Back to the ’90s in the Penny Press!
The 1990s came rushing back into the spotlight for me today in the Penny Press, first in the latest Vanity Fair, which had not only an entertainingly angry piece by Lili Anolik on the whole culture-altering media circus of the O. J. Simpson trial, and then a piece written by Monica Lewinsky, whose scandal with President Clinton brought the whole of the United States government to a standstill back in 1998, and finally an excerpt from Matt Berman’s new memoir about working in the 1990s on John Kennedy Jr.’s start-up magazine George. Berman’s an affable narrator, telling a familiar story of an ordinary guy unexpectedly caught up in the vortex of Kennedy fame. It’s the animating heart of Berman’s new book, JFK Jr, George & Me (as it was of Christina Haag’s far more vibrant and memorable Come to the Edge), and one of the main characteristics of that book is here in this article: the effective way Berman casts himself as something of a starstruck bumbler who’s less aware than his readers are of the significances happening all around him.
One such moment struck me, of course. Berman’s at a laid-back meeting at Kennedy’s place when Kennedy’s wife, Carolyn Bessette, starts up a conversation with Berman:
John offered me a Rolling Rock. I sat down and tried to look comfortable. Carolyn sprawled next to me, putting her arm on the back of the sofa behind my head. She stared at me with her clear blue eyes. “Matt, where did you grow up? I bet Connecticut.” I mentally examined myself, searching for clues to her comment. Was my sport coat too preppy? Did I have a bad haircut? Do I have an accent? Then I remembered that she had grown up one town away from where I had; she was from Greenwich and probably recognized the type.
It’s hard to know what ‘type’ Berman is talking about here. The Greenwich where Carolyn Bessette grew up was about as far as you can get from the working-class Connecticut whose marks Berman is here worried she spots in him; it’s impossible to tell if Berman’s at all aware of the rumors that there might have been a much more direct way for Carolyn Bessette to know about the ways of young men from working-class Connecticut. And if he does know about those rumors, you have to wonder what other things he knows but does not say in this article or in his memoir. That’s the amazing thing here: that even twenty years later, the fog machine can still be found working.
And over in The New Republic, in a short, fantastic piece called “American Plague,” Michael Hobbes writes about the greatest scourge of the early 1990s, the AIDS epidemic, which, he rightly points out, struck the United States far worse than it struck any other country:
Looking at the data on AIDS deaths, you see that the virus hit the United States early and hard. In 1982, the first year of nation-wide CDC surveillance, 451 people died of AIDS in America. Just five died in Britain. In 1985, when Germany started reporting, it had 170 AIDS deaths. The United States had almost 7000.
“At the end of the day, it’s best understood as a function of health disparities writ large,” says Chris Beyrer, the director of the Johns Hopkins Fogarty AIDS International Training and Research Program. The core difference between the United States and Western Europe, he says, is that “we’re a much bigger, much more complex, and much more unjust country.”
Of course, it’s not all 1990s-retrospectives. The best thing I read today in the Penny Press was by Timothy Snyder (author of 2010’s utterly magnificent Bloodlands), a piece called “This Battle Means Everything,” also in The New Republic, that looks at the turmoil currently ratcheting up in Europe and has some extremely sobering things to say about it all:
We easily forget how fascism works: as a bright and shining alternative to the mundane duties of everyday life, as a celebration of the obviously and totally irrational against good sense and experience. Fascism features armed forces that do not look like armed forces, indifference to the laws of war in their application to people deemed inferior, the celebration of “empire” after counterproductive land grabs. Fascism means the celebration of the nude male form, the obsession with homosexuality, simultaneously criminalized and imitated. Fascism rejects liberalism and democracy as sham forms of individualism, insists on the collective will over the individual choice, and fetishizes the glorious deed. Because the deed is everything and the word is nothing, worlds are only there to make deeds possible, and then to make myths of them. Truth cannot exist, and so history is nothing more than a political resource. Hitler could speak of St. Paul as his enemy, Mussolini could summon the Roman emperors. Seventy years after the end of World War II, we forgot how appealing all this once was to Europeans, and indeed that only defeat in war discredited it.