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Essay: An Era Of Tiny Commotions

From the NEA Four to the campaign-finance scandals, the '90s are the downsized decade

By Andrew Ferguson/TIME

Time cover

WASHINGTON (TIME, Oct. 27) -- You've heard of the Hollywood Ten, the Little Rock Nine and the Chicago Seven. By fate or design or bad luck, they came to embody their tumultuous times, as we social commentators like to say: the McCarthy era, the end of enforced racial segregation, the street riots of the 1960s. But have you heard of the NEA Four? A generation from now, historians may see that hapless quartet as embodying the less than tumultuous times of the 1990s. For this is the era of tiny commotions.

The NEA Four are "performance artists" to whom, several years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded government grants. The most famous of the performers, Karen Finley, thrilled audiences by coating herself in chocolate and doing highly inventive autoerotic exercises with sweet potatoes. Some members of Congress, worried perhaps about the inevitable outcry from the tuber-rights community, deemed this an unworthy expenditure of tax dollars. The grants were rescinded--and a cause was born. The martyrs came ready-made, as did the name with the capitalized numeral Four, lending their cause a portentous air.

The subsequent controversy roiled artists, politicians, the A.C.L.U., the courts and editorial writers, who saw in it the clash of titanic forces.The villain in the melodrama was the government. It can haul you before congressional committees and ruin your career, as it did to the Hollywood Ten. It can threaten you with jail time on trumped-up charges, as it did to the Chicago Seven. It can bar you from going to your local high school, as it did to the Little Rock Nine.

And now, in the '90s, what has the government done? It has looked upon a woman who tried to turn herself into a yam- flavored candy bar and...censored her? Jailed her? Deported her? No, no: it decided not to give her money.

This is why I say the NEA Four will come to define the decade. Our complaints, our controversies, our commotions and our causes have grown so small. We all know about corporate downsizing, but who would have thought that in the '90s, everything else would get downsized too? The country is so short on big things--heroes, villains, conflicts--that we've had to inflate little things and pretend they're big. Our statesmen used to revile Hitler, Mussolini, the godless Reds--large and sinister enemies who wanted to take over the world. Now the the focus of evil in American life is...the tobacco industry. The fellows who make cigarettes may be--indeed are--mendacious, but they do produce a legal product that earlier generations found alternately pleasurable and obnoxious but never evil. Our parents and our grandparents worried about polio epidemics. Today the great public-health crisis is the secondhand smoke from thy neighbor's Marlboro.

Consider too the latest scandal to stimulate our hyperstimulated political class. Newt Gingrich tells us the campaign-finance scandals are "worse than Watergate," and the huge investigative resources thrown around suggest that many people agree. Watergate involved burglaries, hush money, vast invasions of personal privacy and the manipulation of the nation's intelligence apparatus against American citizens. Attorney General Janet Reno is now worried whether the President and Vice President used a phone in an inappropriate room to solicit money for an inappropriate bank account controlled by the wrong arm of their re-election campaign. Did someone abscond with the cash? Hire hookers or hit men? No: it was used to buy ads on TV.

If there is a casualty in the finance scandals, it will be the Clinton Administration, and there is some justice in this. President Clinton is the master of the tiny commotion. Few Presidents have thought so small while talking so big. To quote from his State of the Union address: America faces "a challenge as great as any in our peacetime history." He didn't say what that challenge was precisely, but you got a sense of its actual size when he unrolled the itty-bitty initiatives he proposed to meet it: V-chips, for example, and a White House conference on brain development. To the barricades!

The President specializes in transforming the trivial into the monumental, but he can easily reverse the process. For centuries Westerners have looked with exhilaration to the new millennium. How disappointed they would be to learn that it's going to happen during the Clinton Administration. The President's Millennium Project marks this epochal event with celebrations appropriate for a county fair. He will launch a new boys' choir, air a series of millennium-minute TV commercials and send photographers to the hinterland to snap pictures.

This isn't exactly what Nostradamus had in mind. But so what? An era of tiny commotions--lacking great challenges and scandals, villains and causes--affords us a rare respite from the storms of history. Surely over the horizon some large commotions loom, and when they arrive, we'll marvel at our current capacity to make something out of nothing. So pass the chocolate and sweet potatoes, and let the good times roll.





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