That ’90s Show

It’s early yet to forecast what the concept of ’90s nostalgia will look like in the mainstream, although recent history does offer one clue: the element of “youthful American exhuberence” will be played up, as it has been for every decade from the 1940s on. Consider it a safe bet, then, that the “Vacation from History” element of the last decade will get prime spin time, with series like “Seinfeld” (“the show about nothing”), and songs like Lenny Kravitz’s hippy-dippy optimistic “Fly Away” presented as signifiers of pumped-up escapism that marked the era.

Whether nostalgic “celebration” of the era will be focused more on ironic spin and cultural kitsch (the ’70s, and to some degree the ’80s), or a longing for a better and stronger time (the ’50s, and to some degree the ’60s) will likely depend on which ’90s cultural force earns the most long-term power currency, in the political and commercial marketplace of the new millennium. Perhaps as soon as next year, we’ll know whether the 1990s will be portrayed more as a joke image, of quaint but colorful foolishness, or as a symbol of strength and power, used to reassure future generations.

The emergence of a “free Internet,” with its startling breakthroughs in feedback and critique, will surely somehow figure in the power matrix, but just how its effects are spun to the masses will be determined by how it fares in comparison to what also arose in the ’90s: an expanding mainstream corporate media, unprecedented in its burgeoning, near-monolithic authority. Both forms of media — one still relatively wild but refreshingly egalitarian, the other ruled by authoritarian market interests but with reassuring tradition and professionalism — are in a battle for the heart and soul of America. Both will play huge roles when Americans decide next year whether George W. Bush will get a second term as president.

In any of the potential marketing strategies regarding the ’90s, I doubt the decade will ever be celebrated as is “The Golden Age of Corporate Media Punditry.” But in fact, that is one thing the era certainly was, at its most influential. From “This Week” to “Capital Gang” to “The McLaughlin Group,” to newspaper pundits like William Safire, Maureen Dowd, George Will and Michael Kelly, the commercial networks and newspapers ruled much of the public political dialogue in a way they hadn’t done before and haven’t since. There hadn’t yet developed a strong critical mass of Internet-based counter-narrative to the pronouncements of network and newspaper-approved “expert commentary,” although one could argue that the emerging Internet chat culture may’ve helped keep Bill Clinton’s overall approval ratings decent through the whole Impeachment matter. The corporate-sponsored bite of pundit attacks on Clinton were still enough, however, to tip the scales in public opinion so that a GOP-backed “alternative” to Clinton, in the person of George W. Bush, could make a case for taking power away from the Clinton/Gore crowd.

Where we are now is basically in the midst of fallout from the most influential ’90s socio-political forces: the slick and authoritative pronouncements from the corporate-appointed news reporters and analysts; and the egalitarian, feedback-dominated world of the Internet, which often provides a strong counterpoint to Conventional Wisdom, with information and commentary that would simply be disallowed or dismissed by the elitist “old” media.

For me, the Internet had a way of instantly making the old TV, radio and newspaper standards of communication and feedback not only quaint, but a bit pathetic in comparison. There’d be no going back, if I could help it. I remembered, in the days before such interactive give-and-take was possible, taking in what the mainstream reporters and pundits said with less of a critical eye. Even Rush Limbaugh, in the midst of the Clinton impeachment scandal, got more of a pass from me. If I’d had the Internet then, he probably wouldn’t have.

Today the corporate media maintains advantages of tradition and overall access, but the new media is gaining in power and stature, as the net-fueled candidacy of Howard Dean and the still-growing legion of net users are demonstrating. The big question is, is there a ceiling to what political and cultural change the free Internet can foster, in a world so vulnerable to emotional, polarizing, cutthroat politics? And does the corporate network media have a power advantage over independent net media, in that it can be easily manipulated by those who practice the dark arts of propaganda and fascism?

Yes, the overall level of public dialogue has been greatly enriched by the Internet, and the chance of healthy critique has increased. But have the Powers That Be developed enough ways to get around the system (propaganda, intimidation, bribery, fraud) to make whatever “enlightenment” that occurs via the Internet pale in comparison? I have a feeling that the 2004 presidential election, which pundits such as Paul Krugman have predicted will be one of the dirtiest ever, is going to go aways toward answering the questions: How much is the fix really in? And how much does knowing about the fix make a difference?