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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Deconstructing the 90's

VOB readers: This one is a little long, but please bear with me - as they say, those who fail to learn history are condemned to repeat it. Well guess what, we're going to repeat history anyway, so let's have some fun while we’re at it!

The 20th century saw changes and progress unimagined by prior generations throughout the millennia of recorded history. We went from horse-drawn carriages to moon landings and planetary exploration. We went from Morse code telegrams over flimsy wires to instant global communications. We went from blah blah blah okay, you get the picture. But what an inauspicious way to wrap up this remarkable century - the 90's!

The cold war ended with the demise of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall in the late 80's, and we had a great economy throughout most of that decade as well. The 80's saw Islamic terror as conveniently remote and sporadic, political correctness primarily confined to college campuses, and while pink dress shirts and pickup trucks enjoyed brief popularity, metro-men nowhere to be found. So what happened? I think we're sufficiently removed from the decade known as the 90's to look at it objectively, so let's take a walk down the path of recent history, through the neural lens of the VOB:

On the economic front, the 90's started in a recession. It wasn't too bad of one - your friendly editor managed to land a good professional job in 1991, and held onto it for many years thereafter. Before I get too far into the economy though, I just want to introduce the principal engine for change and progress, namely the Almighty Internet. It was a fledgling in the early 90's, mainly the purview of geeks and hobbyists, with cumbersome text-based applications such as "Gopher" and Usenet newsgroups. But over the next couple of years, the worldwide web, coupled with affordable PCs and servers plus improvements in software, blew the doors open on the information superhighway. There are now an estimated 6 billion web pages, approximately 2/3 of which are devoted to pornography.

The recession was short-lived; we were drawn out of it by a potent mix of fraud and greed in the form of "dot com" investments. A few early dubious successes in web-based business ventures spurred greedy and ignorant venture capitalists, day traders, and other assorted grifters to dump bales of cash into quickly-contrived companies with preposterously flimsy or nonexistent business plans, which in turn ended up wasting most of it and confiscating the rest. So a lot of investors got soaked and a few new millionaires were created by this phenomenon, but the multiplier effect of this released capital (did you pay attention in your macroeconomics class?) raised the whole economy up a few notches for several years - home ownership was up, car sales were sky-high, the stock market broke new records regularly, unemployment was down to record lows.

But all good things come to an end, and by the late 90's the venture capitalists woke up with a big hangover, realized they'd been had, pulled what little they could back out of the worthless dot coms, and invested in more stable scams. Stocks plummeted, the economy went into a recession (a correction IMHO), and all the computer "gurus" and day traders sought respectable work. Of course politics and economics go hand in hand, and although he had little to do with it, the occupant of the oval office was all too happy to take credit for the booming economy of the 90's. I will commend him for one thing in this regard - knowing a good thing when he sees it and keeping his grubby hands off of it. On the other hand, I don't recall him apologizing when it went south.

Speaking of politics, under the skillful watch of ex-president #42, our culture hit new lows of respectability. I won't drag you through the sordid details again, but I just want to point out the following:

1) Despite what Geraldo would have you believe, the president's sexual misconduct at work is not normal.

2) The populace being subjected to the gory details of the president's sexual misconduct is also not normal.

3) The president's sexual misconduct necessitating a criminal investigation is way not normal.

That having been said, our lexicon was broadened by the words "arkancide" and "lewinsky," but somewhat diminished by the introduction of some uncertainty regarding the meaning of the word "is."

Global diplomacy was not exactly an unqualified success during the 90's either. In Somalia, we somehow managed to get a bunch of our guys killed and all we got was a good movie out of it. We did manage to free Kuwait from Iraq, but the seeds of our current conflict with Iraq were sown, and then nurtured throughout the decade. Regarding Kosovo / Bosnia / Herzegovina / Yugoslavia / Serbia / Czech Republic, I think I speak for the entire human race, living and deceased, when I politely inquire, what the #$*&%@! was that all about???

Perhaps the biggest irony of the decade, if not the entire century, is that the inventor of modern terrorism, one Yassir Arafat (MHRIH), was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 along with the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. The most absurd image burned into my consciousness is a picture of Arafat and Rabin shaking hands in front of the Philanderer-in-Chief on the White House lawn following the short-lived Oslo Accord of 1993. The "peace," like every other peace following mideast talks, lasted about as long as Britney Spears' marriages.

But speaking of terrorism, while the 9/11 attacks have pretty well eclipsed every other terrorist act before or since, the 90's certainly held their own in that department, so let's take a closer look: The World Trade Center bombing - a lot of us have forgotten that it was actually bombed almost 10 years before it was brought down by box cutter-wielding adherents to the Religion of Peace. The first WTC bombing was by all accounts a failure, fortunately, with far less death and carnage than Mo's kids intended, and the actual bomber was caught through his own breathtaking ineptitude - he tried to get the deposit back for the truck he used to deliver the explosives! Other significant events include attacks on the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, and the suicide bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen (actually this happened in 2000, but 2000 is technically the last year of the 20th century). If the first decade of the 21st century is experiencing the maturity of modern terrorism, then the 90's were certainly its adolescence.

The US's response to these attacks was pretty anemic and profoundly unsatisfactory to many of us, particularly when you consider the results of not catching some of the bad guys when we had the chance. But, ...and this is a big but, hindsight is 20/20, and I think we need to keep this in perspective with regard to the issue that loomed much larger on the social landscape during the 90's, namely homegrown terror. The 90's homegrown terror hat trick consists of the Unabomber, the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing, and the bombings of abortion clinics and the 1996 olympics in Atlanta (it wasn't confirmed until much later that these last two were linked). Fortunately, the perpetrators of these cowardly crimes were all apprehended, prosecuted, and imprisoned or executed. It won't bring their victims back to life, but it does make the pill a little easier to swallow.

Also, though not technically terror, three other tragic events helped shape the national psyche, namely Ruby Ridge (shootout between separatists and FBI), Waco (armed standoff with and incineration of a religious cult compound), and Columbine (armed attack on a high school). Volumes have been written and otherwise broadcast on these topics so I won't belabor them, other than to note that they contributed to, and had some of the same effects as, the homegrown terrorism. All this is to say, hey man, if we didn't pay enough attention to terrorism on the international scene, it's a bit more understandable when you consider what was going on domestically.

Let me digress into process improvement methods for a moment. Have you ever heard of the term "visual factory?" Not necessarily referring to an actual factory, it's a general term for using a visual means to represent a system or process that is inherently difficult or impossible to observe directly. It is used in many disciplines including law enforcement; you've probably seen crime shows on TV where the detectives put pins in a map showing where a serial criminal has struck, in an attempt to predict where he will stike again. This is an example of the visual factory.

Luke Helder, a young man from Pine Island, MN, may be considered the quintessential man of the 90's , having spent his formative years, ages 9 through 19 in them. He was a big fan of Nirvana, and a member of a grunge rock band himself, "grunge" being a significant movement in the pop music scene in that decade. Fully embracing 90's post-modern, post-Christian thinking, he held, and wrote about, his strange views on death, religion, and society. You can google his rantings if you want - they're pretty much the nonsense you'd expect from a creative but misguided high-school and college student of that era. And he was acquainted with the concept of the visual factory. No long after 9/11, in the Spring of 2002, bombs started appearing in mailboxes, some of which detonated, the others discovered and defused by bomb squads. The bombs started appearing in Illinois, then in Iowa, then Nebraska, then Colorado, then in Texas. Through tips and good police work, Helder was apprehended after a chase in Nevada, and cheerfully (!) confessed to the crimes. In all, six people were wounded by the six mailbox bombs than detonated, and 12 other bombs were discovered along a 3400-mile route. Mr. Helder was found incompetent to stand trial and currently languishes in a federal medical facility in Minnesota. The motive for his bombing spree? He was trying to make the FBI produce a smiley face of map pins across the middle of the continental United States!

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