In recent years, celebrities have adapted to an increasingly politicised world by themselves becoming more outspoken and vigilant on the issues. On various chat shows and through social media outlets, they’ll let their opinion ring out, regardless of research, originality, or grammar to attain that seal of approval needed to go on working in the industry without being seen as problematic.
So what’s the problem then?
On the surface, it’s not that evident. Celebrities should be entitled to their opinions. They don’t necessarily have to play ball with any mandate. You can simply scroll by if you don’t like what Whoopi Goldberg or Matt Damon has to say. Big whoop!
Well, the problem is that this politicisation has begun to affect the art itself and the culture surrounding it. For example, the other day I decided to punish myself by watching 10 minutes of the Video Music Awards (VMAs) to see what was what with the youths of today. They had a category for “Best Video With A Message” which was delivered to Billie Eilish for her (unusually) unremarkable song “Your Power”. She proceeded to offer vague insistences of people using their power responsibly or recognising privilege. I wasn’t able to pay attention, really. I was transfixed on the fact that this was an actual category at the VMAs- the dumbest awards’ ceremony ever created. After she had finished her speech, several performances then followed featuring twerking and lyrics about haters being haters and speaking one’s truth or something equally embarrassing. But back to the category. When did this vapid, moronic ceremony feel the need to pay tribute to ambiguous social issues? When did these issues, furthermore, become so commercialised?
If one has something genuine to say about race, mental health, addiction, or inequality, you shouldn’t bemoan or ridicule them necessarily. Sometimes, even celebrities can offer nuggets of wisdom with first-hand experience or a good depth of knowledge. Nowadays however, it’s enough to just hitch your ride to this wagon for the sake of trending on Twitter or getting a few, click bait likes. (It’s Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s career plan.) What was once seen as pandering and distasteful is now seen as courageous and important. (One has to wonder, on a side note, how courageous it is to say something you know will go down well?)
It happens in the music industry with many of the top-charting songs today addressing empowerment on a fundamentally basic level, in literature (with an increasing number of novels tackling issues and story/plot trailing behind as a casualty), and in TV/movies. With regards the latter, this problem is most evident. On press junkets, actors will often be asked to elaborate on an issue or theme in their work (better suited to a director or doctorate student) that their PR has clearly tapped them on. When they don’t answer quite convincingly, it can elicit a Twitter storm. For example, Margot Robbie’s lack of dialogue in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood garnered negative reactions from those who sought to make a sexist out of Quentin Tarantino (ignoring Jackie Brown and Kill Bill) when he refused to pander and answer the question. (Poor Margot wasn’t quite sure what to say but felt she’d been given a good opportunity.)
Hollywood has always been a predominantly liberal market. This is nothing new. Politics have aggressively come to the fore in recent years however, as evident with the movies put up for major awards that lack general popularity or remote commercial appeal (Nomadland) and an increased emphasis on ideology over art. Too often now, I see reviews focusing on the importance of the subject rather than the quality of the project itself, e.g. Black Panther. Similarly, many of the reviews for the Star Wars sequel trilogy were built around subverting expectations and the promotion of a female lead rather than the nonsense stories roughly hewn together without a plan (not even my analysis; J.J. Abrams confirmed it would’ve been better with a plan).
This trail of thought can go a little awry though so it should be stated that diversity is, in fact, a good thing in cinema and TV. It gives an increased number of actors, writers, and directors an opportunity. It promotes a wealth of stories, not seen before. And it attracts a wider net of audiences.
It can’t be the be-all and end-all of creating art however. Problems arise when producers think it’s enough and don’t do the proper work involved in actualising the reality of the stories represented by various cultures. For example, the female-reboot of Ghostbusters was widely ridiculed because it felt, from the offset, like a cheap cash-grab. By ridiculed, it is worth noting, I mean by audiences. Critics are a different matter.
As aforementioned with the Star Wars sequels, reviews can be skewed. Social media dictates a lot of what we’re willing to say today which is why any Marvel criticism can cause a stir online or why super popular figures are beyond criticism in their camps (Beyoncé, Obama, Oprah, etc.) With the politicisation of entertainment, it’s only become a tougher job to give an honest critique of a musical performance (lest you undermine how women are perceived by criticising Little Mix) or a movie like Nomadland (which said a lot about America without the distraction of remote entertainment or story). It takes tact to be a successful critic, these days.
We live in a time when politicians try to grab the public’s attention with the flair or a celebrity and when celebrities speak with the calculations of a politician. For all the good that’s come of these last years, opening the floodgates for diversity and tackling subjects previously not remarked on, we’ve somehow permitted political correctness to infect the arts. If history has taught us anything, it’s that many of the great pieces of literature (Huckleberry Finn), film (Citizen Kane), and TV (The Sopranos) were not created in a space of orthodoxy and permissiveness. Simply stated, the problem lies in thinking we can mandate artistic relevance and excellence.
“Speak[ing] your truth” has become an incessantly annoying phrase in recent years. Once the mantra of the truly oppressed, used for good cause in shedding light on issues like sexism and racism, it’s become a cliche adopted by anyone and everyone. You see it in magazine articles, on inane Instagram posts, in every Oprah interview, and even in ad campaigns. And for what purpose, I wonder, besides some vague reach for headline fodder?
In full disclosure, I’ll admit that I am a curmudgeon and contrarian. So in the interest of attaining some balance, I decided to give “speak your truth” a fair shot by reminding myself of its origins and use. In essence, it’s a reiteration of sharing one’s story or providing a different perspective. With the #metoo movement, it became a calling card for accounts of abused women who were never afforded a platform to share their version of events. Similarly, across history, it rallied strength by numbers for groups of oppressed minorities, whose history was erased; a new edition of “the truth” for many, educated by a whitewashed system.
The truth is different from your or my truth however. It may sound petty to distinguish these, in light of what’s been stated above but here’s the thing: who’s to validate the actual truth when so many sides can claim legitimacy via emotional goodwill? It’s not just the oppressed that use this phrase. It’s dragged out for pasture by the flat-earthers, the anti-vaxxers, Holocaust deniers, and Trump supporters of this world too. And with so much “truth” going on, it gets pretty foggy out there.
The Atlantic highlighted this well in early 2018, speaking about Oprah’s Cecile B. De Mille Award speech at the Golden Globes. A strong proponent of all things spiritual and motivational, she urged people to (you guessed it) “speak [their] truth” leading to calls (among idiots) for her to run for president. To be fair, given the actual good she’s done with her show and her background, there’s some weight to her pronouncement against others except that she’s also helped dilute the power of this message by praising the likes of Jenny McCarthy for her bravery when speaking out against vaccinations (in 2007). This is not meant to fan the flames of a vaccination debate but to simply point out that opposing sides (as we’d imagine them) each believe they’re speaking truth to power.
In a “post-truth world” of “alternative facts” and headline readers, speaking one’s truth isn’t entirely a noble endeavour. I’d even go so far as to say that it emboldens political opposites by adding an extra layer of sanctimonious narcissism to their bubbles. On top of that too, it’s been capitalised on by celebrities for surpassing a certain number of followers (The Rock) and by clothing brands like Calvin Klein who featured a roster of celebrities in their “I speak my truth” campaign. (Kendall Jenner was one of them.)
The use of language changes throughout history and most people will dabble in hyperbole from time to time but with important concepts like truth and lies, one should take the time to consider their value. After all, a large percentage of Americans still believe the election was stolen from Trump despite clear evidence to the contrary. Their arguments may be non-existent but the emotional weight attached to their call can’t be denied. And when one begins conflating their opinion with facts, it gets pretty to see where the my and your get separated from the the (truth).
Following on from my last piece about Gen X’s low-profile status when juxtaposed against Boomers and Millenials, I thought it was worth revisiting the murky subject of generational struggle. This time however, I will be focusing on the generation that just won’t die off: The Boomers.
These illustrious, seemingly all-powerful beings were born roughly between the early 40s and early 60s and came into their own at a time of great economic improvement and opportunity, greater music, and massive cultural change (i.e. the ’60s). Indeed, the popular picture that’s been painted of this era is one of revolutionary zeal, free spiritedness, and tremendous progress on Civil Rights; a time of renewed hope for mankind, following the bleakness of the Silent Generation. Of course, theirs was not a time without struggle as Vietnam and race riots dominated the news in the late ’60s while the ’70s saw staggering oil inflation, a decline in respect for politics (following Nixon), and the continuation of the Cold War. By the time of the 1980s however, the Boomers had found a sure footing in America as the dominant electorate and net of cultural values. And… that’s where things changed.
Now, it goes without saying that an entire generation cannot “sell out”; at least not in terms of its populace. With that self-evident notion hovering above us however, let’s consider how the radiant plumage of the ’60s got withered away and replaced with the shoulder pads, dodgy hair-dos, and new right or neoliberal values of the ’80s. Gone were the days of the “Hippie Revolution”; it was in with the “Commercial Revolution”, the “Reagan Revolution”, and a new mentality for an a generation graduating into their mid life.
We’ve already touched on the struggles of the ’70s, if not the psychological and cultural repercussions they bore. Most people’s idealism will at some point be compromised by the practicalities of adult life when children, careers, and other factors come into the equation. The teens and young adults of the late ’60s simply grew up at some point. They were jaded, with that said, by the experiences of their time. While 1967 boasted the so-called “Summer of Love”, 1968 brought the “Summer of Hate” with revolutionary spirits leading to protests and then quashed protests. The loveable druggies of the Hippie era became, in part by reality (but also by the Media and politicians) the junkies of the following decade. Lyndon Johnson’s progressive agenda was torn asunder when Vietnam clouded his resume, not to mention the rise of Nixon (who hated Hippies and started the War on Drugs). With the sullen decline of this spirit in the ’70s (the decade of “Malaise”), it was no wonder why many Boomers were ready for a fresh start with the ’80s.
Ronald Reagan was able to sell that “fresh start” for many. Whilst his administration pushed America on a right-wing trajectory (it’s largely followed since) that would actually (in years to come) negatively affect the majority of Americans, he was able to sell it with a winning smile and the profile of a true leader. Enough Americans believed things were improving (having faced the “tough love” years of the Carter Administration) and voted him back in in 1984 as well as his successor, George H.W. Bush in 1988. The Democrats, in meek response, basically followed the New Right to the centre, whereby they could get a New Democrat-type politician into power with Bill Clinton in 1992 and so on… Politics aside, the point is that Boomers, having taken the largest share of the electorate by the 1980s were the ones to benefit from the initial economic upturn. Thus, even a mantra like “Greed is Good” (meant as a warning from Oliver Stone in 1987’s Wall Street) came to exhibit a twisted kind of wisdom for its age.
Bruce Gibney, author of A Generation of Sociopaths has been particularly critical of this turn of events. Speaking in an interview with Vox at the time of the book’s release, he said:
“Starting with Reagan, we saw this national ethos which was basically the inverse of JFK’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ This gets flipped on its head in a massive push for privatised gain and socialised risk for big banks and financial institutions. This has really been the dominant bomber economic theory, and it’s poisoned what’s left of our public institutions.”
The “Trickle-Down” economic model has been something of a “greatest hits” piece for the GOP since the 1980s. It would be foolish to state however that Boomers knew what they were in for with such changes. Even the politicians of the time, bent on conservative policies, couldn’t have known. With that said, that particular decade did set a damaging tone for what was to follow. The future of subsequent generation’s retirement funds, college loans, mortgages, and more were determined by what was set out then. At least in the 1970s, when there were economic struggles, there was some measure of co-ordination between Republicans and Democrats to balance out the extremes of either side that have increasingly flourished since. In many ways, it was a time of more liberal economic and political thinking.
The ’80s saw the rise of modern commercialism and a quasi-sanitised media too. Malls replaced high streets and new kinds of products lined the window faces of the shops built within. Movies of the ’70s, built on morally ambivalent antiheroes and dark realities faded from popularity as likeable heroes again took the screen. “Just Say No” and other family-friendly values and slogans helped push cheesy sitcoms to the fore. CDs saw the introduction of “Parental Advisory” stickers with censorship prevailing in the MTV era. Language and content were closely monitored on TV. It was a different kind of political correctness, to what we’re used to today, buoyed mostly by the New Right with puritanical leanings. All that is not to say great art wasn’t born out of that decade because it was but it was certainly symptomatic of a new way of refining the cultural values of the time.
American culture naturally moved on from the ’80s, with some persuasion from Gen X and subsequently Millenials in the following decades but by the mid-late ’90s, Boomers had effectively seized the reigns of power, which they still have tremendous persuasion over.
It is a harsh indictment, yes, and perhaps one a millennial, such as myself should be careful about castigating. As aforementioned, it’s generally the case that people will have different concerns in their 20s to what they have in their 40s. And the latter group, having moved up the career ladder, will have more money and more likely to grow conservative. People in their 20s want to see change. People in their latter years, less so. Plus, we’re not the first generation to think we know better or are “with it”. As Holly Scott put it in The Washington Post, of this generationaldivide:
“Young radicals believed they were ushering in a new America, and those over 30 were hopelessly out of touch and not to be trusted. Today’s youths have ‘Ok, boomer’. The youths of the 1960s had a different taunt: Mr. Jones, derived from the Arron saint of the youths, Bob Dylan, who sang, ‘ something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?'”
Perhaps, like the Boomers, we are destined to meet a dead end, to hit a brick wall? Perhaps each generation is bound to retrace the same, familiar patterns if within a different context? And perhaps still, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “every generation needs a new revolution”.
Boomers and Millenials don’t get along. Where Boomers, in the post-war economic boost, saw a general incline in the quality of life and retirement benefits, Millenials feel they’ve been given the short-end of the stick with increasing opportunities for debt and later-retirement. Meanwhile, Boomers feel their foes have become increasingly fragile and dependent on benefits that didn’t exist way back when. To each other, the stereotypes are consolidated, ruminated upon, and passed around for affirmation across social and traditional media. In the midst of this quagmire however lies a “forgotten” 65 million Americans we sometimes call “Generation X”.
Who comprises this mysterious assembly of shadows, you may ask. Born between the mid ’60s and the early ’80s, this generation saw a displacement in the values and philosophies placed before them. With the thaw of the ’60s counter-culture giving way to the commercial assembly-line of the 80s, the rise of the right, and the formation of the neoliberal left, they grew up with a somewhat despondent and disinterested outlook on life and politics. It was a time when children were raised by TVs (as both parents went to work), when walkmans roamed the Earth, and when being cool meant you didn’t care. Highlighted by the raucous fuzz of grunge in the early ’90s, the emergence of hip-hop, and indie auteurs in cinema (Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, etc), this generation paved its own path demarcating itself from the passions and dominance of the generations preceding and succeeding them.
Now, all this talk of generational values is of course susceptible to inferences of exceptions and accusations of generalisations. With that much acknowledged (for the sake of it), I would still agree with Rich Cohen’s point of view (from Vanity Fair in 2017) that the “shared experiences” roughly define a generation and our purpose in examining them. And as he puts it, with such flavour, Gen X was shaped by “irony and a keen sense of dread”, almost sharing “more in common with the poets haunting the taverns on 52nd street at the end of the 30s than the hippies at Woodstock”.
This is an interesting association. In poetic form, it is sometimes philosophised that trends associated with one generation skip the next before re-emerging (like fashion). To an extent, one could argue that Millenials and Boomers share in common, a sense of passion for civil liberties and rights (at least drawing a parallel between today and the late 60s). However, again as it is worth noting (along with this entire piece), this is speculative and may cause distress to some.
Speaking of “distress”, it is sometimes noted that what divides Millenials from Gen X is this sense of “fragility” touched upon so delicately earlier. Gen X, being the “whatever, man” generation, are thought to be less emotionally involved and politically fired up (for all the good and bad that comes with that). One doesn’t have to look back too far to see a time when not every chat show was dominated by politics and when the dominant subject of a presidency was an affair with an intern. Perhaps this sense of displacement and disinterest was based on how the Boomers came to adopt new ill-fitted power suits with giant shoulder pads in the ’80s, when the revolutionary spirit of the ’60s was paved over for a parking lot. Perhaps, this disenfranchisement was wrung from disappointment.
A part of me feels a little annoyed for Gen X because many of the woes of Millenials are shared by them, to some extent. For example, they only control 16% of wealth in the US despite being in the 40-55 age bracket and having both Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos (where Boomers control over 50%). They’ve got their share of debt and suffered through the dotcom bust and 2008 Financial Crash at pivotal times of home ownership in their age group. Plus, they’ve had to watch their beloved VHS and DVDs die tragically. They’re the first generation to be worse off than their parents in terms of retirement.
Now, many of the debt woes that plague both generations have gotten worse, like college loans. In this sense, Millenials are worse off in facing an even grimmer future. But let’s face it, they suck up too much oxygen in this room. Gen X deserves some attention too. Perhaps, their unflinching, shoe-gazing, Breakfast Club, Ethan Hawk-ish, Kurt Cobain, ironic ways have led them to sulk where others shout. Perhaps, these Boomers serving in office till they collapse hasn’t afforded them the chance to do the shouting. It’s difficult to ascertain exactly why they’ve been left in the dark but their influence may yet come (or comeback) to the forefront of our political and cultural zeitgeist.
To leave this destination-less fathoming on a note of some aplomb, I’d like to quote George Orwell (the Stephanie Meyer of his day): “Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it and the one that comes after it.” So the next time you’re thinking of those unyielding Boomers or those self-righteous Millenials or whatever Gen Z is, spare a thought for that kinda-somewhere-in-the-middle-but-not-really-generation that is Generation X.
Despite this site’s preoccupation with American culture and politics, every now and then, a story emerges so large and unimportant we feel the need to cover it. I am of course referring to the fiasco, the pandemonium, the chaos, and disorder of Harry and Meghan’s own Brexit. You see, despite their intentions to leave it all behind and start anew, they’re back out there, pursuing the spotlight with the fervent appetite of Prince Andrew at a Pizza Express. Why? Because they need to Speak. Their. Truth.
Where better to get a factual and dignified take of accounts too than the chicken-soup-for-the-soul odyssey that is Oprah!? No-one has the know-how and interrogative dynamism of the Queen of Media, whose line of questioning as teased in the trailer (“were you silent or silenced”) showed this was going to be anything but a walk in the park.
Of course, I’m not so heartless as to deem Harry and Meghan’s plight inauthentic or trivial. Certainly, the British media’s coverage has been hostile, bordering on psychotically obsessed at points. And if you find yourself saying “you know what, Piers Morgan has a point,” something has probably gone awry. (He stormed out of an interview when questioned about his constant attacks of Meghan. They once were friends or something so there’s a whole story there.) Plus, tabloids have spun the story so much that it’s hard to make heads or tail of when all this animosity began. And they’re trash. So on the whole, I do feel that Meghan Markle has been bullied.
On the surface, it seems Harry and Meghan have not navigated this tricky terrain with much tact however. Alternately torn between vague notions of privacy and stepping away or stepping back from the Royal Family, they’ve squandered a lot of good-will by doing such high profile interviews (worst of all, appearing on James Corden’s show; the lowest of the low) which has led to accusations of them wanting the glitz and the glamour but none of the baggage of that wacky family.
Now, they were never going to exactly be left alone (being Royals) and race has disgracefully played a part in the narrative surrounding Meghan, distinguishing her from the likes of Kate Middleton. The British press have painted her as something of a sorceress or spinner of webs; the Margery Tyrell of the Royal Family; a deviant, bent on pursuing the most delicious of all prizes, UNLIMITED POWER. Her claims, in stark contrast to this picture, were never going to be as credible since the press survive on perpetuating and repeating controversial claims, even if they’re outlandish or plain untrue. So, maybe appearing on Oprah is her chance to try win the people over, having been dogged by such spurious accounts of mischief while in reality, being bullied by the institution and the press. (Although really, she didn’t know what it would be like?)
It’s a catch-22, if that’s the case. By trying to restore her reputation in the public’s eyes, she’s reinforcing her image as an attention-seeking socialite. Perhaps a personal essay would have been a more dignified approach? But then, headlines amplify what essays don’t. Maybe another interviewer? Oprah’s great at what she does but a lot of her interviews feed into the tabloid style of things. Though… she does guarantee a wide net for viewership. In this respect, I’m quite sympathetic because I don’t know what exactly she can do to reverse people’s perceptions of her. Indeed, it’s hard to know what to believe in all this miasma of conflicting statements. Even some of her assertions have been contested (e.g. her son was never going to be a prince due to laws surrounding his not being direct in line to the throne).
What’s more important, however, is the archaic and hierarchical boundaries in which the Royal Family, as an institution, operate. In the interview, Harry claims that they are afraid of receiving negative coverage from the tabloids and as a result, give them special access. Therein lies the most significant point of the conversation; something we’ve always suspected (known) but is still quite shocking to have formalised by a prince.
Monarchy, as a system, is outdated. For whatever reason, many countries defend its existence with weak countenances of tradition, tourism, and symbolism against which politicians can be held to account. If we’re being honest though, none of that matters since nepotism, on this scale, is wrong. I can’t quite reconcile Harry and Meghan’s personal accounts with the way they’ve conducted themselves at all times but at least this interview might shed light on this eon-long system of oppression and abuse. After all, she’s been disparaged to the highest degree while the likes of Prince Andrew have been given a pass for far worse. Isn’t it time we held them all to account by the same standards?
Like many of yous, I’ve been eagerly awaiting new episodes of the Marvel series Wandavision each week. Besides fitting in with the greater course of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and boasting an interesting premise in itself (and no spoilers, don’t worry), what delights me is the attention paid to the shifting styles of sitcoms from the 1950s to the 2010s. It’s so expertly executed each episode that it stirs nostalgic feelings, even for times before my own (1991 on).
As someone who unabashedly lives in the past, I can’t help but remark how much our sensibilities have changed; evident even in such a specific format as the sitcom. Where some subjects were once taboo (the word “pregnancy” wasn’t used on I Love Lucy in the 1950s) and others prioritised (the traditional family unit), we now tend to approach these issues and images with a much different set of eyes. Of course, this can be traced through cultural developments that extend beyond the sitcom, but for a format that’s (more or less) remained consistently popular, I think some of these changes are more readily apparent.
With the advent of TV in American households, a novel form of entertainment was born. Being a rather conservative era (culturally), risqué subjects weren’t often broached with emphasis instead placed on garnering comfortable content that would make audiences tune in each week. To this end, the format was developed with strong lighting, familiar camera angles, likeable characters who embodied the American middle class ideal and below the line, comedy fodder (slapstick gags, catchphrases, etc.) Some of the popular sitcoms from this era included I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Andy Griffith Show.
The 1960s saw remarkable cultural change with the rise of the counter-culture and boomers beginning to assert their voices. Plus, colour started creeping onto TV sets, setting the stage for a new era of television. Despite the vibrancy of these tones and the fashion however, sitcoms began to reflect a more realistic world, focusing on friends, family, and the workplace. Taboos also began to be addressed, such as abortion, in shows like All In The Family.
A crazy decade for sure but again, the sitcom snuggly repeated tropes on the cozy, ideal American family unit. In an era of conservatism and Reagan, heavy-handed morals also began to dominate many shows (“just say no” to drugs, etc.) The wholesomeness of this era was reflected in Family Ties, The Cosby Show (now ironically), and Cheers, among others.
The sitcom continued to follow some of the usual cliches but with an increased air of rebellion against the traditional family unit becoming the norm. Gen-X were now asserting their claim to TV. This was thanks in part to The Simpsons, which flared up the culture wars when President George H.W. Bush reflected his hopes that there were more families “like the Waltons and less like The Simpsons.” Alas, his finger wasn’t on the pulse there. Instead, parental figures would increasingly become the ire and mocking of the “school sucks, parents blow” ethos.
Working class families and family dysfunction began to also see some representation with the likes of Roseanne, although on the whole, we were still dealing with conventional values.
The sitcom format was more purposefully challenged this decade with the likes of The Office reflecting a reality-TV obsessed world. Catchphrases by this point had largely become hokey and laugh tracks were on the way out. As The Office and shows to follow took up a mockumentary-style format, others like Malcolm In The Middle and Scrubs experimented with narrative. Thanks to globalisation, syndication, and the Box set market, shows also became a lot more attuned to retention humour, relating to the popular culture they were influencing.
With traditional networks losing ratings as streaming became the norm, the sitcom was seemingly on the decline. Still, there was plenty of room for the likes of ModernFamily and Brooklyn Nine-Nine to thrive. What’s especially notable about the sitcoms of more recent years is the diversification in cast members and the deconstruction of the family unit, to reflect something less traditional. On the other hand, where the 90s and 00s saw moves away from moralistic standpoints, the 2010s revived this sense of idealism, in part (albeit in a far more progressive and tactful way, perhaps reflecting millennial indignation, as opposed to the despondency of Gen X).
Change and Consistency
Any discussion of generational change is bound to ensnare the trappings of misgivings and generalisations but sometimes, it’s worth drawing a sketch. To an extent, the sitcom really hasn’t changed all that much, considering the span of decades in discussion. The same innovations in lighting and cinematography, largely pioneered by Karl Freund for I Love Lucy in the ’50s set the stage for what followed with many classics like Growing Pains, The Golden Girls, The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, Seinfeld, and Friends. Sure, single-cam sitcoms have replaced multi-cam ones in many instances, the laugh track has largely died out (a positive development, in my opinion), and the American family has changed in appearance but many of these popular shows have thrived because they’ve all shared the collective space of comfort TV. We relate to and enjoy returning to the lives of these characters and the wacky shenanigans they get up to. It’s likely, there’ll always be a space for such light-hearted entertainment, even if the streaming services get the bulk of their kudos from the heavy-hitting dramas.
What Wandavision has managed to achieve, in this regard, is giving us a glimpse into the sensibilities of the eras it depicts. We see the idealism of the Eisenhower era, the cultural change of the 1970s, the pop-punk aesthetic of the MTV generation, and the onset of the modern era. They’re not wholly accurate representations, sure, but they reflect the popular images we’ve come to appreciate of these times (which in part, then also reinforces the nostalgic preoccupation of today). And as art imitates life, the opposite often holds true as well.
With the start of a new administration and change in power in the Senate, we here at the Washington Walrus thought we’d take the time to recalibrate our takes on the key players of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Basically, a who’s who of the big cheeses; the ones pulling the strings, be it with their positions or influence in the media and political landscape. So without further ado.
Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, pictured (D)
The 80-year old Speaker looks like she owns a formidable hard candy collection and is known for keeping her party in check. She proved she still had it by taking on Donald Trump, upon retaking the majority in the House in 2019. Now, she is pursuing impeachment against the former President, despite initially holding out on the first one until they had a solid case with evidence. How old school of you, Nancy.
At present, she is navigating a tough transition for the Democratic Party. Despite keeping the majority last election, they lost a number of seats to Republicans. Is it because they’re perceived as moving in too liberal a direction or holding onto old cronies like her? It’s hard to say but most seem glad to have her steady-hand and salon-tempered hair at the wheel in these uncertain times.
Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Lead (R)
What if a bullfrog wished he could be transformed into human form? Now, what if that bullfrog was also kind of a dick? Well, then you’ve got Mitch McConnell. Also ancient in age, he’s proved himself to be one of the least likeable Republicans in American history, by hawkishly prioritising politics over the good of the country at almost every turn; one of the key figures responsible for the gridlock of Washington during the Obama administration. If he had a chance to redeem himself, he sure squandered it during the Trump era, again mindful of what anything but appeasement would cost him (even if he truly abhorred him).
The Senate is roughly 50-50 at present (with Kamala Harris coming in as the deciding vote) but McConnell’s influence unfortunately doesn’t look like it’s going to wane any time soon. To an extent, I suspect he’s glad to be the minority leader because he gets to still effectively oppose new legislation without feeling the burden to present any of his own (or indeed any solutions, as evidenced when both parties’ leaders were brought together in late 2008 to discuss the financial crash).
Ted Cruz, Senator (R)
The Senator’s electability apparently hasn’t suffered despite the fact he is one of the least liked members of the Senate, even in his own party. Like McConnell, he’s all about politics but he’s just that bit more weasel-like to the point he resembles some sort of rat or otter.
Cruz’ immediate test is moving beyond his association with Donald Trump, who once called him a “sleaze” who nobody liked. Cruz helped goad the Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol last month without taking any responsibility for his part. If I might liken him to a Harry Potter character, I’d have to choose Wormtail.
Chuck Schumer, Senate Majority Lead (D)
He’s a key player in that he’s the Senate majority lead but there’s not much to say about him. Decent, I guess. Where Nancy’s a bit more collected and elegant, he’s a bit more rough and ready with the odd controversial remark on Gaza or immigration. The bulldog of the Senate, why not?
“The Squad”, House Members (D)
Netflix’s casting dream consists of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, Jamaal Bowman, and Cori Bush. The former four were elected to the House in 2018 and the latter two in 2020. They’re generally painted as the progressive wing or “future” of the party to some and can’t be criticised, lest you face the wrath of Twitter. So let’s just leave it at they’re excellent and brave and speak your truth and stay true to yourself, cause they are “fire” and move on. Quite quickly.
Elizabeth Warren, Senator (D)
But you don’t have to be young and hip to be progressive, just ask 71-year old Elizabeth Warren who ran the 2nd-most progressive presidential campaign after Bernie Sanders. While undoubtedly impressive, she probably lacked the charisma necessary to ever mount a notable bid. Still, we need someone who’s economically minded like her and just doesn’t speak in platitudes or empty gestures.
Bernie Sanders, Senator (Independent)
Bernie Sanders is both no nonsense and a master of memes; something that should be paradoxical but just works. In a sense, it’s a shame he didn’t get the nomination in either of his bids but with the might of the Democratic Party at hand, it’s hard to move that last boulder. Still, the energy of America’s youth was behind him and there’s no one else who’s been so consistent in his or her values. Thankfully, he’s stayed on long enough that his ideas have become more mainstream and even though he’s not a part of Biden’s administration, it looks at least as if he’ll have some influence.
Amy Klobuchar, Senator (D)
Honestly, I kind of find her annoying. Anyone else? Well, apparently not Joe Biden or Kamala Harris, since she introduced the inaugural proceedings last month.
Lindsey Graham, Senator (R)
Joe Biden admitted his old friend’s allegiances had been something of a “personal disappointment” in an interview with Stephen Colbert. Once described as pretty amiable, even by former Democratic Senator Al Franken, Lindsey Graham’s lowered his standing by association and defence of Trump.
Mitt Romney, Senator (R)
There’s something quite likeable about Mitt Romney, although it may just be a desire to see a Republican act anything other than reprehensible. The 2012 nominee is something of a new McCain, in a sense. He’s conservative in his principles but entirely anti-Trump and willing to to go outside what one would consider regular party behaviour, marching in solidarity with BLM last summer. If there’s a way to restore some dignity to the morally compromised GOP and toe a more centrist line, perhaps Mitt Romney could be looked on as a potential future candidate (again).
Time has a way of changing how we see things. With an ever speculative media and lowering of the bar in our general cultural zeitgeist, it’s only natural that our hearts soften and we yearn for an escape to the past, blissfully ignorant of the fires once ignited in us. We see things differently because we forget, we forgive, we re-evaluate, and re-prioritise our claims to what holds important today. In a broad sense, this has helped out former President George W. Bush a great deal.
Once the ire of liberals and humanitarians around the world, George W. Bush has managed to shift his appeal and image to that of a happy-go-lucky, maybe he wasn’t-so-bad-after-all kooky figure. Perhaps one of the most controversial US leaders of all time has somehow become the least controversial of the former living occupants of the Oval Office.
That might sound a little extreme but when you consider the current climate of divisiveness in the US, it makes sense. Obama and soon Trump represent polar opposites and are each pinatas for the other side due to their current relevance (and in Obama’s case, race). Bill Clinton… well, we wrote a piece on him earlier this year delving into his legacy but to surmise briefly- Epstein, Clinton Global Initiative, Hillary, women, etc. And then there’s Jimmy Carter. While he’s my favourite president, he’s few others’ and has remained a punching bag for “ineptitude” in conservatives and some liberals’ minds since he left office (unfairly I might add).
The Likability Factor
George, like his father, has mostly stayed out of the limelight since leaving office and for this reason, doesn’t grate people as much. (Absence makes the heart grow fonder, etc.) When he does appear in public, it’s usually for a non-partisan cause like supporting veterans or promoting humanitarian relief. When interviewed, he will explain and reassert his opinion that what he did in Iraq was important but he also seems content that “history will judge” his efforts. In other words, he’ll defend himself without becoming too defensive, like Bill Clinton has. Plus, he’s able to joke about himself (“most people didn’t think I could read, let alone write a book”) and has shown he’s not as partisan as once believed, becoming friends (or at least friendly) with Bill and Michelle Obama. Plus, he’s taken up painting which seems a bit quirky for someone like him.
So, in that sense, he’s re-established his likability factor which was probably his strongest asset against the rather dry Al Gore in 2000. This successful rehabilitation rendered a 61% approval rating in a CNN poll in 2018, compared to 33% upon leaving office. And he’s even been able to appear on Jimmy Kimmel and Ellen. I can only imagine Trump being invited to some wretched right-wing podcast in the coming years.
Likability is just one thing, however. Have his actual acts as commander-in-chief been vindicated? The answer is basically no, although the emphasis has shifted away from what was important in the 2000s. Where the war on terror once occupied the headspace of many Americans there is now a miasma of issues relating to what side you are on. While partisanship has developed bitterly over the last three decades, it’s so much more intrinsic to the nature of politics than even then. Basically, concerns for warfare abroad have been replaced with grisly notions of civil war at home.
That doesn’t mean Iraq is forgiven. In the 2016 Republican primaries, no candidate (except poor Jeb) backed their former leader’s venture into democracy. Four years before that, George wasn’t even present at their convention. So, the Republicans have basically tried to make their supporters forget he was ever a thing. The Democrats meanwhile, have pushed against their own for supporting the war effort back in 2002-3, using it as bait against the likes of Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. All in all, it would be fair to say, Iraq probably wasn’t a great idea.
On the other hand, some of Obama’s critics have argued he withdrew from Iraq too soon and that helped facilitate the rise of ISIS. His defence would counter some sort of pushback was inevitable and he was merely fulfilling the obligation of the American people but ultimately, enough room has been left for some blame there.
Afghanistan was a less controversial affair so that’s not been as much of an issue for George, besides relaying the popular assertion that he was a warmonger. And to many, he is seen as a war criminal who should have been trialed or impeached for what he did, particularly with regards interrogative measures in Guantanamo. He and his team have always asserted that they took any necessary precautions to avoid another attack on America, which they point out, didn’t happen. Critics remember the one time it did, of course, and argue that his administration took advantage of the patriotic frenzy following September 11th to pursue goals that were long in place, particularly with Saddam Hussein.
Ten years before, the Gulf War had been a triumphant effort. George H.W. Bush’s approval ratings had skyrocketed for the way he handled foreign affairs but he had played his cards with more caution, not moving beyond a liberation of Kuwait (to the dismay of many). Sanctions and warnings were placed against the Iraqi dictator and a resolution passed with bi-partisan support later on in the 90s which suggested there was actual cause for war should they put a toe in the wrong place (which Saddam did). Of course, principles and ambitions don’t mean much without proper strategy and when your intelligence amounts to nothing. In this regard, even George W. Bush admits things could’ve gone better. No WMDs were found and in 2007, he decided to send a surge of troops in order to relieve the chaos that developed in the aftermath of the liberation effort.
Establishing democracies is not easily done and the absence of a dictatorship does not immediately resolve all problems. Iraq developed into a mess, whatever the president’s intentions, and for this, it’s highly unlikely he will be forgiven.
With that said, it wouldn’t be fair to omit some of the accomplishments of George W. Bush. For one, his PEPFAR (AIDS’ relief) program in Africa was one of the greatest relief efforts America ever heralded, making him especially popular there. His Medicare expansion proved a fruitful endeavour. So too did his No Child Left Behind program, which aimed to hold schools with sluggish standards to account (though criticised for making teachers teach for the exam).
Anyways that’s that. So… there was also his slow response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 which brought his approval ratings to an all-time low and led to accusations of racism on his part. Gay marriage also became a red-hot subject for the 2004 elections under his tutelage, but not in a positive sense. And yes, the 2008 financial crash. Now, of course it’s not fair to place the blame solely on his administration. That bubble had been expanding since the 90s. However… only a year into his presidency, after successive years of a surplus, America was in recession. And he provided, as Republicans always dream of, a massive tax cut, going against much of the work Clinton had built on. Some of this comes down to political perspective but surrounding yourself with controversy and chaos rarely bodes well for one’s resume.
Historians, in their presidential rankings, generally place George W. Bush close to the bottom 10, if not among them. As briefly touched on, this was not an easy or steady presidency. In his defence, it never was going to be with the attacks of September 11th. He was dealt, undoubtedly, a tougher card than his predecessor and had to make some tough decisions, that could’ve gone either way. In this respect, I’m more sympathetic than most. If we think of these world leaders as playing on a chess board, partially obscured with fog, then it can be pretty difficult to navigate your next move.
With that said, it hasn’t gotten any worse since 2009 for George. His party may have severed ties with him (on an official capacity) but the majority seem to have taken a shine to this man. Maybe it’s because they forget easily. Maybe they think he was a good guy, waylaid in his efforts. Maybe they suspect Cheney was really in power. Maybe it’s because he seems so amiable compared to the current occupant. Maybe his candour, since leaving office, appreciated by the likes of Obama, has become symptomatic of something lost in US politics today. There’s all sorts of possibilities.
It’s not necessarily a good or bad thing that this legacy is changing so quickly. Commonality and closing the political divide is certainly important; in that respect, when he teams up with Bill Clinton, it’s understandable why people are happy to see him. On the other hand, he who forgets history is likely to repeat it and in some measure, it feels a bit insulting to trivialise this man’s legacy given the death toll and destruction afflicted under his watch. Popularity, in other words, is no replacement for competency.
Maybe, to toe the line, it’s as simple as one of us thinking what we would have done in his shoes since unlike so many other world leaders, he seemed like one of us.
In a world rife with injustice, it’s understandable that we sometimes turn a blind eye to minor hiccups or due process when it comes to getting results. How else are we to tackle the above-law antics of the Trump legions? How else are we to defend fundamental human rights when the odds are ever stacked in the favour of for-profit, billionaire conservatives? How else are we to be heard when all else around us is so loud?
Cancel Culture has become prominent in recent years for its maverick, f- due diligence approach to taking on those who would in (extreme cases) avoid legal penalty or in more trivial but common scenarios, go unpunished or challenged for the problematic viewpoints they espouse / funnel into the zeitgeist. It’s become popular because it’s effective, at least on an emotional and socio-political level. It helped topple the creeps in the #metoo movement and set some wrongs to right when it came to diversifying casting in Hollywood, demanding greater equality, and calling out BS journalism. One could argue it was a well-deserved slap-in-the face for the orthodoxy.
But in all this gesticulation and generalisation, where exactly am I heading, you might ask. Well, let’s face it. It’s not exactly an easy topic to delve headfirst into. Indeed, the previous two paragraphs are fodder for insulation, backtracking, and defence, as much as they are a prelude to what I’m about to criticise. For you see, such base, emotive reactionary attacks don’t always serve us well. They, often, lower the intellectual bar and nuanced appreciation for discourse we once cherished so dearly as part of a free-thinking society. They placate the once common-sense approach that all cases should be regarded individually and contribute zealously to the polarisation of political ideologies; you’re either with us or against this- none of this “on the other hand” schlep.
A case in point- Review Bombs.
What are Review Bombs? They’re basically attempts to undermine a work of art based on ideological speculation or information related to an associate partner of said art. For example, JK Rowling has recently received enormous backlash for her views surrounding gender theory and the place of women in society with legions of once-fans accusing her of transphobia and encouraging others with similar views, owing to her expansive Twitter following and influence in the media. This resulted in a swift bombardment of her latest novel, Troubled Blood (under pseudonym Robert Galbraith), even though no-one had had a chance to read the 900+ page tome, when it emerged from one review that the plot concerned a serial killer who dresses in women’s clothing.
It’s pretty easy to take sides when you have a predisposition. Especially in this scenario. When you read into it a little more, it gets complex and interesting, if depressing however. Is she transphobic? Possibly. Not in the robust sense of outright hatred but in the more coy (yet increasingly challenged) manner of trying to undermine LGBTQ progress by pushing far-less prevalent concerns surrounding the placehood of women if chromosomes don’t matter, etc. Some have expressed support for the trans community while pointing out she may have a point while others have pressed the importance of whole acceptance. In real life, they argue, trans people face incredible challenges the likes of JK Rowling cannot fathom. Why does she have to make things that much harder?
Most figures, faced with such controversy, have usually amended their positions with retractions or halfway-apologies. JK Rowling, seemingly, has buckled down on hers which has made the publication of this latest novel all the more controversial.
So when the novel’s general plot line was revealed, it was brought down by a series of 1-star reviews on GoodReads (alongside greater media coverage) with comments ranging from distaste for what the author had become to how they would never read this novel. When people then actually started to, the five-star reviews came abounding bringing the average up to 4/5, with some rebuking that previous assertions of transphobia were based on second-hand info and minor points, not central to the focus of the novel. Was she vindicated? In terms of commercial success, absolutely. It seems JK Rowling will go on. But even with the 5-star reviews, one has to wonder how many of those were written after a complete read of the novel (again, 900-pages long; these reviews came within a week) and how many of them were reactionary in the same way the 1-star ones were?
When it comes to Cancel Culture, a fine line is drawn between reasonable outrage and outright pettiness. In the case of JK Rowling, it seems both were there in measure, distorted by (let’s face it) an increased laziness in media coverage (mainstream too, not some poxy blogs like this) which sought to do anything but review the novel in its own merits.
And don’t take this as a defence of JK Rowling. At the very least, I find her concern with women’s issues vis-a-vis the trans community obsessive and tedious at this point. Having once made the point, herself, that you can’t have a reasonable discussion on Twitter, she should have then stopped proffering her points via Twitter. With that said, I tend to disassociate my love of movies/music/novels with the person behind them because frankly, a lot of the greats have been problematic and with generational changes in attitude, we’re only ever going to be disappointed by one thing or another if we dare to dig deep enough.
Review Bombing and Cancel Culture, however, is an issue worth tackling and it applies to conservatives as much as it does those easily agitated PC-liberals. For example, Captain Marvel was met with a slew of negative buzz before anyone had a chance to see it because women-starring role-traditionally men-change = bad. With increased diversity and promotion of minorities in these major budget movies, there was always going to be a push-back. It’s a recurring aspect in generational passing of torches but the review-bombing of this movie proved the other side, to appropriate their claims, had equally fragile egos.
The Last of Us 2 racked up its fair share of hatred this summer upon release for the PlayStation 4 as well. Taking the slow-burning, zombie-survivalism of the first game (from 2013), it should have been a hit. But they ruined it. By making the lead character gay and inserting a bunch of LGBTQ stuff into the mix. Typical Hollywood, right? Or whatever libtards got their hands on this… Actually, I thought it was a very entertaining sequel and fun game but as with many things now, the actual entertainment value doesn’t matter as much. It’s all about subtext.
That’s why Star Wars: The Last Jedi is bad- because it promotes a different world viewpoint to what we had grown accustomed to when really, it’s actually bad because they disregarded the tone of the previous movie and f-d up the trilogy.
Anyways… It’s a new way of being heard; online assault. And it’s a petty, oft-misdirected means of making your point, whether that point is valid or not. So as much as we should oppose discrimination, perhaps reviewing a book we haven’t even read isn’t the way to do it. If you think Hollywood and associated media are inserting too much liberal ideology into your favourite franchises, then stop watching and don’t ruin it for others (as some did by leaking the plot of The Last of Us 2). Acting this way doesn’t gain you kudos or respect and it doesn’t even have the desired effect most the time. Last of Us 2 still sold impressively, Captain Marvel grossed over a billion, and Troubled Blood recently topped the charts. Congratulations review-bombers. You saved marketing a bucket load of money!
A couple years ago, in a debate on political correctness, the author, comedian, actor, etc. Stephen Fry remarked that one of the great failings of our time is when people prefer to be “correct rather than effective”. This self-righteousness has increasingly frayed political and social-political discourse. If we can’t even offer each other a presumptive measure of respect, can we really go on saying, “if only we had politicians as good as our people?”
History is always being rewritten. The heroes of yesterday become the villains of today. We’ve seen this with the toppling of statues recently and the scathing rebukes of once-beloved or admired figures such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, After all, our values change and once ignored facts (inconveniences), such as Churchill’s white supremacy , come into greater light with new appreciation (or lack thereof). This revisionism is natural and no historical evaluation is without fault.
But something’s changed as of late. Our fervent grasps for social justice have left us empty-handed too often when it comes to a nuanced appreciation of certain historical figures. We fail to see these figures as a whole because one nibbling, doubtful, pernicious defect often overrides all common sense. In this case, I’m referring to the scandals that detract from the legacy of William Jefferson Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States (1993-2001).
Speculation and Scandals
Now, don’t get me wrong. The man is problematic, if we must indulge that favored millennial word. Some of the decisions made under his administration have had negative consequences, ranging from the short-sighted (crime bills, economic impairments linked to the 2008 crash) to the devastating (initial inaction in Bosnia and Rwanda). But really, what people focus on, in their retribution, is the man’s personal life. How many affairs has he had? Is his marriage an arranged partnership? What exactly was the nature of his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein? At the very least, the latter one should be investigated because of the differences in accounts being brought forward (it’s said he may have taken up to 26 flights on Epstein’s private jet and visited the island, although no affairs with any of the girls have been exposed). As for the other questions, one could defend him and say he has the right to a private life and that it’s unimportant in the larger scheme of things but instead of doing that, I will touch on the nature of speculation that surrounds the Clintons.
Speculation has hindered both Bill and Hillary’s public image more than any other figure in American politics. There’s always been this pervasive feeling that they’ve been up to something, be it through business connections or the Clinton Global Initiative, which arouses suspicion in the form of a lingering, shadowy question mark. The more questions that arise, the darker that shadow gets, even if there’s no substance or merit behind the question. What was Whitewater? I don’t know, man, but there’s something there. What were in Hillary’s emails? Shrug. And why did Vince Foster kill himself? Did he know something the Clintons wanted kept secret?
Indeed, the latter episode was a most shameful one in American history given the man’s longtime friendship to Bill. But when the Deputy White House Counsel committed suicide, Bill wasn’t even afforded a common level of decency in his grief. Ken Starr and the Republicans spent all their energy trying to discredit the man with a new, nasty kind of politics that involved personal injury at whatever cost. When the Whitewater investigation, which began looking into the real estate dealings of the Clintons, proved unfruitful, they simply kept the heat going. The Paula Jones’ sexual harassment allegations also persevered, though the Republicans were quite ready to redirect their focus when the “gift” of Monica Lewinsky came around.
In this regard, Bill deservedly brought some of the wrath upon himself. In a deposition, he was blind sighted by Lewinsky’s name being brought up and denied any “sexual relations”, given the legal definition provided by the Starr counsel. It was a technically correct answer but an unwise and immoral move that reinforced his image as a dodgy, snake-like politician. For months, he would deny the nature of their relationship, even to his staff and Hillary, until it became too obvious he was lying, or in his words “misleading” the nation. It was a personal embarrassment and a horrible thing to do to both Hillary and Monica, whose life would be greatly affected as a result (although, this enters the realm of cyber bullying for which many millions more than Bill also deserve a portion of blame).
Many people today, in light of the #metoo movement, point to this scandal as a demonstrable abuse of power. A couple of years back, Clinton’s attempts to salvage himself and take on an interviewer who brought it up, only served to convey a seeming lack of empathy on his part. Lewinksy, too, has been critical of the president, who never apologized directly to her.
That’s something he really should have done, straight away. He should have apologized to Monica and her family because they were given an unwarranted amount of press, that was relentless and downright mean. That’s not necessarily his fault but he could’ve stepped in and said “enough is enough, we’ve all made mistakes, leave her alone.” I think that would’ve helped but I also believe nothing he could have said or done would ever have been enough. Remember, this scandal came about, not because the people were concerned with Clinton’s supposed weakness for women but because the Republicans were attempting to destroy his presidency.
The impeachment which resulted was largely a joke, made in a last-ditch effort to humiliate Bill. Already, the Democrats had won back the House while his and Hillary’s approval ratings shot up. Back then, people had a better understanding of what was actually going on and in a universal middle-finger to the GOP, took to the polls. Ordinary people and leaders of other nations, including Neslon Mandela and Tony Blair, would stand by Clinton with the belief that he was a decent man who had done a bad thing. Today, I can’t imagine the same thing would play out and that’s not an effort to outright dismiss our morals. Integrity is important and we should expect it in our world leaders but let’s face it, there are more important things at play in shaping that integrity than personal scandals and failings.
The Record: A Moderate Democrat
Another interesting nugget you might hear about Bill Clinton was that he was not all that progressive or liberal. Correct. In the 1980s, the Democratic Party weren’t exactly on their A-game. Following the largely besmirched Carter Presidency (and for the record, he’s my favorite president), which was plagued by a struggle between moderacy and liberalism in the 1980 primaries, they had a hard time finding their footing. Eventually, the party’s liberals acquiesced to the more pragmatic middle-ground ideologies of the likes of Clinton, which gave way to a presidential victory after three consecutive Republican terms bolstered by the Reagan revolution and a strong but faltering economy. Reaganomics was good politics but very much the “voodoo economics” George HW Bush had called it when up against Reagan in 1980. By 1990, Bush had to rescind his “no new taxes” pledge for the good of the nation. It was a bold but noble move that damaged him in the 1992 election.
The first baby-boomer president made the economy one of his top priorities and actually left the country with a surplus, three years in a row at the end of his tenure. This had not been achieved since the post-war years under Harry Truman. Given Bush’s concession to the Democrats in 1990 and some of the negative consequences that resulted in 2008 (although that can be attributed to several administrations), this achievement has appropriately been lessened but it still remains a positive in most historians’ eyes. In the following years that would see major tax cuts and costly wars, people would naturally look back on the Clinton Presidency, in this regard, with nostalgia. It was a relatively prosperous time, helped by the rise of the Internet but also by a set of steady hands.
Social unrest was also another major concern which helped Clinton get elected. He pledged to invest in more police forces to keep the streets safe. This was a popular stance to take and received bi-partisanship support, resulting in the lowest crime rate America had in decades. Unfortunately however, this also led to a rise in mass-incarceration with arrests of minorities and low-grade drug offenders. Undoubtedly this has tainted his legacy and deservedly so, with both Bill and Hillary admitting that aspects of the crime bill needing to be revisited. Part of the problem, as most people now see it however, also lies with pervasive racism in certain areas and unaccountable police officers; a common trend that stretches back way before this crime bill passed.
The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy of 1993 was another controversial measure. Bill had pledged in his campaign that gays could serve in the military. Many opposed this. So, quite quickly, they compromised. Basically, gays could serve but couldn’t come out as gay. Better than nothing? Possibly but ultimately, a pretty feeble gesture, which Bill was quite happy to get rid of, given the controversy surrounding such a topic at the time.
What’s interesting about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, along with some of Clinton’s other compromises is that they demonstrated a strategic tactfulness to his administration. Elected as essentially a moderate, he was willing to settle for what he could get, aware that the Republicans (who swept into power in the 1994 midterms) would accept only certain things. Another example: Hillary’s health-care led initiative essentially stalled that same year with fervent opposition. Aware of this, they worked to at least provide health care to children with CHIP (Children Healthcare Insurance Program).
Compromise is often seen as a dirty word. The Clintons were largely pragmatic though, aware of the political game and very much willing to play it. Even in his memoir, My Life, Bill Clinton can’t help but admire the strategy Newt Gingrich employed to lead his party to victory in 1994. The problem arises when people perceive their party as moving away from their traditional values and causes. The Republicans’ success and move to the right in the 1980s didn’t result in the Democrats following suit towards their side. Rather, they also moved to the right. This meant, for many, that a moderate Democrat was essentially an old-style conservative. Of course, now that the Democratic Party has actually started to move to the left, we’re in a whole different scenario, which lends credence to the liberal critics of the Clinton administration.
Political pragmatism is important though, even if perceived as selling out. Had Ted Kennedy been more willing to work with Jimmy Carter’s more pragmatic approach to health care, then they might have actually gotten something achieved instead of nothing. The Clintons failed to get health care too, as so many before had, but at least they tried and got something done. After all, millions of children as a result were given a safety net they otherwise would not have had.
This pragmatism became all the more crucial however in Clinton’s foreign affairs, which began on a rocky trajectory before steadily improving. First, there was Black Hawk Down, which cast doubt over whether Clinton could really manage a humanitarian crisis. Initially, the US had been successful in their Somalian dealings at the end of Bush’s presidency (Bush being, by most accounts, a masterful player on the world stage). Then Bosnia followed, which saw a massive ethnic cleansing of the Muslim population. At first, the US were hesitant in their approach but by 1995, Clinton came into his own as commander-in-chief, sending in forces. Perhaps he had learned from the Rwandan genocide, which he always regretted inaction about. Part of the problem was public opposition to US intervention elsewhere, given the disaster of Somalia. It seemed navigating the morality of the US’ role in these conflicts was not always that black and white. You were damned if you acted and damned if you didn’t.
By the late 1990s however, Bill Clinton was very much a respected leader around the world. The intervention in Kosovo in 1999 was seen as a prudent step across the board, between Democrats and Republicans, and he had helped negotiate the terms of the Good Friday Agreement the year before, which greatly helped the situation in Northern Ireland. While his efforts to formulate a lasting peace agreement between Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at Camp David ultimately stalled in 2000, it was seen later as one of the better attempts made by a US president at resolving the problem.
Towards the end of his presidency, when asked about his legacy, Bill Clinton saw it in terms of navigating the shift from one American age (Industrial) to another (the Information Age) as had occurred a century before. He felt the historians would wonder whether he had succeeded in preparing America for the new century but he was realistic even in his thinking, realizing that if George W. was elected and the Republicans regained power, much of what he had achieved could be undone. Indeed, that became the case notably when the Brady Bill (which acquired some gun control legislation) wasn’t renewed.
It may not stand in the mercurial tide of politics as one of the most important presidencies of American history but in my opinion, it was a good one. Despite personal setbacks and a new norm of vitriolic partisanship, Clinton was able to hone in on what could be achieved and act accordingly. While negative consequences arose as tributaries to the main functions of certain bills (like the crime bill), the overall objectives were usually sound and reasoned. His foreign relations too were smart without recklessness (queue an analysis of the Bush II administration) and where he failed (e.g. Rwanda, Somalia), he at least had the decency to learn and make adjustments so he could help (queue an analysis of the Trump administration).
Of course, consensus and absolute certainty make for a dismal appreciation of any historical figure when discussing nuance. Most US presidents have been imperfect with wildly mixed legacies. It can’t be helped when you’re playing chess on such a massive scale. I decided to write this long piece and read his ridiculously long memoir (958 pages) because I felt we were in danger of simplifying this man’s legacy. In the years that have passed since his presidency, he’s gone from one of the most respected world leaders to a figure of disdain, even for many from his own party. I wouldn’t go so far as to point to Hillary’s loss in 2016 as a referendum on their legacy but in this new age of evaluation, I feel the constraints of examining history through a modern lens should be acknowledged.
Context is key to any historical understanding and we can learn from history. But just as the problems of today don’t necessarily require the attitudes and solutions of years before, so too did the problems of those years not necessarily requite the outlook we would hold now.