From Our Archives, 20 Ways We Said We Changed 25 Years Ago

Each Friday, we bring you an article from our archive to propel you into the weekend.

In 1996, this magazine asked 40 people—”scholars, journalists, curmudgeons, and poets”—about the most important change they’d seen in the last 20 years. It was an anniversary issue. We began in 1976. And we published responses online in two parts.

These sort of retrospectives are often the best part of any archive. To see someone think in their particular historical moment is somewhat revealing. To see someone look backwards, with the haughty air of knowledge about what has been “learned,” denudes any pretense—the prevailing zeitgeist of that moment is pinned on a history still playing out up to our moment. So, I went in ready to smirk at the 1990s consensus with all my knowledge. I came out realizing: I’m pretty stuck in my historical moment. (You can see the ouroboros here—a post about my archive posts pointing out my inability to escape my ideological contingencies.)

All that is to say, in 1996 a lot of these answers miss the mark less than I expected.

Take Paul Krugman’s entry, which I thought would be more about globalism as truth. Here it is:

By the early 1970s, throughout Western Europe and to a large extent in the United States, we had managed to produce societies with relatively equal income, relatively little poverty, and all sorts of opportunities for upward financial mobility. While we were a long way from Utopia, you could look around the Western world and say, “These are the most decent societies the world has ever seen.” There are no longer any societies that fit that description.

The current best story for this decline is that technological progress threw us a curve ball. Technology continues to make us richer, but very much devalues the work of people who are not exceptionally talented, and greatly increases the income of a very few. The United States is responding with a flat hostility to the welfare state.

At some point, people will realize just how well-off the well-off actually are, and I don’t think they can continue to blame our decline on government programs. I’m not saying we should instead blame the rich; I’m just saying we should soak them.

Not great, but it could be worse. See, Paul Erdman, “king of the financial thriller,” for a rosier view of capitalism’s expansion:

Pessimism about the future of the United States began developing 20 years ago and should be dispelled. Lester Thurow’s thesis was that America had peaked economically and was in decline compared to Japan and Germany. He was dead wrong. Japan is in a banking crisis. Germany totally miscalculated the economic costs of reunification, and all of Europe’s unemployment is around 11 percent while ours is under 6 percent.

Wealth is created by venture capital and innovation. We do those best. We are destined to remain the most powerful economic and military power in the world.

My personal favorite is Lewis Lapham’s. Less for anything specific than for a clear line back to my favorite editorial tic. I call it the “whom insertion.” To whom are you speaking? You will see that question inserted in a lot of good magazine writing. It is a way of doing great work breaking down the easily assumed. And I bet some of it comes down to people reading Lapham’s Harper’s. I think the phrase he uses—”who is the ‘we’?”—is a better way to code it. A lot of good writing just asks that basic question.

The big shift in the last 20 years has been from the public to the private sector. The word “public” has become a synonym for corruption and futility. All things bright and beautiful flow forth from the clear stream of the private sector.

Politics was a public thing; the state was something we held in common. Now it’s everyone’s favorite enemy—including those in Washington. The public sector is not a living presence protecting, animating, and inspiring, but has become a dead carcass, a beached whale we Eskimos are going to strip of all its blubber.

It’s a shocking change. Common thought and ideas have declined. I think democracy is over as it was conceived in Philadelphia. We don’t know what the narrative is. That’s why we hate the public. Whose public? Who is the “we”? The times demand a writer or writers who can write the new American narrative.

There’s more to dig into, from Maya Angelou to (gasp!) a horrible one from William F. Buckley Jr..

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