The mythology of the 1980s still defines our thinking on everything from militarism, to greed, to race relations

by David Sirota, 

The mythology of the 1980s still defines our thinking on everything from militarism, to greed, to race relations 

ONLY ON THE BLOG: Answering today’s six OFF-SET questions is David Sirota, author of the new book, “Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now—Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything.” 

Sirota is a journalist, nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, and host of a daily talk show on KKZN-AM inDenver. He is also a senior editor at “In These Times” magazine and a contributor to The Huffington Post. 

Sirota will appear In the Arena in the near future. 

You begin your exploration by making the case that the political and cultural references from the 1980s have not only become cool again, but may be a way to explain our present-day issues and conflicts, and even influencing our thinking today? Please give us a few then-and-now examples? 

 Consider, for instance, the Tea Party – a revival of what the New York Times called “modern Boston Tea Party” revolts against taxes on the eve of the 1980s. Notably, today’s iteration of this uprising regularly laces its rhetoric with revivalist paeans to the Eisenhower Era. Summarizing the sentiment, one Tea Partier said: “Things we had in the fifties were better.” 

This rhetoric has resonated because for many, it no longer stirs memories of the actual 1950s of Jim Crow laws, gender inequality and religious bigotry. Instead, it evokes the sanitized idea of “The Fifties” that was originally created in the 1980s through movies like Back to the Future, Stand By Me and Hoosiers, television shows like Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, and rockabilly greaser bands like the Stray Cats. 

Same thing for the Tea Party’s use of red-baiting language that suggests the individual is more important than the common good. Though the Cold War ended years ago and though Ayn Rand is long dead, the bromides elicit Red Dawn fears and Michael Jordan dreams from a generation that grew up being taught to see ourselves as both Soviet-oppressed Wolverines and the next superstars singularly soaring to MVP awards – as long as we will ourselves to just do it. 

You write, “It is impossible to consider the enduring legacy of the 1980s without first returning to and prostrating ourselves at the altar of Michael J. Fox.” What is Fox’s enduring impact today? 

Michael J. Fox’s two most iconic characters in the 1980s were Marty McFly and Alex P. Keaton. Those two characters perfectly represent exactly how the 1980s was revising and reimagining contemporary American history on ideological lines. 

Think about it: Marty McFly was a suburban teen fleeing the cartoonized dangers of modern life (ie. bazooka-weilding Libyan terrorists stalking the suburbs) into an idyllic Fifties of unity and safety. Alex P. Keaton, by contrast, spends his life lambasting his parents Sixties idealism. 

This “Back to the Future”-versus-”Family Ties” war between the 1980s version of “The Fifties” (supposedly 100% unified, universally happy, optimistic, safe, etc.) and the 1980s version of “The Sixties” (supposedly 100% violent, chaotic, overly idealistic, etc.) defines our politics today. 

We are, for instance, supposed to forget thatAmericain the actual 1950s was basically an apartheid state, and also had a 90% top tax bracket. Likewise, we are supposed to forget that the 1960s saw great progress on civil rights and that liberals in the 1960s ultimately helped end the Vietnam War.  

The dominant political narrative today – whether through the Tea Party or through criticisms of President Obama as a supposed “socialist” – tells us that if we only go back to “The Fifties” (ie. the 1980s-revised memory of the 1950s) and shun “The Sixties” (ie. the 1980s-revised memories of the 1960s) then our problems will be solved. It’s the replay of a bad 1980s movie – but it keeps playing. 

You also make a case that the original “A-Team,” which reached new levels of prime time TV violence, may have something to do with how a generation views our government. How so? 

First, it’s important to remember just how influential the A-Team was among ‘80s kids – who are, of course, today’s world-shaping adults. Though it’s easy to retroactively trivialize that show, according to the New York Times in 1983, the program’s first season had a particularly “large following of teen-agers and children aged 6 to 11” and by it’s second season People magazine estimated that a whopping 7 million preteens were watching each week. So this was a show that was really shaping kids minds at precisely the moment that they are forming their storylines about the world. 

And what is the storyline of the A-Team? It’s one of the single-most anti-government parables of the modern age. From the beginning, we are told that the government wrongly accused and incarcerated these heroes; that the government is too inept to keep them incarcerated; that the A-Team is solving societal problems that the government refuses to solve; that the average person can find the A-Team but that the government can’t; and that the government is actually trying to stop the A-Team from its good samaritan work. 

Sounds familiar, right? Of course it does – this is the way government is framed in the 21st century. We’re constantly told the government is either inept, evil, or both – and that the only way to solve problems is to either “go rogue” or hire a private contractor to fix the problem. That was the theme of not only the A-Team, but the entire “vigilante” genre of similar ‘80s productions like The Dukes of Hazzard, Ghostbusters, Die Hard and all the cheesy private detective shows. Their message was simple: You can’t rely on government, you must instead rely on the private corporation. 

Ronald Reagan, our 40th president, served from 1981 to 1989. In your analysis, did he reflect the 1980s or did he shape the 1980s? 

Reagan epitomized how the 1980s began mixing together politics and pop culture to the point where the distinction became blurred. He epitomized this mix both because he was originally known to the country as an actor, and because he regularly wove pop culture references into his speeches (two obvious examples: He made Rambo references when it came to international relations, and he made Star Wars references when it came to nuclear defense). 

So considering that, Reagan had a symbiotic relationship with the zeitgeist of the 1980s – he really did both shape it and reflect it at the same time. 

The key point of my book is to make the case that while Reagan was certainly a factor in creating what we now think of as “The Eighties,” the enduring ideas and narratives of that age were just as powerfully shaped and promoted through the decade’s popular culture. Psychological research tells us that children are deeply affected by fiction, entertainment and media – and that means that the children of the 1980s bring that era’s politicized popular culture with them today, whether on issues of militarism, race or economics. 

What is the main lesson Barack Obama should learn from what happened in the 1980s? 

There are two, in my opinion – one that he seems to really understand, the other that I think he doesn’t fully appreciate. 

The first – the one he gets – is that for better or worse, Americans since the 1980s have come to understand their world as much (if not more) through entertainment and popular culture as they do through conventional politics. By that I mean, the political messages embedded in things like sitcoms, movies, toys, video games, etc. can be just as culturally formative as messages that come from political television ads, politicians’ speeches and theWashington press corps. 

I think that as someone who was culturalized in the 1980s, Obama understands this – his campaign seemed to appreciate that in its use of social media, and I think his expansion of the presidential bully pulpit to multiple platforms shows an appreciation of this truism. 

The second lesson which I don’t think he appreciates is the idea that in order for him to be the transformational president he says he wants to be, he’s going to need to introduce genuinely new narratives and storylines, rather than simply trying to tweak the current ones that endure from the 1980s. 

This is a key point of my book: The mythology of the 1980s still defines our thinking on everything from militarism, to greed, to race relations. If he is going to really change the country in a way he himself said he aspires to, he cannot simply accommodate or play within those fundamentally 1980s narratives. He has to offer up whole new storylines that say, for instance, unquestioned militarism is problematic, that greed is not good and that non-whites do not have to “transcend” their race/ethnicity in order to be valuable people in our society. 

To date, Obama (like most politicians) has not done that – he has not offered up a fundamentally different analysis than the one that came out of the 1980s. 

And what is your most embarrassing 1980s guilty pleasure? Would you reveal to us the ickiest idea, object, event, TV show or movie that you still hold dear to to you? 

Probably that as much as I’ve realized the really pernicious messages of 1980s pop culture, I still nonetheless love a lot of it. For instance, I can see the ugliness of the anti-government message embedded in Ghost Busters, but it remains one of my favorite movies – a film I watch over and over again and enjoy on Saturday nights whenever it reruns on cable. 

Same thing for video games – as hideously militaristic as Atari’s Combat and Missile Command were, I still love playing them on my old Atari, just like I now love playing Halo on my Xbox. In short, as much as I now see the problems of my propagandized youth, I still cling to that youth in a lot of ways. Maybe that’s the definition – and power – of that ethereal thing we commonly call “nostalgia.” 

Die, Hippie, Die! 

Every time one of these ex-hippies comes prancing in from yesteryear, we gotta get out the love beads and pretend we care about people. – Alex P. Keaton, 1986 

For the past several days I’ve been noticing a steep rise in the number of hippies coming to town. . . . I know hippies. I’ve hated them all my life. I’ve kept this town free of hippies on my own since I was five and a half. But I can’t contain them on my own anymore. We have to do something, fast! -Eric Cartman, 2005 

In 1975, a Democratic Party emboldened by civil rights, environmental, antiwar, and post-Watergate electoral successes was on the verge of seizing the presidency and a filibuster-proof congressional majority. That year, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest were two of the three top-grossing films-the former a parody using the late-sixties sexual revolution to laugh at the puritanical fifties, the latter based on the novel by beat writer Ken Kesey. Meanwhile, three of the top-rated seven television shows were liberal-themed programs produced by progressive icon Norman Lear, including All in the Family-a show built around a hippie, Mike Stivic, poking fun at the ignorance of his traditionalist father-in-law, Archie Bunker. 

A mere ten years later, Republican Ronald Reagan had just been reelected by one of the largest electoral landslides in American history, and his party had also gained control of the U.S. Senate. Two of the top three grossing films were Back to the Future, which eulogized the fifties, and Rambo: First Blood Part II, which blamed sixties antiwar activism for losing theVietnamconflict. Most telling, All in the Family’s formula of using sixties-motivated youth and progressivism to ridicule fifties-rooted parents and their traditionalism had been replaced atop the television charts by its antithesis: a Family Ties whose fifties-inspired youth ridicules his parents’ sixties spirit.

The political and cultural trends these changes typified were neither coincidental nor unrelated, and their intertwined backstories explain why we’re still scarred by the metamorphosis. 

The late 1970s and early 1980s marked the birth of an entire industry organized around idealized nostalgia, and particularly midcentury, pre-1965 schmaltz. You likely know this industry well-it survives in everything from roadside Cracker Barrel restaurants to theJerseyshore’s Old Time photo stands to Michael Chabon’s novels to Band of Brothers-style miniseries glorifying the valor of World War II vets- and it first found traction in the 1980s creation of The Fifties(tm). 

Turning a time period into a distinct brand seems common today, what with the all-pervasive references to generational subgroups (Gen X, Gen Y, etc.). But it was a new marketing innovation back in the 1980s. As Temple University professor Carolyn Kitch found in her 2003 study of mass-circulation magazines, generational labeling is “primarily a phenomena of the last quarter of the 20th century,” and it began (as so many things have) as an early-1980s ad strategy aimed at selling products to Baby Boomers and their parents. 

Like all sales pitches, fifties hawking employed subjectivity, oversimplification, and stereotypes. For eighties journalists, advertisers, screenwriters, and political operatives seeking a compelling shorthand to break through the modern media miasma, that meant making The Fifties into much more than the ten-year period between 1950 and 1959. It meant using pop culture and politics to convert the style, language, and memories of that decade into a larger reference to the entire first half of the twentieth century, all the way through the early 1960s of the New Frontier-those optimistic years “before President Kennedy was shot, before the Beatles came, when I couldn’t wait to join the Peace Corps, and I thought I’d never find a guy as great as my dad,” as Baby from the classic eighties film Dirty Dancing reminisced. 

Why The Fifties, and not the 1930s or ’40s, as the face of the entire pre-sixties epoch? Because that decade was fraught with far less (obvious) baggage (say, the Depression or global war) and hence was most easily marketed in the saccharine entertainment culture of the devil-may-care 1980s. 

Indeed, as the Carter presidency started to crumble in 1978 and Reagan began delivering fiery speeches in preparation for his upcoming presidential run, the crew-cut-and-greaser escapades of Happy Days and the poodle skirts of Laverne & Shirley overtook the sixties- referencing urbanity, ethnicity, and strife of Norman Lear’s grittier sitcoms. In movie theaters, Animal House and Grease hit classic status almost instantly. These successes encouraged the culture industry to make the eighties the launching point for a self-sustaining genre of wildly popular back-to-the-fifties productions. 

There were retrospectives such as Diner, Stand By Me, and Peggy Sue Got Married and biopics of fifties icons such as The Right Stuff, La Bamba, and Great Balls of Fire! There was Hoosiers, with its bucolic small towns, its short shorts, and its nonbreakaway rims. There were Broadway plays such as Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues, commemorating the honor, frugality, and innocence of the World War II years. And there was a glut of new Eisenhower biographies. 

Even 1980s productions not overtly focused on decade nostalgia were decidedly recollective of fifties atmospherics. 

There was Witness, which used the story of aPhiladelphiacop’s voyage into lily-white Amish country to juxtapose the simplicity ofAmerica’s pastoral heritage against the crime-ridden anarchy of the black inner city. 

There was Superman and Superman II-films that reanimated a TV hero of the actual 1950s, idealized ClarkKent’s midcentury youth, and depicted his adulthood as the trials of a fedora-wearing anachronism trying to save modern Metropolis from postfifties peril. And there were the endless rip-offs-the Jets-versus-Sharks rivalry of West Side Story ripened into the socs-versus-greasers carnage of The Outsiders, while the hand-holding of Grease became the ass-grabbing of Dirty Dancing. 

Through it all, pop culture was manufacturing a Total Recall of the 1950s for a 1980s audience-an artificial memory of The Fifties that even came with its own canned soundtrack. 

Though we tend to think of the late 1970s and early 1980s as the glory days of punk rock and the primordial soup of what would become rap, Wurlitzer-ready rockabilly and doo-wop were the rage. This was the heyday of the Stray Cats and their standing base, the moment when Adam Ant released the jukebox jam “Goody Two Shoes,” and Queen’s rockabilly hit “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” hit number one on the charts. As the Hard Rock Cafe and Johnny Rockets franchises created a mini-fad of fifties-flavored restaurants, the B-52s’ surf rock was catching a new wave; Meat Loaf was channeling his Elvis-impersonation act into the absurdist 1950s tribute “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”; and ZZ Top was starring in music videos featuring a muscle car that Danny Zuko might have driven at Thunder Road. Even Billy Joel, until then a folksinger, was going all in with a blatant teenybopper tribute, “Uptown Girl.” 

This sonic trend wasn’t happening in a vacuum-it was thrumming in the shadow of the chief missionary of 1950s triumphalism, Ronald Reagan. 

The Gipper’s connection to The Fifties wasn’t just rooted in his success as a midcentury B-movie actor nor in his American Graffiti pompadour. The Fifties had long defined his persona, career, and message. Here was “the candidate of nostalgia, a political performer whose be-bop instrument dates from an antediluvian choir,” as The Washington Post wrote in 1980. Here was a man campaigning for president in the late 1970s and early 1980s calling for the country to go back in time. And not just a few years back in time-way back in time to the dreamy days before what he called the “hard years” of the late 1960s. 

“Not so long ago, we emerged from a world war,” Reagan said in a national address during his 1980 presidential campaign. “Turning homeward at last, we built a grand prosperity and hopes, from our own success and plenty, to help others less fortunate. Our peace was a tense and bitter one, but in those days, the center seemed to hold.” 

Writing to a campaign contributor, Reagan said he wanted to bring forth a “spiritual revival to feel once again as [we] felt years ago about this nation of ours.” And when he won the White House, his inauguration spelled out exactly what he meant by “years ago”: The lavish celebration dusted off and promoted fifties stars such as Frank Sinatra and Charlton Heston. 

This wasn’t a secret message or a wink-and-nod-it was the public theme of Reagan’s political formula. In a Doonesbury comic about the 1980 campaign, cartoonist Gary Trudeau sketched Reagan’s mind as “a storehouse of images of an idyllicAmerica, with 5 cent Cokes, Burma Shave signs, and hard-working White People.” When naming him 1980 “Man of the Year,” Time said, “Intellectually, emotionally, Reagan lives in the past.” The article added that the new president specifically believes “the past”-i.e. the The Fifties-”is his future.” And as both the magazine andAmericasaw it, that was the highest form of praise- just as it is today. 

This all might have gone the way of New Coke if the early-1980s celebration of The Fifties(tm) was happening in isolation. But those Bob Ross paintings of happy Levittown trees and Eisenhower-era blue skies only became salient because the eighties placed them in the American imagination right next to sensationalized images ofWoodstockand theKentStatemassacre. 

Securing that prime psychological real estate meant simultaneously doing to the sixties what was being done to the fifties-only with one twist: Instead of an exercise in idealization, The Sixties(tm) brand that came out of the 1980s was fraught with value judgments downplaying the decade’s positives and emphasizing its chaos. 

Through politics and mass media, a 1960s of unprecedented social and economic progress was reremembered as a time of tie-dye, not thin ties; burning cities, not men on the moon; LBJ scowls, not JFK glamour; redistributionist War on Poverty “welfare,” not universalist Medicare benefits; facial-haired Beatles tripping out to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” not bowl-cut Beatles chirping out “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” 

Some of the sixties bashing in the 1980s came from a media that earnestly sought to help Baby Boomers forgive themselves for becoming the buttoned-down adults they had once rebelled against. Some of it was the inadvertent side effect of an accelerating twenty-four-hour news cycle that historian Daniel Marcus notes almost always coupled references to the sixties with quick “shots from Woodstock of young people cavorting in the mud, perhaps discarding various parts of their clothing or stumbling through a drug-induced haze.” 

And some of it was just the uncontrived laziness of screenwriters and directors. 

“Getting a popular fix on the more elusive, more complicated, and far more common phenomena of the sixties is demanding because a lot of it isn’t photogenic,” says Columbia professor Todd Gitlin, the former leader of Students for a Democratic Society and author of The Sixties. “How easy it was to instead just make films about the wild people, because they are already an action movie, and their conception of themselves is already theatrical.” 

The revisionism and caricaturing revolved around three key themes, each of which denigrated the sixties as 100 percent awful. 

The first was the most political of all-patriotism. Love of country, loyalty toAmerica, national unity-these were memes that Reagan had been using to berate the sixties since his original jump fromHollywoodto politics. 

During his first campaign forCaliforniagovernor, he ran on a platform pledging to crush the “small minority of beatniks, radicals, and filthy speech advocates” at Berkeley who were protesting the Vietnam War. As president, he railed on nuclear-freeze protesters (like Steven and Elyse Keaton in that first season of Family Ties) as traitors “who would place theUnited Statesin a position of military and moral inferiority.” 

The media industry of the time followed with hypermilitarist films blaming antiwar activists forAmerica’s loss inVietnam(more on that in the chapter “Operation Red Dawn”), and magazine retrospectives basically implying that sixties social movements were anti-American. As just one example, a 1988 Newsweek article entitled “Decade Shock” cited the fact that “patriotism is back in vogue” as proof that the country had rejected the sixties-the idea being that the sixties was wholly unpatriotic. 

But while flag-waving can win elections and modify the political debate, it alone could not mutate the less consciously political, more reptilian lobes of the American cortex. So the 1980s contest for historical memory was also being waged with more refined and demographically targeted methods. 

For teenagers, The Fifties(tm) were used to vandalize The Sixties(tm) through a competition between the Beatnik and the Greaser for the mantle of eighties cool. As historian Daniel Marcus recounts, the former became defined as “middle-class, left-wing, intellectual and centered in New York City and San Francisco”-that is, defined as the generic picture of weak, effete, snobbish coffeehouse liberalism first linked to names such as Hart and Dukakis, and now synonymous with Kerry, Streisand, and Soros. Meanwhile, the Greaser came to be known as an urbanized cowboy-a tough guy who “liked cars and girls and rock and roll, was working class, usually non-Jewish ‘white ethnic’ and decidedly unintellectual.” 

This hero, whose spirit we still worship in the form of Joe the Plumber and “Bring it on” foreign policy, first stomped the Beatnik through the youth-oriented iconography of the 1980s-think idols such as the Fonz, Bruce Springsteen, and Patrick Swayze; movies like Staying Alive, Rocky, and The Lords of Flatbush; bands such as Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses, and Poison; and, not to be forgotten, the chintzy clothing fad of ripped jeans and tight white T-shirts. 

For adults who experienced the real fifties and sixties, the propaganda had to be a bit less overt to be convincing. So their memories were more subtly shaped with the arrival of a life-form whose mission was to absolve the hippie generation for becoming the compromised and depoliticized elders they had once railed on and protested against. 

This seductive species became known as yuppies-short for young urban professionals. 

The invasion of the yuppies and all of their requisite tastes, styles, and linguistic inflections officially commenced when Newsweek declared 1984 the Year of the Yuppie, following the publication of The Yuppie Handbook and the presidential campaign of Gary Hart-a New Agey candidate who looked as if he carried a dog-eared copy of the tome around in his breast pocket. A few months later, Adweek quoted executives from the major television networks saying their goal in coming years would be to “chase yuppies with a vengeance”-a prediction that came true, according to Rolling Stone’s 1987 report on a series of hit shows that the magazine called Yuppievision. By 1988, a suited Michael J. Fox eating sushi was on the cover of an Esquire magazine issue devoted entirely to “Yupper Classmen.” Fittingly, one of the articles noted a poll showing that 60 percent of Americans could identify the word yuppie-almost twice the number that could identify the nation’s secretary of state. 

While yuppie certainly evoked supermodern feelings in the 1980s, the concept was etymologically rooted in a politicized past. The word made its public debut in a 1983 newspaper column about Jerry Rubin, the leader of the Youth International Party (yippies) who had abandoned his sixties radicalism for the 1980s world of business. His life story was a textbook yuppie parable of sixties rejection: He was a member of the “vanguard of the baby-boom generation,” which had “march[ed] through the ’60s” but was now “advancing on the 1980s in the back seat of a limousine,” as Newsweek put it. 

Excerpted from Back to Our Future by David Sirota Copyright © 2011 by David Sirota.

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