At the beginning of the 20th century’s last decade, public morality seemed to be at the center of the national conversation. Specifically, its decline.
The right lamented the ease with which people violated their marriage vows, the prevalence of abortion, and the licentiousness celebrated in popular culture. Conservatives agonized over children born into single-parent homes, the entitlement state’s deleterious effect on self-discipline, and declining stigmas around the accumulation of debt and assisted suicide.
Democrats and liberals, too, were invested in a moral reckoning. They focused their energies on a crusade to banish wanton sexual discrimination and harassment from the workplace. It informed the party’s effort to strengthen legislative protections for working women. It also allowed the party to claim that their efforts to deny Clarence Thomas a seat on the Supreme Court and banish Oregon Republican senator Bob Packwood from public life were driven by ethics, justice, and the quest for gender equity.
By the end of the 1990s, Democrats had moved on to other priorities. In 1999, Pew Research Center found that Democrats were more interested in expanding the social safety net so that the government might facilitate personal fulfillment in whatever forms it might take, even as the rest of the country worried that “the good life today is being tarnished by moral decay.” Liberals had raised self-actualization to a worthy pursuit, in part because they had committed themselves to the defense of a libertine president. The left’s own moral crusade on behalf of women took a back seat.
Still, Pew noted in 1999, “moral decline is prominent on the list of failures” that the American people were perceiving. Left-leaning trendsetters mocked such notions. The pashas of popular culture—led by Hollywood’s most successful producer, Harvey Weinstein—ruthlessly mocked the right’s sanctimonious moralizers and their antiquated ideals. Maureen Dowd, of the New York Times, derided the GOP’s “uptight sourpusses” for looking upon the decade’s bounty in disgust.
By contrast, Republicans saw almost every discrete act of indecency and wickedness as an indictment of American society. At least, that’s how they talked. Just days before the 1994 midterm elections, for example, future House speaker Newt Gingrich leveraged Susan Smith’s horrific murder of her two young sons to prosecute the case against American degeneracy. “The mother killing her two children in South Carolina vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we have to have change,” he said. The only path toward personal and national salvation, Gingrich advised, was to “vote Republican.”
What a difference a generation makes.
This outmoded dynamic—left-wing moral relativism and libertine self-indulgence, and right-wing prudery laden with religious overtones—is no longer operative. Today, a new moral order is on the rise—a far more conventional code that has found a surprising number of adherents among the progeny of those who came of age in the sybaritic Clinton years.
Modern liberals and progressives no longer see pleasure-seeking as a virtue. They have replaced it with a preachy judgmentalism that subsumes all of existence into a black-and-white morality play. The 1990s do not fit within that play’s limits. And today’s left-liberals are determined to demonize the fin-de-siècle decade because as they look back, they cannot abide what it meant to be a liberal at the time. They certainly cannot accept the fact that the right saw it all for what it really was.
We are witness to a left-wing crusade to anathematize the decade at the end of history. And it is succeeding in ways that conservatives who tried and failed to do the very same thing could only have ever dreamt of.
NINETEEN-NINTIES nostalgia took hold of the American imagination almost immediately after the decade ended, and it’s not hard to understand why. Bookended by the collapse of Soviet Communism in Europe and the September 11 attacks, the 1990s appeared in the rearview mirror like an island of placidity in stormy historical seas.
The decade was marked by relative peace abroad, the occasional U.S.-led policing actions in the Middle East and the Balkans notwithstanding. It was a time characterized by historically low unemployment and consistent economic growth fueled by a stock-market boom. Atypically low rates of inflation helped contribute to a spasm of mass consumption. Americans were enjoying the social freedom that came with historically low rates of crime. And with transnational Islamist terrorism still a largely theoretical threat, Americans were liberated from existential fears both at home and abroad.
By the beginning of the 2010s, dredging up lost cultural nuggets from the end of the 20th century had become a lucrative enterprise. Marketing primarily to the young adults who were preadolescents in those years, television networks such as Nickelodeon and the online publication BuzzFeed sought and won new audiences by ginning up 1990s nostalgia. Late-night programming blocks such as “The ’90s Are All That” and an endless procession of listicles that “only ’90s kids will understand” tapped into an unexploited cultural vein, and the institutions that catered to this sentiment were rewarded with serious commercial success.
There were those who resented all this. This bittersweet decade deserved more scrutiny, they said. After all, schmaltzy retrospection is “a white people’s pastime,” Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott insisted in a 2014 essay. While the new millennium had up to then been “a major letdown,” Wolcott wrote, it would be a mistake to miscast the 1990s as a heyday by contrast. It was a decade in which “racial polarization resurged with a vengeance,” when news media marketed salacious voyeurism as information, and when garish displays of personal wealth underscored the reckless resource consumption that would (we were told) soon threaten the very existence of the human species.
Wolcott’s objections were echoed by Entertainment Weekly’s Darren Franich in 2015. “Nostalgia is a horrible thing,” he wrote. “The 1990s were horrible.” From the “flavorless” cultural fare to which lobotomized American audiences flocked to the casual objectification of women on and off the screen to the irresponsible legitimization of “the sadness of white men,” the 1990s were hardly worth celebrating.
Wolcott’s and Franich’s complaints fell on deaf ears, as sentimental reflections on the 1990s became ubiquitous. Were the 1990s “the last great decade” National Geographic’s documentary series on the subject asked. CNN’s The Nineties engaged in a similarly misty-eyed survey of the period’s sociocultural landscape. The sitcom Rosanne was revived, as was Full House. Musical artists such as Lauren Alaina looked back wistfully on a decade when “the ladies dominated” the radio airwaves. The Washington Post reported in 2019 that immersive nostalgic experiences such as the “No Scrubs: ’90s Dance Party” and the R&B-focused “Nostalgia: The ’90s Experience” had become successful franchises.
“People become nostalgic in response to adversity or psychologically negative states,” the British researcher Jacob Juhl told the Post. “Nostalgia,” Juhl continued, “helps restore people to a psychological equilibrium.”
But there are those among us for whom any kind of escapism is a moral calamity—a way of avoiding one’s ethical duty to remain vigilant about the omnipresence of evil. No psychic comfort blanket for you, not when there’s a new moral imperative to devote ourselves wholly to the advancement of social justice. The social-justice warriors have helped give birth to a backlash against the romantic reflections on that mixed bag of a decade, as expressed through cultural products that appear to traffic in the same nostalgia—only to reverse field and attack the past for having brought us to our present crisis.
In 2021, a variety of explosive cultural projects trained their fire on happy memories of the 1990s with the explicit intention of popularizing puritanical critiques of the period’s hedonism, consumerism, and social irresponsibility. Arguably the most popular: HBO’s July 2021 documentary, Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage. Director Garret Price’s portrait of a shambolic three-day music festival transforms it into a metaphor for all that was wrong with the decade, indicting almost everyone who lived through it in the process.
In Price’s telling, Woodstock 99 was not just one of many massive outdoor concerts that went wrong. It wasn’t just another show with an incoherent lineup, terrible infrastructure, lax security, violent attendees, and avaricious promoters. No, it was a portent of a grim future in which a plague of entitled middle-class white men would lash out against an enlightened progressive future, and who would eventually produce the greatest of all evils: Donald Trump’s presidency.
The documentary focuses on a handful of events, among them a moment when we see the late rapper DMX leading the audience in a call-and-response session during a song whose chorus includes (like so many popular mainstream songs of the period) an unspeakable ethnic slur. “And what’s so chilling about it,” New York Times critic Wesley Morris tells Price about the largely white audience, “they were ready to do it. Like, hoping that he would do this song.”
This casual racial naiveté wasn’t the only thing to presage a darker era, according to the documentary and its commentators. Also concerning were regular displays of male chauvinism and the mistreatment of women. The festival was typified by a staggering amount of public nudity and an equally appalling number of abuses of semi-clothed women by male attendees. “The degree to which exploitation of women was not only excused but formalized,” music journalist Steven Hyden says during the documentary, “created an environment where people felt that exploiting women, abusing women, hurting women was going to be okay.” We are to view this not as a by-product of the festival’s atmosphere but as an example of the diseased culture of the decade as a whole.
The documentary explicitly links the conduct at Woodstock 99 with the popularity of the porn franchise called Girls Gone Wild and the objectification of women in the American Pie movie series. This is what happens, we are being told, when society caters to what Hyden calls the “dark energy coming from young, white males.” Woodstock 99 largely suggests this lascivious and misogynistic behavior was universally accepted at the festival, though it does include footage of Dexter Holland, the lead singer of the band The Offspring, admonishing the crowd for taking physical liberties with the half-naked women passing overhead.
The account goes on to present the viewer with profiles of the two young men who murdered their teachers and classmates at Columbine High School in 1999—presumably, fans of the “nu metal” musical acts that dominated Woodstock 99’s stages. This introduces us to one of the documentary’s truest villains: the white rapper-singer-songwriter Kid Rock.
Adorned in an oversize white fur coat and ornamented with ostentatious jewelry, he symbolized the “simmering anger” (Wesley Morris’s words) over class divisions in the United States that had gone underrecognized in the 1990s. And he did so while being a cultural appropriator: “This is a country that is basically forged in white people impersonating black people,” Morris says. Worst of all, Kid Rock expressed a fashionable misogyny when he described President Bill Clinton as a “pimp” and the White House intern he took advantage of as a “ho.”
What Morris doesn’t say is that this narrative was fashionable because Democrats and their allies in media made it into a fashion. At the time, Maureen Dowd thought nothing of deeming Monica Lewinsky a “ditzy, predatory White House intern,” a girl “who was too tubby to be in the high school ‘in’ crowd.” Indeed, Dowd’s “fresh and insightful columns on the impact of President Clinton’s affair” won her a Pulitzer. New York magazine’s exploration of Lewinsky’s background noted leeringly that she “paid particular attention to the boys” in her youth, while the Associated Press’s exploration of Lewinsky’s affair with her former high-school teacher suggested she was a seductress with a taste for married men.
In point of fact, the voices bemoaning the vulgarity, crassness, and ugliness of American popular culture and its depiction of women back in the day were almost exclusively conservative or Republican. At one point in Woodstock 99, we see footage of Fox News host Bill O’Reilly lamenting the “corrosive effects of the music world on children.” Senator Sam Brownback is shown saying that “if Hitler or Mussolini were alive, they’d have to be rock stars.” America’s young adults “have not been acculturated with the [proper] kind of gentlemanliness and gentlewomanliness, not inculcated with religious faith and discipline, maybe [they have] a lack of values or whatever,” former senator Jeff Sessions mourned in a speech that blamed complex cultural conditions for the “destructive path” on which the nation’s kids had embarked. Newt Gingrich did not appeal to euphemisms when he blamed American social decadence and its liberal promoters for the bloodshed in Colorado. “I accuse you in Littleton,” Gingrich declared, directing his recrimination toward the “elite” in media, academia, and politics. These professions are “undermining the core values of civility,” and it’s “time they were stopped.”
And what do the documentary’s talking heads say about this? Not that the hyperventilating prudery on display was hopelessly out of touch with the public, or that the rapid pace of America’s cultural evolution had left the American right in the dust. Merely that the right wing of the time was guilty of oversimplifying an otherwise valuable social critique.
Woodstock 99 concludes its denunciation of the festival’s devolution from an immoral spectacle into a reptilian mob by linking that concert to the cultural forces that produced Donald Trump’s presidency. “There’s a definite umbilical cord between the dark, sexual, cultural, political underbelly in the country at that time to where we are now,” insists one of its talking heads, journalist Maureen Callahan.
A ten-episode Vice TV series, The Dark Side of the ’90s, draws a similar conclusion: Those years comprised a hedonistic horror show that rejected public morality and personal rectitude—and laid the groundwork for the Trump era. Funny, given that the name of the network on which it aired literally celebrates vice over virtue.
The series tsk-tsks over the international TV hit Baywatch, a show about lifeguards in jiggly bathing suits, for its role in making body dysmorphia a national crisis. “Baywatch helped normalize plastic surgery,” announces a talking head named Dr. Jen Goodman. “Prior to that, it was really taboo.” The program’s “obsession with body image” supposedly led to an explosion in the rates of breast-augmentation surgeries in women and contributed to a rise in the use of performance-enhancing drugs by men. Worst of all, the show’s casual objectification of women would one day be personified in Donald Trump, whose misogyny would later become a feature of his political movement.
Bracketed by two national scandals involving millenarian cults—the Branch Davidians at the beginning of the decade and Heaven’s Gate at the end—the 1990s also heralded an age of post-truth politics. “In the mid-’90s, conspiracy theories begin to go mainstream,” the program’s narrator, Sugar Ray vocalist Mark McGrath, observes.
“That was the beginning movement of the distrust for the government, and that same movement has become very, very dominant in the U.S.,” author and radio host Alan Warren says, and a religion professor named Benjamin Zeller concurs: “By 2020, it was in the White House.”
Among all the cultural phenomena that have led us to such lows over the subsequent 20 years, “trash TV” features most prominently on The Dark Side of the ’90s (which, again, appears on a network called Vice). It was in this era that daytime talk programming began to mimic the “touring vaudeville freak shows of the 1930s,” according to AV Club writer Katie Rife. Panel programs played regular hosts to racial antagonism, bizarre kinks, titillating scandals, and, above all, physical fights. Shows hosted by Jenny Jones, Sally Jessy Raphael, Maury Povich, and Jerry Springer all “dramatized a coarseness that was pervading society,” says media journalist Robert Feder.
By the end of the decade, the program’s narrator adds, “the exact same DNA as trash TV” had given way to reality television. And reality television soon handed a powerful microphone to Donald Trump, star of The Apprentice. “There’s a lot of things that go into the mix of a cultural system that would end up electing a reality star as a president,” one Jerry Springer Show producer complains. “Everything is sort confrontational, loud, in-your-face. Reality television might have given him a platform for that.”
All this is true. Republicans and conservatives with a living memory of this decade know it to be true because they were the lonely few indicting the decade’s cultural and moral vacuity. At the time, however, their sermonizing was not well received by the arbitrators of cultural discourse. “Talk-show guests are average Americans. George Will need not apply,” Baltimore Sun columnist Ted Rall mused in 1996 amid the “Christian fundamentalist” backlash against tabloid talk programming. “If the Bible-thumpers and the white-wine-and-brie set have their way, the only discussion we’ll have as a society will concern the Federal Reserve discount rate.”
That same year, Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole denounced one of the more popular, albeit unhealthy, ideal body images among young women: The so-called heroin chic aesthetic popularized by fashion icons such as Kate Moss. It’s a look, he said, that contributes to “a false and deadly message to America’s youth that drugs are harmless fun.” For this he was mercilessly pilloried in pop-cultural venues.
OF COURSE, the events of the 1990s did pave the way for Trump’s presidency, in the way that all events indirectly beget what follows. But that decade was directly responsible for a set of political circumstances that made moral relativism the common currency of the cultural elite.
Sensational spectacles such as the O.J. Simpson trial, Bill Clinton’s dalliances, professional baseball’s drug-abuse scandals, the exploitation of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s burgled sex tape, and half a dozen other titillating passions that gripped the nation were surely signs of a broader ethical decay. But discussions of that decay were left to those who were willing to pay the associated price in social and political capital. Anyone who gave voice to that observation invited the accusation that he was a censorious prude seeking to impose Christian theocracy on secular society.
The 1990s were a period in which women were objectified, and many were abused by powerful men in a variety of industries. It was a time when loose morals were celebrated and degeneracy in the pursuit of self-gratification was lionized. It was typified by profligacy and waste, and the inheritors of America’s historical good fortune were reckless in its stewardship. It was a decade in which crassness was miscast as art and promiscuity was promoted as liberating.
But even to countenance many of these critiques at the time was to be accused of standing athwart America’s cultural evolution. Today, the right’s moralistic critiques of the ’90s are being ratified by the trendsetters of the modern left.
On the left, entertaining media products that do not serve a grander political purpose are perceived to be at odds with the promotion of a virtuous society. NPR’s television critic Eric Deggans advised socially conscious media consumers to “seek out films and TV shows which will challenge your notions of race and culture” over the banal amusements that exist only to distract the public with escapist entertainment.
Classic literary works that traffic in dated cultural stereotypes and explore moral ambiguity are being suppressed by their custodians in favor of texts that advance a more modern ethical framework. As Georgia-based high-school librarian Andy Spinks told the School Library Journal, “problematic texts” such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin, To Kill a Mockingbird, and anything by Laura Ingalls Wilder “meet the criteria for weeding” out of the curriculum.
Cartoons that transgress against modern cultural covenants, such as ensuring that characters with an identifiable race are voiced by actors who share that race or stigmatizing the promotion of “the good-cop archetype” (as Times reporter Amanda Hess declared in a bizarre anti-cop backlash against the kiddie cartoon Paw Patrol), are to be circumscribed for your own good.
Even sex for the sake of self-indulgence alone is increasingly regarded as an attack on the social fabric. Sexual lifestyle choices are being redefined as “quietly revolutionary” acts, according to Quartz reporter Olivia Goldhill—that is, when sex is had at all. New York Times columnist Ezra Klein favorably observed that state-level laws codifying consent are designed so young men will “feel a cold spike of fear when they begin a sexual encounter.” That seems to have been the intended effect.
“For most heterosexual men, the fear of doing consent wrong and unintentionally assaulting someone is deeply held and part of their everyday experience of sex,” the progressives at Teen Vogue conceded. After all, as Moira Donegan, the creator of the “Shitty Media Men” list, observed, it “should not be hard to say that heterosexuality as it is practiced is a raw deal for women and that much pornography eroticizes the contempt of women.” An unsurprising result of this intimidation campaign has been a dramatic increase in the number of Americans aged 18 to 29 who describe themselves as sexless.
The rediscovery of enduring ethical precepts that promote a common culture and a well-ordered society isn’t a wholly undesirable development, even if it has been accompanied by spasmodic moral panics about the degenerate cultural fare that Americans amuse themselves with. The spectacle that the moralizing left has made of itself, however, inadvertently rehabilitates the religious right.
“This too we want for America: moral clarity in our culture and ethical leadership in the White House,” the GOP’s 1996 party platform read. “It matters greatly that our leaders reflect and communicate those values, not undermine or mock them.” Those appeals to moral authority could appear today verbatim on any number of progressive Twitter feeds. The only difference is that those progressives don’t have a libertine, perjurious president whom they decided they needed to protect from the consequences of his own actions. In the end, they unwittingly created a pathway to power for another libertine, perjurious president whom they fear and revile and wish to destroy.
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