The 90s vs. Today: Liberal & Cultural Shifts

The 90s vs. Today: Liberal & Cultural Shifts

Millenials and Gen Z are often put at loggerheads with Boomers over a variety of socio and economic issues, primarily revolving around what’s been lost in privilege and ambition. To an extent however, our experiences parallel those of the youth in the 1960s when cultural revolutions stirred fresh bouts of hope and vigour for civil rights and a new quasi-enlightenment. Now, if we travel back to the 1990s, we can see quite a juxtaposition in the cultural values and liberal ideals espoused then, by the rising Gen X, against what’s promoted today.

In the 1990s, a new world was born from the metaphorical ashes of the Cold War. What was important in the 1980s became promptly unimportant in the 1990s. George H.W. Bush’s policies no longer reflected America as they had done four short years before and in 1992, the people were ready for a new kind of leader and Democrat (and you may interpret that “kind of” as you please) in Bill Clinton; a fresh young face of 40-something. In the meanwhile, the gaudy, glitz of 80s popular culture was eviscerated and torn a part by the ushering in of a more natural, albeit pessimistic dress sense and music scene. Nirvana rose to prominence in glorious fashion, even if it was against their singer’s instincts. Bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden followed suit, undoubtedly talented and unique in their own way, though far from what one could have imagined ten years before, occupying the mainstream Skateboarding took on a whole new dimension of popularity. Indie, auteur filmmakers emerged as the exciting current in cinema. The Simpsons undercut the idealistic family-centric tendencies of 80s television and the attitude which dominated youth culture got drawn as one of indifferences and cynicism.

It was a time buoyed by economic growth and hopeful prospects in America but, alas, the spirit of the 1940s, 50s, 60s, or even 70s wasn’t there. Perhaps this can be attributed to the age-old truth that successive generations will go against what their parents did before (or at least go in a different directions). Perhaps, a new attitude was born as a reaction to the overt-commercialisation and rightward trend of 1980s politics. It’s difficult to determine any one specific truth, especially when covering a subject as broad as generational divide. It’s fascinating, more so, when we reflect on these cultural values in light of what we see today.

A good case study for this cultural shift can be found in the Bill Clinton scandal. The Monica Lewinsky one. Today, we look back on it as an abuse of power and a classic case of sexism dictating media. We acknowledge that Lewinsky was treated unfairly, especially with the hindsight of the toll it took on her mental health. This wasn’t the popular perspective of the time however. People were certainly outraged that Clinton had acted the way he had but more so because he lied about it under oath and because of the headache the ensuing impeachment hearings caused (which eventually yielded a positive upswing for him in the polls, when people felt the Republicans were pushing it). Lewinsky, meanwhile, was subjected to a barrage of late-night jokes and dismissed by many as a silly, immature home-wrecker.

Was it a case of people back then lacking empathy? Well, the treatment Lewinsky was given by the media was cutthroat and cruel but for many, Clinton too had been given merciless scrutiny from the get-go; like no other president before. And for the most part, Democrats were happy with his performance. What was this scandal in light of the greater issues at hand then? Of course, today, this scandal still comes to the forefront of any profile on the 42nd president, which suggests perhaps that we take these work-relationship dynamics more seriously and/or have lost perspective on what’s actually important, feeding the outrage machine further.

This conveys that people were somewhat looser with political correctness in the 1990s. The decade before had been a PC one, in its own sense, albeit of a right-wing, religious kind; apparent notably via the relatively safe-handed approach taken to TV sitcoms and movies. Where the ’70s had reflected a Vietnam-era, mistrust in authority attitude (with the likes of Taxi Driver and Serpico), often with morally ambiguous protagonists, the 1980s saw the rise of a more capitalistic, spectacle type of entertainment. The good guys were once again the good guys.

Artists of the 90s sough to separate themselves from the 80s by creating less formulaic, hero-first works, by returning (in part) to the ethos of a now-nostalgic 70s. Quentin Tarantino was at the forefront of a new kind of cinema; a fantastic of 70s films, he instilled his with references to the greats, morally-ambivalent characters, and violence. Indie darling Richard Linklater meanwhile, made movies like Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Before Sunrise about clever, if somewhat aimless characters just trying to figure their way out in the world. Plot wasn’t even a concern in these cases. Kevin Smith’s Clerks followed suit. And in these movies and TV shows of the time, what emerged was a prevailing sense of disillusionment with the ways of old, a “whatever, man”, middle-finger approach to the world.

Some of that independent spirit can still be found in movies today, though it rarely makes the mainstream or a cultural footprint as it did back in the 90s. And where many 90s shows (e.g. Seinfeld) couldn’t have given a damn about pertaining a moral message, today we’re seeing politics enter the narrative of even Marvel TV shows. The politically incorrect, apolitical tone of the 90s (and 00s’ media) is no longer cute but irresponsible. Critics and social media hounds are always ready to pounce if something “problematic” should arise.

This kind of activism really divides the cultural outlook of today against the 90s. Between social media, regular media, and the arts, everything feels politically-driven today. It’s easy to decry this but within the vortex of political correctness and cancel culture, one could argue that we at least try to care a bit more. “Woke” culture may lead to some seriously cringe Twitter posts by “allies” but at its essence, it demonstrates an active effort to diversify and better the prospects of others. Such thinking wasn’t necessarily disparaged in the 90s but authenticity was key to credibility in such instances (i.e. they had much a more acute BS radar). To sell out and commercialise yourself (or play to the masses) was just about the worst thing you could do as an artist. (Nowadays, musicians make songs for food delivery services.) With that said, the 90s seemed to glorify dangerous trends such as the ultra-skinny heroin chic look which showed that maybe there was simply just another orthodoxy to follow (bringing into question the idea of authenticity).

In so far as a narrative is concerned, history will often find fashion trends fading and returning. This applies to cultural outlooks too, in broad strokes. Just as we look back on the 90s and early 00s with rose-tinted glasses, so too did people in the 90s look back on the 70s (Dazed and Confused), and people in the 70s looked back on the 50s (American Grafitti). The lesson here is similarly broad but pertinent, given the self-righteousness of some liberals today: you’re not necessarily right about everything. So as heroin chic was seen to be a psychologically damaging trend, maybe too will we see the current body-positivity movement to be fraught with complications, sidelining health issues. Maybe Clinton’s neo-liberalism set the Democrats back progressively but maybe today’s progressives are undermining the electoral credibility of their party? History has to move on and we should not be apathetic about our cultural values but we shouldn’t arrogantly assume that we’ve reached the nadir of enlightenment either. Every generation could be marked out for its mistakes and embarrassing philosophies. I’m sure ours will be just another one.

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The Culture Of Anti-Ageing

The Culture Of Anti-Ageing

Perhaps it’s my early balding or perhaps (more optimistically) it’s my principles but the culture of anti-ageing has taken on a sinister and repugnant undertone. An obsessive zealousness now marks social media with regards filters, facial tweaks, fitness, and beauty standards. What were once the (albeit hushed) hallmarks of Hollywood and the elite (Botox, cosmetic surgeries, etc.) now seem to have become all-too-common, begging the question of when our desires become our expectations; and where we go from here.

One only has to compare photos of one’s parents or grandparents in their 30s or 40s or 50s compared to today to see that stylistically, things have changed. And not just fashion wise (although that has some effect). People use moisturisers a lot more nowadays and proper UV protectant suntan lotion and hydrate. Nutritional advice is a lot more varied. Supermarkets stock a wider selection of foods. Dietary requirements are better met. There’s many natural, progressive, and clever changes resulting in a more youthful complexion across all generations. So to some degree, we are all bound to look a little fresher than the boomers did back in the day.

However… while such changes are reasonable and encouraged, they’re inevitably bound to this notion that beauty ideals are an ever-changing target. When does taking care of oneself with the appropriate supplements and foods cross the line from being healthy to being health-obsessed? When do once extravagant routines become the norm? Well, with Botox, it seems as if we’re reaching that point. As Amanda Hess wrote in her New York Times’ piece “The Art of Botox” (last year), “[it] once suggested vanity, delusion, and self-consciousness, but now it has fresh associations; with confidence, resilience, even authenticity, as the idea of ‘having work done’ has come to be seen as a legitimate form of work.”

This is eye-brow raising stuff. Well, not for people with Botox. For others however, the idea of regularly injecting yourself with a needle to stiffen facial muscles seems extreme. At least, it did to me but again, it’s becoming increasingly common. So, maybe the taboo is based on ignorance. After all, if it promotes confidence and makes someone happy, who are we to judge? Well… there’s two points I’d counter with here: 1) does such a procedure then encourage one to follow onto the next step, e.g. plastic surgery and 2) is it use as a preventative not reflecting the very issues we try to tackle with the mental health of young women? With the latter point, Botox is increasingly being used from a young age (early 20s) to prevent the appearance of lines or wrinkles ever appearing. For all the horrible beauty standards advertised on social media, is this not us directly heading the wrong way? That’s a whole other level of pressure to contend with. And what does it say about how we treat older women with regards the ability to express themselves freely?

We live in a strange time as regards the discourse of beauty standards and mental health. Celebrities and influencers (like any dumb Kardashian) promote self-actualisation with cheesy quotes, while looking, themselves, like ageless narcissists. What follows is an uncanny-valley like, cognitive dissonance in rectifying the gulf between inner confidence and outer beauty. If you’ve spent hours on the make-up chair, gotten Botox, and surgeries, and applied filters, well then your message promoting such confidence or fighting unrealistic standards kind of rings hollow.

It may be an obvious point but Hollywood deserves blame. For how long now, has a male lead been coupled with a female two decades younger than him? Why are there so few roles for women past their 30s? (By which I mean women who actually look their age?) The same could be said for men, to some degree. It may all be a case of good genes but really how many men in their 60s do you know keep a full head of coloured hair? A lot of them look better in their 40s and 50s than they did in their 20s. That wasn’t the case back in the 70s or 80s. Something fishy’s going on there too…

Or how about beauty brands actively going out of their way to promote falsehoods. When Cara Delevigne was 25, she was chosen by Dior as the face of its “Capture Youth” line for which the target audience was women in their 30s? I won’t even try breach the nonsense of Kylie cosmetics or anything else that loathsome family promotes (to save you time, have millions and go to a plastic surgeon, then add some blush or something, I don’t know). Let’s, at least, not presume innocence on the part of these companies. The beauty industry thrives on the insecurities of its consumers and when you campaign against something as common as ageing, the possibilities are endlessly toxic.

Look, one can’t determine what’s right or what’s best for anyone else. In many cases, exercise and proper dieting will do you wonders. In many other cases, tweaks are (not needed) but implemented to instil confidence. Sometimes the buck ends there and sometimes it’s a shallow confidence that can never be satisfied. The bigger, albeit darker picture that emerges from this train of thought is that, consciously or not, we are pushing the boundaries of what’s expected with beauty standards. And in this culture of anti-ageing, ugly perversions emerge that undercut a so-called “healthy” lifestyle.

We Need More Critical Thinking

We Need More Critical Thinking

With the assessment of many analysts and key figures, including Obama, that fake news’ stories shared on social media played a role in the outcome of this election, it must be recognized that there has been a significant lapse in critical thinking in America. Think about it- when you scan your Facebook feed, do you stop to read each and every article shared or do you just scoop the headlines into the back of your mind. I’m guessing, like me, you do the latter because there’s only so much time in the day and most of these stories seem trite and annoying. What you don’t realize however, read or not, is that a general impression is formed in your subconscious, resulting in a predisposition that can’t often be accounted for personally. For example, in the election cycle, we heard from a lot of people that Hillary was “crooked,” but we rarely heard from most of them exactly why (at least, in detail.) This resulted in the mass insemination of a wild notion that while Trump was none too desirable, Hillary was “just as bad.” If only, we had questioned these people as well as ourselves…

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The media landscape has changed dramatically in recent years. Whereas Fox was always an anomaly in rationale prognosis, the other major networks such as CNN and MSNBC could be relied on, for the most part, to provide us with important news (if a bit left-leaning). Now, with the social media age, there’s so much flotsam out there that it’s become difficult to distinguish the bullshit from the professional and even then, the professionals get it wrong. (Thanks for those national polls, guys!)  Many people are quick to out the amateurs in the comments’ section but even there, the gulf between credibility and crazy is wide. Is Obama the hero so many have painted him to be or is he an Islamic fundamentalist determined to take America’s guns away and flush them down the toilet? At this point, the level 1 critical thinker might surmise that the answer always lies somewhere in the middle. It’s all about balance, right? Sadly, it’s not that easy either. Critical thinking does not mean delving a line in the center of a Republican and Democratic thought; it means examining the very fabrics and grounds on which arguments are created.

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Let’s take a case in point to illustrate the importance of this evaluative method: the Iraq War. In 2003, America launched one of its most dodgy exploits to date with the invasion of the Kuwaitan neighbor. Most people will tell you it was a disastrous campaign that has brewed trouble for the world since and only a few less will further that the grounds on which it was built were dismally unfounded. To sharply dispel any immediate backlash, I am going to formally state first that I do not think this war was a good idea. What I am going to attempt to do however is add a wrinkle to the clear picture many people have of it.

It all started in 1991 when George Bush Sr. declared war on Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait, believing such acts of aggression could not be tolerated. The mission was simple; to restore Kuwait’s territory and drive Saddam’s forces out. After an extensive air campaign, the battle was short and sweet for America. The casualties were relatively low for them, victory was swift, and the president’s approval rating rose to 89%. For many however, Bush Sr. made a critical blunder in failing to follow on through to Baghdad and dispose the despot. He felt, in this scenario, there were no grounds for this course of action. And so order was restored seemingly though Saddam remained in power, violating UN sanctions placed over the course of the 1990s, with repeated reports of chemical weapons being used against his own citizens.

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In 2001, the World Trade Centers fell and the Age of Terror took hold of America. Many argued at this point that Bush II set his sights on Saddam before Afghanistan (the Bin Laden problem) was even on the books. This is a leap for others. Here, I believe, the truth may actually lie in the middle as the Bush administration’s policy was clearly set after a ridiculously named “war on terror.” Iraq, W. argued, had to be seen in a different light in this new world context. Did it? Or had it merely become convenient for the Republicans to enact the invasion they had been plotting for years? It became very difficult for moderate thinkers to thread the line between a revived and fervent patriotism in the wake of 9/11 and the dissent of liberal caretakers, who opposed the idea of an American New World Order. Finally, of course, the date was set when W’s intel (a gut-wrenching use of the word) declared their belief that Saddam held weapons of mass destruction (or later, the “capacity” for such weapons). The rest of the story played out then quite clearly. The war began. The statue fell. Saddam was taken. The casualties mounted. They didn’t get out. A surge took place. An economy fell. Another man took office. They began to withdraw. Insurgencies rose. A new terror formed.

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Iraq was no prime example of interventionist success but its significance was different to many people. Some believed it was the most unnecessary and immoral act America had committed its sights to since Vietnam. Some believed it was a necessary precaution to take in an era of heightened international tensions. It wasn’t right to let a man like Saddam lead a nation, in many people’s opinions. His absence created a void from which organisations such as ISIS would arise however. Hindsight is 20/20 as well. Great critical thinkers such as the late Christopher Hitchens, who often rejected well-revered establishment figures such as Henry Kissinger and their philosophies, felt that America’s commitment to the sanctions placed in the 1990s meant they should have taken action much earlier. Others then, will always contend, that it is not America’s right to dictate the rights of another nation.

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I chose Iraq as an example, not because I believe, it will mystify many who had blankly accepted it as a falsely premised war, but because it exemplifies the simplicity with which so many people view these matters. It’s important to question those who you have agreed with 99% of the time. It’s important to think on the other side once in awhile because while I reject the notion that sanity lies squarely in the center of the political aisle, I do believe that neither side has proven itself to always be on the right side of history. So with the dawn of a new dark era in America, let’s hope that people will begin to base their opinions on facts again and not just conjecture. 2016 marked a great lapse in logical and critical thinking for America, among other nations, because fear and anger fueled the fire. In 2017, let’s restore the approach (Nixon once noted) Eisenhower took to solving problems; through cold eyes.