, suffering, and privation are the greatest human narratives, readily embraced, especially by those who can bear witness to them at a safe remove.

Does anyone doubt that NBC's Tom Brokaw, who has made millions by recounting from a penthouse the ordeals of the "greatest generation," wasn't overjoyed when his assistant tested positive for anthrax? Or that Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, and every other newshound who ever donned a safari jacket and filed reports from an overseas hotel bar weren't sick with jealousy?

In such moments, I think of my deceased parents, who closed out their lives in the decade that now is being recast as beneath contempt. Both were born poor in the '20s and were actual veterans of the Great Depression and World War II (by Brokaw's lights, my father was triply blessed in that he actually got shot by the Germans during the war).

For my folks, the '90s represented the great payoff, the long-delayed delivery of what they took to be the American Dream: a time when poverty had largely disappeared, people got along relatively well, and the news was filled mostly with tales of stock surges, celebrity scandals, and sexually penitent pols.

Every once in a while, they would start to fondly recall their earlier days—the charity food and clothing they received, the youth spent on the front lines of Europe—and pull up short, laughing at their willingness to romanticize hardships they wouldn't wish on their worst enemies.

Especially when conflict is necessary and justified, it's worth remembering that war will always beat peace as a headline. And that, at our best, we fight wars for only one reason: to enjoy decades like the '90s.