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The 1990s: When History’s End Went Wrong

Credit: Then-governor Bill Clinton, on the campaign trail, 1992. WikimediaCommons/Kenneth C. Zirkel

“Only 90s kids remember” is a popular Internet meme that celebrates (and satirizes) the intense nostalgia that many Millennials now reaching young adulthood feel for their childhood pop culture. This widespread yearning for a simpler time manifests itself in a variety of ways, including Netflix’s wholesome reboot “Fuller House” and throwback concert events like Emo Night Brooklyn.

Having been born in 1994, my claim to the title of “90s kid” is tenuous at best. But although I have no memories of the Clinton administration apart from being vaguely aware that there was such a thing as a president and that his name was Bill Clinton, I still claim the label with confidence. I lived through six years of that momentous decade and have re-experienced much of it by way of music, TV, and social media groups devoted to 90s nostalgia. Armed with these credentials, I now humbly offer you my grand unified theory of the 1990s, a perfect world that nevertheless found itself going crazy.

In 1989, the Cold War had just ended, and political scientist Francis Fukuyama rang in the new decade with a bold claim in his essay “The End of History”: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such.” He had a point. The economy was great, we were on our way to putting a computer in every home, and Bill Clinton, a moderate generally inoffensive to most Americans, was in the Oval Office. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Fukuyama argued, this upward trend would continue indefinitely. Liberal democracy and capitalism had won the final victory, and peace, freedom, and prosperity would reign forever and ever, Amen.

Such utopian declarations have their origin in Hegel, who declared an end to history following Napoleon’s victory over Prussia at the Battle of Jena. With the defeat of the ancient forces of superstition and arbitrary monarchy, Hegel believed that a liberal, enlightened future was on the horizon. The only problem with Hegel’s perfect world, as a professor once told me, was that Hegel himself was left outside of it. A world that has reached its telos has no place for the unanswerable miseries and yearnings of messy, un-economical man. Dostoevsky’s Underground Man sees the walls of Hegel’s “Crystal Palace” going up all around him, forbidding him even to mock them.

Fukuyama himself foresaw similar problems in the new world whose dawning he heralded, predicting it would lack the romance of ideological struggle. In place of that, we would have “economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands,” resulting in endless “centuries of boredom” that might be sufficient to “get history started once again.”

In the 1990s, we arrived at the end of history, only to discover that there was no there there. In his 1966 novel The Last Gentleman, Walker Percy describes a successful businessman with a beautiful family and every other advantage imaginable, his life “[a]ll in order except that he was screaming.” For the rest of the novel, the pressing question is whether or not it is better to scream. The 90s promised us an entire world as perfect as the life of Percy’s businessman, and we spent the better part of the decade screaming.

If you don’t believe me, just look at the major disasters of the 90s: Columbine, the Waco siege, the Oklahoma City bombing. None of these had a rational motive or represented a grander sort of evil. What made them so horrifying was their pettiness, their specificity. The nation that had eradicated fascism and communism earlier that century had no idea how to fight when the enemy was angsty teenagers, delusional cultists, and anarchic psychopaths who stubbornly refused to accept the perfect world they’d been handed.

Look at 90s TV shows. In the early seasons of “The West Wing,” government inefficiencies are the subject of light, affectionate teasing, and the biggest problem the administration has is what to do with the budget surplus. The post-9/11 seasons, by contrast, see President Bartlet ordering the assassination of a foreign defense minister and deploying 150,000 troops to avert a potential conflict between Russia and China. Apparently Aaron Sorkin and the writers who succeeded him finally realized that the end of history was boring. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” provides a more metaphorical example. Each of the first five seasons featured a primary antagonist, or “Big Bad,” who would present our heroes with their greatest challenge yet, only to be vanquished in the season’s final episode. But season six, which debuted less than a month after 9/11, offered no such comforting formula. With no Big Bad left to fight, the show’s conflict turned inward. Buffy became her own worst enemy, and the season ended with her being forced to confront one of her closest friends who had been driven into a fury of vengeance by a senseless act of violence.

Even 90s music shows the same anti-utopian bitterness. While it might be easy to mock the overpowering angst of bands like Nirvana and Green Day, they at least understood that utopia wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Though not released until 2004, My Chemical Romance’s emo anthem “I’m Not Okay” perfectly embodies the spirit of the age. They may not have been able to sing songs against Jim Crow or the Vietnam War like the previous generation had, but in a society that insists everything is fine and getting better all the time, insisting that something is wrong is the most profound form of rebellion.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” This, in my mind, is the only possible answer to the madness of the 1990s. If Lewis was right and humanity was made for heaven, there can be no utopia this side of paradise. When someone tells us that we live in a perfect world, we can’t help feeling that something isn’t right. “No,” we’re told, “everything is fine. The victory has been won. Enjoy the spoils. What possible reason do you have to feel the way you do?” We cannot give an answer. Nothing is wrong, but everything feels wrong. Stripped of the vocabulary to express any particular grievance, our alienation flares out in bursts of madness, angst, and rage. In a “perfect” world, such madness might be the only sane response.

Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. student at Georgetown University.

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