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August 02, 2008


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Yeah. It reminds you of the 90's because that was the last time you thought it was realistic to expect tomorrow to be better than today.

Me, too. I got a frisson first time I saw it. (Then I went to YouTube and slurped the audio off for my son -- so ad or not, it isn't the 90's.)

The '90s was the last time when it was realistic to expect tomorrow to be better than today? I've written about the general optimism of the '90s once before, but I'm not sure that I'd agree with that statement anymore.

Caveat: "expecting tomorrow to be better than today" is not necessarily the same as actual "optimism". Michael's statement could also be interpreted to signify that there was a widespread emotion that _things could not get any worse_.

This was quite a normal state of affairs in this country back in the '90s, given the crappy state of the economy and the sky-high unemployment. The situation persisted all through the first half of the decade. So, since the present was already bleak enough, it was difficult to imagine just how exactly things could get any worse. Excluding perhaps a total collapse of the society or a war, but well, no one seriously expected _those_ things.

But anyway. The perception that "it can't get any worse" and the induction that "tomorrow has to be better" is common enough even today. So, let's return to the concept of actual, well-founded optimism, which is usually derived from beneficial developments and visible progress. So, what exactly was so fulfilling in the '90s?

Most of the good things that I can remember started to take place already in 1989, and culminated in 1991-1992. The Berlin Wall broke; the Warsaw Pact collapsed; the East European countries regained their sovereignty; the Baltic states became independent again; the USSR closed business; Apartheid faded to the history; things started to look up in North Ireland; the Mid-East peace process seemed like it might turn out all right; the European integration was mostly regarded as a good thing; and then there was the Internet.

But already after a couple of years, there were new bad things on screen, such as Rwanda, Chechnya, Congo, Bosnia and Kosovo. The post-Soviet states turned out to be corrupt oligarchies or outright dictatorships; South Africa was hit by AIDS; the EU became a bureaucratic playground dominated by squabbles between petty interest sections; the Israelis and the Palestinians started killing each others again; and the vaunted new World Wide Web became a free zone for assorted perverts and whackos.

And the quality of the music and movies deteriorated rapidly. Let's face it; after that astoundingly good start - or perhaps because of it - the '90s turned out to be a _surprisingly_ crappy decade.

Suitably enough, one of the dominant trends in the '90s was nostalgia for the '70s, another extremely crappy decade. Presumably Noel's newly-found nostalgia for the '90s will be the trend of the 2010s?

Me, I think that Pauli Kallio, a Finnish comics writer, was right when he commented the nostalgia for the '70s with the words "Why the hell would anyone want to live that decade again? It was sheer hell already the first time around".

Same goes for the '90s. Not that things are all well and good these days - they aren't; in fact, we're probably on a fast track to hell - but still, nostalgization of the _'90s_? Jeezus.


J. J.

In the U.S., the late 1990s were a surprisingly good time. I'm sure you know this; I don't have to get into the figures. Lots of things that had been going wrong started to go very right.

Parochial? Well, yeah. So maybe that's it.

Could it be the music? Maybe. As you know, I've got very bad taste, Jussi. I really truly honestly like pop-punk, and that genre hit its high point in the late 1990s.

But it ain't the music, for the simple reason that American pop music today isn't all that much different from ten years ago.

The clothes? Nah, ditto, not that much change. Movies, and more importantly, my own random photographs from the decade just don't reveal that much change in sartorial sensibilities. More like 1930 to 1960 than 1985 to 1995, in terms of change. Of course, the sloppy revolution hit and stayed at its nadir sometime in the early part of the Nineties, so other than having the few people who wear suits go back to two buttons from three there isn't a whole lot to notice outside a hip-hop video.

You mentioned the E.U. I seem to have a different view of the E.U.'s evolution in the 1990s than you do, but I'd be lying if I said that had much if anything to do with my recent wistfulness towards that decade.

So, not the music, not the clothes, not the European Union. Still dunno what, though, if not the optimism.

"So, not the music, not the clothes, not the European Union. Still dunno what, though, if not the optimism."

I was optimistic enough, althogh obviously not critically enough, to be glad that I bought a couple of chunks of the Berlin Wall when they went on sale back in December '89.

It might have been more ambient than that. Looking back a couple of years ago at the 1980s' popular music (yes, substantially electronic popular musics), I noticed that there were way too many pop songs from that decade dealing with nuclear war. That pre-apocalyptic frisson made its way everywhere--I even managed to come across one of those left wing peace-against-war atlases that suggested Charlottetown (provincial capital( and Summerside (host of a Canadian military base) as targets, and, well, when you've got that many nuclear weapons, why necessarily not?

Maybe it wasn't optimism so much as it was relief.

That makes sense, Randy. The 1980s war-fear theme, BTW, extended into ska and punk rock. It wasn't just Frankie singing about the Two Tribes.

But although it makes sense, I don't think that you're correct. First, it /feels/ wrong.

Second, the emotional timing is wrong. I'm really nostalgic for the /later/ nineties, 1994 and after.

Finally, the reason that I'm not nostalgic for the early 1990s is that they really were an awful time, arguably rather worse than today.

In California, where I was living (save interludes in 1990-91 and 1993), the early nineties were the days of the L.A. riots, massive recession, a house-price collapse, and a generalized impression that America was going down the drain.

(I mean /massive/ recession --- the end of the Cold War did awful things to the aerospace industry in the Golden State.)

In New York, which I had fled, the annual murder total peaked above 2000. Racial tensions were palpable. The city seemed to be going the way of Detroit.

The good feeling from the First Gulf War didn't last very long.

The culture wars got worse, especially after the 1992 GOP convention.

Meanwhile the '94 war scare with the DPRK had everyone ducking under matresses, certainly anybody remotely connected to the military's reserve component. And 1994 was a real /war/ scare, not at all like the "wars in a time of peace" that came later in Haiti and the Balkans.

In other words, I don't think relief had much to do with the surge of optimism that gathered in the second half of the decade. In order to believe that I'd have to believe in a model of delayed emotional reactions that just doesn't seem to match the human beings around me, or my own lived experience.

The falling of the Berlin Wall was optimistic enough for those of us in Germany at the time that it colored my perception of the world for a decade after.

The advent of the Internet was -- and is -- all I could have hoped for changing the world. It's not stopping any wars yet (clearly) and may never, but it makes it so much easier to organize groups of people (in ways previously literally impossible) that I see it as the basic root of a lot of other change for the better. And that characterized the 90's as well. (The social organization aspects didn't build up real steam until this decade -- but they were obviously coming.)

In the United States, the economy was very good -- especially if you could program your way out of a paper bag. That came to a screeching halt in 2000-2001.

And to continue the parochial theme, the United States went utterly bugfuck insane in 2001. Yeah, I miss the 90's. Immensely so. I have been so permeated by a deep and raging anger since our homegrown Reichstag that I can't really express it. I wouldn't call that nostalgia -- more a fervent wish to wake up and realize it was all a dream -- but Noel's not far off the mark, I think.

Michael, it's true that the Internet makes it easier to organize groups of people for any concerted action, but that doesn't mean that the action is _for the better_.

The coordinated, organized cyber-terrorist action on Estonian government websites during the Bronze Warrior riots just the last year? We're going to see more of those in the future.

Noel, your view of the early '90s happens to be exactly similar to mine. As I've written before, life was crap in Finland back then. Perhaps not comparable to what the good people of the United States experienced, but it definitely sucked.

I wrote about the early '90s on SHWI back in January 2007. The description can still be read in the Google archives:


Things started to get better by the second half of the decade - for relative values of "better"; I was not all that thrilled about the PM's authoritarian attitude and the lack of all effective opposition under the so-called Rainbow Coalition.

And also, as I pointed out, even though this country was, in a material sense, once again becoming a better place to live in, there's no denying that most of the rest of the world was steadily getting worse.

(And I know your taste in music, yes.)

As an addition to Randy's comment... I have to say that the erosion of the war scare and the end to the fear of nuclear destruction that had characterized the '80s was not simply a source for a relief. Because paradoxically, most of the '90s was characterized by a pressing need to find something _new_ to fear: AIDS, asteroids, government conspiracies, globalization, alien invaders, Y2K meltdown or whatever the hell.

For these people, the WTC airstrikes were probably a source for relief. Finally, we have a clearly defined enemy! YESSSH!


J. J.

In retrospect, I wouldn't say that /most/ of the world outside the U.S.-Canada-E.U. bubble was steadily getting worse in the late 1990s --- AFAICT, the lives of most people in China, India, and Vietnam improved substantially. That's a lot of people.

That said, my touchstone wasn't "Yippie for Hunan!" but "poor Latin America," so I have to agree with you. Satisfaction at life in these great United States was tempered by the realization that life was steadily getting worse in Africa, Latin America, and most of southwest Asia.

I think that explains why I was so besotten by the ideas of liberal interventionism and foreign aid. I felt what Kipling called the "White Man's Burden." We're kinder and gentler now, so let's bring back empire!

The events of the past seven years haven't entirely killed that impulse ... but what's left is alive more in the sense that algae is alive, rather than, say, my brother's cats.

Two things:

1. To me there's nothing about this video that suggests the '90s, but of course to each his/her own. I posted the video to my Facebook because I just adore the song; I've read that it's an old campfire song, so that may be why the melody seems familiar to me.

2. I want my daughters to feel optimistic about the world and I like that they like shows about science, animals, and the universe. I especially like that this is the stuff they watch and not Hannah Montana or High School Musical. But again, to each his/her own.

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