CHARACTERIZING the spirit of a decade is a treacherous business, but when decades end, journalists and writers do it anyway. One of the most successful at defining a Zeitgeist is cultural historian Christopher Lasch. His best-seller ``The Culture of Narcissism'' provided the framework for regarding the mid-'70s as the ``me-decade.'' The loosening attitudes and new freedoms of the '60s (the do-your-own-thing decade) hardened in the '70s into a spirit of selfishness, Lasch said - of preoccupation with the body and cynicism about community values and personal ideals.
By the end of the '70s, however, Lasch was criticized for being too negative. A new optimism was afoot. The '80s would be a time of American renewal. Something deep was at work, a latent idealism. The ``me-decade'' would become the ``we-decade.''
Now, with a nagging voice of conscience, Lasch argues this week in the New York Times that the '80s did not witness a renewal of civic zeal or an end to selfishness. Just the opposite, he says: Like the stock market, selfishness reached record highs in the '80s. Commercialism and ``yuppie greed'' became institutionalized ``me-ism.'' The situation is paralyzing the idealism and moral sensibility of young Americans. A deeper, more sustaining story must be told to the young, he says.
Certainly Lasch's picture does not do justice to a large segment of America. Public service is making a comeback. One finds extraordinary creativity in the arts and in people's lives. True, money is tight. Kids with $30,000 in college loans (let alone money for a house) feel they must chase cash.
But Lasch's tale must be taken seriously in the '90s. A deeper story must be told - in education, public life, and through the churches. Simply going along with the cheap story offered by materialism won't do it.
The story of Central Europe, unknown a year ago, sets a tone for the new decade. It's a story about the end of captivity. For the '90s, America needs to grapple with what freedom really means.