Monday, June 2, 2014
1994 In Historical Perspective
Now that I am getting older, I am realizing that I have reached such an advanced age that the years of my youth are long enough ago to be put into perspective. That though crossed my mind recently after hearing that the New York Rangers are going to the Stanley Cup finals. In my head I think of their last victory being not so long ago, since it happened right after I graduated high school. Then I realized that was twenty years ago!
1994 was maybe the most action-packed year of my life, so it is a difficult time for me to think of in world-historical terms. I graduated high school, finished third in the state of Nebraska in Lincoln-Douglass debate (my greatest competitive accomplishment), went on my first date (not as great), traveled to Germany as an exchange student (my first trip outside of North America), went to college, used the internet for the first time, and met some lifelong friends. Lots of things were going on the world that I didn't pay much attention to, and lots of things I took for granted ended up being really big in perspective.
Politically I think 1994 will go down as a watershed year in American history. It is easy to forget nowadays, but the Reaganite neoliberal political order was not always fated to have its three decade (and counting) run. In 1992 George HW Bush failed to win re-election and garnered the lowest support for an incumbent since Taft. Bill Clinton presided over a Democratic Congress, one that had been solidly Democratic, more or less, since the New Deal. He proposed a national plan to provide health insurance, the first such attempt to significantly expand the safety net since LBJ.
All of that changed in 1994. Clinton's plan bit the dust in Congress, and it was used by Republicans to win a sweeping victory in the midterm election that year, taking the House for the first time since the 1950s, and they've held it for almost all of the time since. After that point Clinton went deeper into triangulation mode, and in the aftermath he would cut back on welfare, declare the era of "big government" to be over, appease the religious right by signing DOMA, and generally governing like a moderate Republican. Granted, he had supported NAFTA and such beforehand, but 1994 ended any true progressive initiatives on his part.
That 1994 Republican resurgence was led by Newt Gingrich and popularized by talk radio. The hard-Right, inflexible in its ideology, had taken its place in the leadership of the Republican party rather than being relegated to the back benches. Our politics, from the Lewinsky scandal onward, have never been the same. Gingrich's temper tantrum government shutdown the next year was a sign of things to come. The hard Right's far fringe grew as well, since 1994 saw a major rise in the militia movement, in the wake of Ruby Ridge, Waco, and anger over a Democratic president. Our politics today are routinely held hostage by conservative zealots; 1994 was when they first realized their power.
1994 was also a crucial year in culture and society. I happened to be in Germany during OJ Simpson's infamous ride in his white Bronco, and I went from being in a place where no one was talking about it to a country completely obsessed with it. Looking back the reaction to the OJ trial and the way it was covered was a kind of canary in the coal mine as far as the health of the news media is concerned. There once was a time when channels like CNN carried primarily hard news, often delivered by far-flung global correspondents. When TV news organizations cashed in on the OJ case, they put themselves well down the road to where they are today: purveyors of bland, idiotic infotainment.
In the world of popular culture, Kurt Cobain killed himself, an event that deeply saddened me at the time, and seemed to be the beginning of the end of an all-too short trend where interesting rock music found its way onto the radio. In retrospect it might even be the end of rock music as a broad cultural force. (Don't believe me? Look at the charts.) Nevertheless, Pearl Jam put out the seriously challenging Vitalogy, and punk (albeit in poppy form) finally broke in the form of Green Day. Albums by Nas and the Notorious B.I.G. redefined hip-hop, and west coast gangsta rap went pop with Warren G. In the world of film Pulp Fiction dropped like a bomb, a film so revolutionary and so much more exciting than the usual Hollywood fare that I felt like I was witnessing something historical even before the film was half over. It is hard to state just how moribund and lifeless the world of film felt at the time, or how distant the independent world felt from the mainstream. Pulp Fiction opened space for indie-type films to get a wider audience, and for more challenging fare to hit the multiplexes.
Last but not least, plenty of craziness happened in the sports world. (My own Nebraska Cornhuskers finally won a national championship, but that's neither here nor there.) The baseball players' strike did not get resolved, leaving the World Series canceled and Expos fans to wonder "what if?" That strike's consequences led to the labor peace that the sport currently enjoys, to the envy of others. The Rangers won the Stanley Cup and broke a 54 year streak of futility for their long-suffering fans. George Foreman became heavyweight champion at the ripe age of 45.
If I ever have the time and inclination, I think there's a lot here that could be made into one of those "profile of a year" books. The Boomers had '68, my fellow late-period Gen Xers have 1994.
Footnote: And this is just in the United States. From a world historical perspective, 1994 was also very momentous. The horror of the Rwandan genocide happened that summer, and the fighting in Bosnia was fierce at that time.