A friend, eyeing the front-page headline chronicling the sudden death of former First Dog Buddy, sighed and muttered, “I love seeing those kinds of headlines again.”
You know what he meant–after four months of terrible news all the time, it was a relief to see something so trivial and unthreatening on the front pages of major daily newspapers: a story about a dead dog, not about dead fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. Call it speciesism, as the likes of Princeton’s Peter Singer will, but most of us no doubt felt the burden of history lifting just a little as we read multi-column-inch accounts of a dog’s death. For a moment anyway, we were transported back to the Clinton era, when bad news took a holiday, the stock market knew only one direction, political commentators were prized for their exhaustive knowledge of pop culture and television pundits shouted at eachother about blessed ephemera.
Would that we had only sitcom plot lines, tabloid scandals and celebrity pronouncements to worry about now. What wouldn’t we give for a return to the trivial pursuits of the 1990’s?
Such sentiments are understandable. And they’re wrong.
Instead of wishing for a return to a vanished era that stood, proudly and aggressively, for nothing, we should be lamenting the years we wasted in pursuit of inanity, the energy we spent building our Maginot line of irony and detachment. Those who pine for a return to a day when movie stars seemed more important than U.S. senators have missed the point: It is partly because we treated politics so casually, because we considered civic affairs little more than a branch of the entertainment business, that we find ourselves at war with forces that were arraying against us even as we spent a decade inventing new ways to amuse ourselves.
Do we really wish to return to a time when network news organizations spent more time on O.J. Simpson than on international news, when writers could make names for themselves by comparing politicians to film characters (usually to the detriment of the politicians)? The 1990’s may have been a time of blissful peace and wondrous prosperity, but we should realize by now that they were stupid years, an era spent in willful denial of the world around us.
The most glaring example of our collective sleepwalk is the man we now want in custody, dead or alive. We knew, because some serious and therefore unfashionable commentators told us, that Osama bin Laden was having a fine old time training terrorists in Afghanistan, and that said terrorists wished us nothing but death and mass destruction. Nothing more was said; no policy was debated. The great news-gathering corporations paid little if any attention, preferring instead to please their audiences with celebrations of the good life to which we all felt entitled. Nobody but a few cranks rolled their eyes as the S.U.V. became the symbol of 1990’s consumption, an act of national self-sabotage. Only earnest press geeks complained when the grandchildren of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite shut down bureaus in foreign capitals and reassigned reporters to the health-tip beat. We convinced ourselves that our money and our popular culture had conquered all enemies, had turned a generation of Third World teenagers into hip-hopping Yankee fans with a taste for designer labels.
Well, we were wrong. We were wrong because we didn’t care enough to question our assumptions, to reflect on the effects of American policies overseas, and to become engaged in something other than the lives of beautiful strangers. We were wrong because we believed that nothing mattered, a notion supported by a generation of small-time thinkers in the media.
Now, as Robert L. Bartley observed in The Wall Street Journal , we find ourselves thrust into a more-serious age. Vanity Fair ‘s cover this month features not the Hollywood icon of the moment, but the President and his closest advisors. Four months ago, we delighted in our detachment; now we are all experts in the topography of eastern Afghanistan. Those who refuse to recognize these profound changes are irrelevant; four months ago, they were praised as “edgy.”
The event which forced all of this upon us was dastardly and horrific. The price in blood and tears was heartbreaking. But we have been reminded that, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed a generation ago, the world is a dangerous place. We spent the 1990’s as if danger were as outdated as the business cycle. We were wrong–just plain dumb–on both counts.
Of course we all long for peace, security and bright hopes. But a return to the idiocy of the 1990’s simply would invite more of the mayhem and barbarism we witnessed four months ago. Those who wish us ill believe we are too shallow and soft to finish our assignment. They’re counting on our nostalgia.