Why I don’t remember the ’90s fondly

Published online 31 December 2006.

This is a general, politicized complaint against the 1990s, prefacing my wish for the new year: May the rest of this decade not be like the 1990s.


Now, I know the period around New Year’s Day is supposed to be a time of reflection about the year that has just happened, with predictions for the year to come.  But, as usual, I would like to take the long view and reflect comparatively upon the decade that was just finished a few years ago: the 1990s.

The “zeros,” as they are called by the author of a blog called “Politics in the Zeros,” indeed have their lousy aspects.  The zeros, indeed, began with the Supreme Court “election” of the worst President ever: George W. Bush.  But at least Bush gave us all someone to hate, whereas in previous years we couldn’t seem to make up our minds about politics.  In that sense the zeros have become a period when we on the Left started to put two and two together and come up with four.

Sure, 2004 was a crappy year all-round, but maybe we’ve learned our lesson from it, with Kerry’s cop-out after the rigged election in Ohio.  And the other years in the zeros have some redeeming aspects to them.  2003, for instance, was the beginning of Bush’s “little war.”  But 2003 was also a time of tremendous antiwar protest.

And 2003 was, in my state of California, the occasion for the ouster of Gray Davis, a Governor who deserved all the unpopularity he received.

Indeed, with the Republican defeat of 2006, people are waking up to the idiocy of some of the most recent Republican initiatives.  The USA PATRIOT Act?  Fourteen military bases in Iraq?   No Child Left Behind?  These were all incredibly bad things.  But at least people know that now.  No, I don’t have any hard evidence for that assertion.  But, through reading the blogs and DailyKos, I feel that I can tell.

The ‘90s, on the other hand, were a period in American history when the Left went to sleep.  The Democrats were ineffectual as Clinton, having screwed up national healthcare, proceeded to sign NAFTA while the Republicans snuck in through the back door with the Contract With America.  Clinton’s other famous initiatives are all bad news for the working class: the Telecommunications Act, the avoidable war with Serbia, the Welfare Bill.

Politics in the ‘90s was so trivial that Clinton was impeached for lying about sex.  This was made possible by a paper prosperity that was good for, mainly, the investor class.  Robert Pollin’s book Contours of Descent discusses in great detail how the Clinton economic initiatives morphed cleanly into the disaster of Bush II.  Pollin’s book shows how the ‘90s set the table for the ascendancy of Bush.

California politics was pretty bad too in the ‘90s.  As Republicans (and Gray Davis) dominated the Governor’s office, the voters passed some really notorious initiatives: Proposition 187, a fairly evil anti-immigrant police state thing which was overturned in the courts, Proposition 209, which got rid of affirmative action, and Proposition 227, which got rid of about two-thirds of the bilingual education programs in the state.  I witnessed the negative effects of 227 upon childhood education firsthand as a substitute teacher in the public schools.  We might have interpreted all this stuff as a rude wake-up call, except that not many people woke up, and it took the whole decade to occur.

Even those renegades, the Green Party, were busy with internal bickering between two national Green Parties (GPUSA/ ASGP) and all – pretty bad for a political party that only came on the map in 2000.

Every once in awhile on these diaries you will hear me complain about the trajectory of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, from McGovern’s 1972 nomination to Kucinich’s 2% showing in 2004.  In my humble opinion, the main portion of this decline occurred in the 1990s.  I suppose I ought to add this footnote here: I’m not really attacking the Democrats for this decline.  The Republicans held all of the cards in the ’90s, I feel, even though they didn’t occupy the White House — it was a matter of the neutralization of “progressivism” or “liberalism,” or whatever they called it during the 1980s.

The ‘80s had lots of benefit concerts and at least a veneer of opposition to Reaganism; the ‘90s witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union (which may have ended bureaucratic Stalinism but replaced it with a tremendous and painful economic depression), the first war against Iraq (which killed an awful lot of people), the genocide in Rwanda (which everyone in the racist 1st world ignored, being of Africans) and the embargo against Iraq (which killed even more people, for which Madeleine Albright told Lesley Stahl “it was worth it”).  In Los Angeles and elsewhere, 1992 saw some nasty consumer riots which amounted to not much that was good.  Worse, the ‘90s saw the triumph of the structural adjustment programs of the IMF and World Bank, over the peoples of the world.

Like I said at the beginning of this essay, the zeros have had some bad, if not worse, things happen as well.  Especially the 655,000 dead Iraqis so far in the war.  The difference I see, for the most part, is that people in this decade seem to care a whole lot more, or at least a whole lot more of the people care a whole lot more.

The Internet became a meaningful thing in the ‘90s, which was good, only it took the zeros to bring enough people on-line.  Music was usually pretty lousy in the ‘90s, the main trends being grunge and rap – Radiohead was good in the ‘90s, only I discovered them in the zeros.

The main wake-up call that something better was coming was the protest at the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999.  (Perhaps the 1999 inauguration of Hugo Chavez was also such a wake-up call, though I wasn’t really paying attention to Venezuelan politics until the zeros.)  In my life, this coincided with the creation of the Pomona College Natural Farm, which I discovered two years later.

In my personal life, the ‘90s begun with an earthquake in the autumn of 1989, which took out downtown Santa Cruz, California, a place I loved.  Santa Cruz spent the rest of the 1990s recovering.  I developed a serious case of irritable bowel syndrome in the 1990s, when nobody knew what it was, and I recovered from it in the zeros.  I went to The Ohio State University in the 1990s, only to discover that the whole scene there was rather boring.  The intellectual fad during the 1990s was postmodernism, a meaningful thing if, in the last analysis, useless.  After I got my degree I was, essentially, sent back to square one when my administrative adviser refused to recommend me for jobs.  My dream of being a professor was renewed only later when I started teaching in community colleges in September of 2001.

So, as a new year dawns, my main wish for 2007 will be: may the rest of this decade be better than the ‘90s.


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