Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 1999
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APRIL 1999


Those Were the Days
By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Kim Barnes

Will anyone ever feel nostalgia for the 1990s? I am writing this question in a period of remarkable prosperity, in a warm house filled with blessings we take for granted in America--plentiful food, books, computers, power tools, and credit cards. Even so, this doesn't feel like a golden era to me and that view seems widely shared. Among the choices on television tonight is a much-hyped mini-series set in the 1960s, billed as "The movie event of a generation." If I want to revel in the more recent past, I can watch That '70s Show. In the mood for a quiet evening with a book, I can read Publisher's Weekly's top seller, Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation, a hymn of praise to the men and women who brought America through World War II. Should we feel like going out tonight, we have our choice of two excellent films about that war. In this milieu, writing a book called The 1990s: Days of Greatness would either be a bad career move or a serious excursion into irony, which is usually the same thing. Americans appear to be looking for a recent past that is heroic, or at least interesting, as an antidote to an uninspiring present.

What makes this especially curious is the choice of decades. The two veterans of World War II I knew well enough to talk to about it, didn't want to talk about it. When coaxed into doing so, they made it clear they would rather forget than remember. For them the golden age was not the Depression, when they were growing up, or the War, when they did what they had to do, but the prosperous 1950s. Never mind the conformity and banality their children--my generation--associated with that decade: for the first moment in their lives, all was right with the world. Those were their good old days and for that generation they were a long time coming.

Then there are the 1960s. Television isn't the only source of nostalgia for the era. Survivors continue to appear, staggering onto the concert stage or tottering into print as reminders of the way we were, or the way people tell us we were. Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane (later Starship), for instance, recently published an autobiography, Somebody to Love?, that reads like a front-line report from a freedom fighter in the Sexual Revolution. In the minds of many '60s folk, that may have been the Last Good War, but, as in all wars, fewer saw combat than claim to have served with distinction. And, although the Cause may partly have prevailed--it now has solid bi-partisan support--the Sexual Revolution looks incomplete and ambiguous in light of continued gay bashing and gender inequalities, high teen pregnancy rates, child pornography, and AIDs. Even so, the nostalgia television and memoir writers generate for the '60s is mostly about culture--few display enthusiasm for the radical politics of the period, and most prefer to look at its manners and mores as a bit quaint and safely in the past. Fewer still deal with the decade's toll of lost and wasted lives. To remember the 1960s as the good old days requires an enormous amount of forgetting.

Nostalgia for the 1970s strikes me as oddest of all. Some of us recall that as a decade of gasoline shortages, Watergate, hostages in Iran, and bad clothes. Out of curiosity, I researched That '70s Show in the way any good scholar would, on the Internet. (I could have watched it but didn't want to take the risk.) I understood the appeal after my search located the fourth homepage. Sponsored by "Gratuitous Flesh," it featured pictures of the female star, with links to "Asian Nudes" and "The Web's Youngest Women." I didn't pursue this line of research further, convinced that the show probably doesn't really make a case for the superiority of the '70s over the '90s.

Perhaps there are decades that are best forgotten and we are in one. I know people who have thrown theme parties based on the 1920s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and even the 1970s. Can you imagine one for the 1990s, or, for that matter, the venal 1980s? ("Dress as your favorite junk bond dealer or Iran-Contra figure. Prize for best Oliver North, Michael Milken, or Rambo look-alike. BOPB [Bring Other People's Booze].")

We're back to the question: why is there a sour mood about a decade in which, at least in economic terms, we've done well? There are a lot of candidates to blame--Bill Clinton, Congress, liberals, the religious right, the players, the owners, and El Niño, to name a few. Perhaps, however, it's us. Maybe we have divided minds about prosperity. Part of us fears that it will corrupt us and part of us sets out to prove that's right. Rather than wanting to share our good fortune, we denounce those who might take it from us. Instead of becoming generous and happy with prosperity, we turn crabbed and cranky. So in the future will we wax nostalgic about decades when people suffered, died, or listened to disco? Will we ever sit around the nursing home talking, misty-eyed, about those golden days when, for a fleeting moment, we could pay our bills?

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.