A Past That Never Existed: How We Have Forgotten the 90’s | Ilija Dokmanovic

For many, the 1990s are remembered as a rather grand old time for all – the end of the Cold War and dissolution of the USSR promised the possibility of a world that could move forward together in peace, a stark contrast to the tensions of the nuclear arms race of the decades prior. The advent of the internet, providing us with a more interconnected world of information and cultural exchange unlike any other ever achieved in human history, brought the promises of a world that could overcome the ignorance of the past that had led us to one disastrous conflict after another. Looking back at these things it’s easy to ascribe the 1990’s as some sort of Golden Age of humanity; the years before and after simply cannot hold a candle to the general positivity and fun times that the 1990’s brought for the majority of people who found themselves living in it. 

All this positivity that we tend to characterize our immediate past with is a bit much, isn’t it? Especially these days, as we find ourselves stuck in another year of lockdowns, empty promises and devolving order, both politically and socially, it is easy to look at the days of yesteryear and find comfort in the consistency. Who cares about coronavirus when you are watching reruns of Seinfeld or Friends? Gosh, the 90’s look comfortable, don’t they? A time where men were men, women were women, and everyone wasn’t so bloody caught up with themselves. Bum-bags, Pepsi Blue, and quality sitcoms. Life was simple. The world was good – and THEN it all went downhill!

At least this seems to be the common perspective of most youth who are, unfortunately, misremembering the past. Whether you are in America or you are in Britain, the 1990’s are treated as an almost untouchable decade – to speak ill of it is to speak heresy, lest you challenge the comfortable world that people have crafted in their own deluded realities. How can you make the decade of MMMBop by Hansen, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or that cheeky Bill Clinton be any worse than the times we’re living in now? Objectively speaking, particularly looking at the United States, the 1990’s were a powder keg of societal and political tensions that could’ve plunged the nation against itself. Had it not been for the tragic circumstances of the 9/11 attacks reigniting a sense of American patriotism, it is likely that the United States would have continued on its trajectory of social and political decline.

Despite the entertainment industry, America in the 1990s was a nation on the brink. Struggling to form a cohesive and unifying American identity in the wake of the Reagan era, and the diminished threat from the Eastern Bloc meant that Americans were focused on their domestic situation more than ever before. Political corruption that had been demonstrated throughout the Cold War era, from Watergate to Iran-Contra, and consequently the average Americans would begin to develop significantly low trust in their institutions. Many of the most tragic and devastating events that occured on U.S. soil during this period were a byproduct of Americans rejecting the noise that they had become accustomed to coming from the Washington D.C. machine, and seeking to form their own communities and collectives to better represent their values. The Waco siege and Ruby Ridge are examples of people rejecting a country they saw as no longer representing them, and whose attempts to try and pull some level of control or independence from Uncle Sam often resulted in fatal consequences for those who happened to be caught in the crossfire. The truth is that domestic terrorism and American rejection of the status-quo was certainly a fact of American life in the 1990’s. 

Waco and Ruby Ridge would go on to inspire some of the most famous domestic terror attacks, like the Oklahoma City Bombing by former US Army Sergeant Timothy McVeigh and his accomplice Terry Nichols. Even the Unabomber, Ted Kacynski, would’ve seen these events as further vindication of the ideas expressed in his thesis/manifesto Industrial Society and its Future – to the point where the Federal prosecutors purposely did everything they could to prevent Kacynski from having a trial covered by national media, and a platform to espouse his ideas of radical societal change. While we can absolutely decry and condemn the cruel and unusual methods that these people employed to send their varied messages to the world, one would be blatantly dishonest if one outright denounced all of their criticisms of modern liberal society.

Domestic terrorism aside, the American political scene was beginning to show its weaknesses. The two main political parties, Republicans and Democrats, were peppered with controversy, scandal, back-peddaling, and accusations of dishonesty – with a track record stretching back decades showing this truth. Despite the coordinated efforts of the Republicans, the Democrats, and the most powerful special interest groups in the country to kill their potential, Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan would serve as examples of proto-populist political campaigns going forward – one that Donald Trump would take advantage of in 2016. Again, the political stability that we often like to ascribe to the past, especially the 1990s, is hardly a reality. 

We experienced a summer of horrendous race riots in 2020 – whether the outrage to the arrest and unfortunate demise of George Floyd was justified or not, the riots pulled back the curtain on one of America’s most pressing, and pussyfooted issues. The double-standards, the media dishonesty and deliberate stoking of tensions on both sides during an election year showed that America’s racial problems are far from being answered. Not only is this an observable issue between white law enforcement and high-risk African American communities, but it is also an issue extending to tensions between other minority groups. 

In recent months, tensions between Asian-American and African-American communities have been devolving rapidly, with random attacks on elderly Asian-Americans in the Bay Area of San Francisco being a significant source of inter-racial tensions. In New York, Jewish communities have been experiencing a rapid rise in reported hate crimes and assaults, particularly in diverse neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Crown Heights. In Chicago during the summer of discontent, groups of “Latin Kings” were counter-protesting groups such as Black Lives Matter, a clear failure of the concept of intersectional social justice. Despite the social tensions between all ethnicities steadily increasing, global and community leaders, political heads, and media figures constantly barrage the over-beaten drum of “white supremacy” – a term that seems to have lost almost all meaning in recent years – instead of honestly addressing the issues of multicultural society, one being the reality of inter-ethnic violence. This dog-eat-dog dynamic that exists in America’s racial scene today is a far cry from the hyper-American patriotism of the early 2000’s. But again, it’s also nothing unique.

The year 1992 had some of the most shocking demonstrations of racial violence and tribalism in the wake of events like the Rodney King beating by the LAPD after he was driving under the influence. Of course who could forget 1995, with O.J. Simpson’s evasion of the police that had crowds cheering “The Juice” as he made his Ford Bronco getaway down the LA turnpike, or the subsequent “Trial of the Century” afterwards. The L.A. Riots may seem like a distant memory now, but revisiting the footage of the convenience store workers on their roofs in KoreaTown easily demonstrates how Los Angeles, one of the most developed and economically important cities in America, can become a war zone under the right circumstances. Looking at one of the most popular films of the time, American History X, one can see that the breakdown of race and ethnic relations was one of the most concerning trials facing America in the 1990’s. While these tensions would ease, unfortunately in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, as soon as the outrage and anger for foreign enemies during the War on Terror petered-out, these internal divisions would reemerge, with help of the media, of course.

The more one observes the 1990’s, especially once the nostalgia goggles are removed in favor of a more objective lens, one can see that it was hardly the era of good feeling and careless fun that it is often popularized as in our contemporary setting. Sure, from the vantage point of 2021 the 1990’s look like a relative Utopia – but this is simply not the case. The 1990’s brought the earliest challenges of globalized, multicultural, ever-centralizing Western society. And to say that these are problems which are exclusive to the United States, I’d point out that even in Australia there was horrendous inter-ethnic violence between Serbs and Croats on the streets of Melbourne and Sydney during the height of the Yugoslav Wars, and even after 10 years of Western “assimilation” the issue still goes on. In Britain it goes without saying, literally, that multiculturalism has contributed to the tens of thousands of British girls that were groomed and sexually assaulted by foreigners from the Middle East. 

In fact, most of the societal problems that existed during the 90’s, whether it was race-relations, severe wealth inequality, job opportunities drying up, drug epidemics, the rise of China, and the culture war that still persists to this day – they haven’t really changed at all in the last 3 decades. This fact is all the more unnerving when one realizes that the politicians that took elected office during this era and before – just like the problems – have limped on miserably throughout the decades, often only serving themselves.

Unfortunately, this time, I don’t think there is a clear and definable outside threat that can pull Americans together and back from the brink of self-destruction that was only just starting to ferment during the 1990s. 

Photo owned by Ilija Dokmanovic

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