If Only Our Future Hadn’t Looked So Bright – Back To Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now

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Book Review: Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now – Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything, by David Sirota (New York, Ballantine Books $25)

We had a unusually cold spell in the west of Ireland in January 1984 with snow remaining on the ground for a week or two, longer than you’d normally have it. We were able to partake of improvised winter sports for the first time in our short lives – I was eight at the time – stuffing old foam cushion inserts into fertilizer bags, which made excellent rough-and-ready luges for downhill careers in the field behind our house. At the end of a day’s sledging it’d be back home for tea and homework delayed in anticipation of school being closed on account of the buses not running, but the first struggle would be to wrest control of my brother’s new Pac Man console off my father, who was, unsportingly, much better at it than any of the rest of us. And on Friday there would be the film on RTÉ 1 (this was when the Late Late Show was still broadcast on a Saturday night). The films each Friday that January were the Planet of the Apes series, their anti-nuclear message having clearly gained a fresh resonance in the atmosphere of atomic panic then prevailing, in the wake of Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ anti-missile defence plan being floated. I remember clearly a scene from one of the later films, by now muddling along without the star factor of Charlton Heston and becoming both conceptually more ambitious and dramatically more stilted. In one of the film’s early scenes, Kim Hunter’s Dr. Zira character catches her children playing ‘war’ with toys and tells them off – saying that ‘war is not a game’. I found this admonishment completely absurd, as it was fairly obvious that it was only a game and not really war at all, and I also presumed that this was the film’s way of showing how Dr. Zira was a rather prim, matronly figure. Or a peace-loving hippy, something which, though I didn’t know it at that age, had already become a figure of fun.

Reading David Sirota’s Back to Our Future – How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now – Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything, my reaction seems very much of its time and touches upon two of the central planks of Sirota’s argument – the drift to the right of the former counterculture and the express nurturing of a future recruitment pool for the US military via television, video games and toys. Sirota sees the mark of the 80s in all the main social, political and cultural currents of our time, even if, despite the subtitle’s sweeping boast, he has specifically the United States in mind, and not ‘the world’. For him, in the 1980s lie the roots of narcissistic individualism, embodied in the Web 2.0 world of social networking and a sharp decrease in collective participation; the decade also contained the seeds for an aggressive expansion of neo-liberal ideology and markets and an attendant rolling back of progressive legislation enacted from the 30s through the 60s; and in the championing of a view of government as malign, corrupt and incompetent it created the ideological conditions for a phenomenon such as the Tea Party.

Some of these observations would appear self-evident, though you have to hand it to Sirota for the way in which he mines the contemporary evidence to show that it needn’t have been that way. The United States went from being a country where just 50% of the population had confidence in the military in 1981 to one unquestioningly in thrall to militarist dogma by the end of Reagan’s second term as President. This didn’t happen by accident. It was part of a concerted effort to shake off the shame of the Vietnam War and for the Pentagon, rather than civilian government, to dictate terms for defence policy. Vietnam was refashioned according to two myths, both of which were to foreshadow future US military ventures: the ‘spat-on veteran’, which gained traction throughout the decade, despite there being no evidence from the war of any such thing ever happening. Films such as Coming Home and especially First Blood were instrumental in boiling the home front of the Vietnam War down to this little chestnut, the latter being particularly wearying as the novel by David Morrell, which it was based on, did no such thing. The other was the United States being forced to fight with ‘one hand tied behind its back’, a reference to internal dissent during the war, which allegedly sapped morale in the theatre of battle. This was later to find its apotheosis in the browbeating, quasi-totalitarian discourse of the Bush era, which ultimately cost John Kerry the presidency when Karl Rove sent Swift Boat Veterans for Truth out into the field.

Where America today is a place where any aspiring politician must prostrate him or herself before the Pentagon as readily as he or she must before God, it is hard to remember that such reverence for the military was not always such a given. Where once Eisenhower played down his military past in running for office and coined the term ‘the military-industrial complex’ to express concern for a turn in US policy, the most unsoldierly Reagan began the tradition of the Presidential salute and draft-dodging George W. Bush landed a plane Top Gun­-style on the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare military operations over in Iraq in May 2003. The reverence for the military also found its anchoring among the younger generation. As the burnishing of the military’s image gathered apace in Washington, helped by bellicose rhetoric aimed at an increasingly sclerotic Soviet enemy and a dearth of actual wars that might show the downside of combat, Hollywood and the games industry were doing the bidding of the Pentagon. Collaborations with the studios were stepped up with cut-price access to prime military hardware traded for script amendments, always showing the army in a positive light. The afore-mentioned Top Gun, The Right Stuff and John Milius’ Red Dawn were among the results. Sirota devotes a whole chapter to the latter, a risible tale of American youth heroically resisting a Soviet invasion in the American heartland. Clearly aimed at a teen audience, it was the first film to get a PG-13 certificate despite, incredibly being at the time the most violent film ever to have been shown in US cinemas, depicting 134 acts of violence per hour. The film is regularly cited by US soldiers as making them want to join the army, a pretty return on the active help afforded it by retired General Alexander Haig. Even if one can add other factors, such as economic ones, to such anecdotalism it’s astounding for a film that has been largely forgotten outside the US.

Shoot-em-up video games such as Battlezone, Contra, Falcon, Doom and Full Spectrum Warrior stimulated the tactile desire for armed combat among youngsters, with Reagan himself remarking in 1983 upon the great hand-eye co-ordination being then developed by the nation’s video-game-playing youth. It wasn’t any surprise that the first Gulf War would later be referred to by many as being carried out, as if it were a video game, with civilian and military casualties alike safely hidden out of sight behind the impassive green night-vision screen. It wouldn’t be until the second foray into Iraq, when boots went in on the ground, that casualties began to be unhelpfully remarkable. Of course the Pentagon tried to get around this by banning the televising of soldiers’ coffins returning to the States and by controlling access to the troops via its embed programme, neither of which completely succeeded.

Popular culture in the 1980s consistently valorised the 1950s, seen as a grittier, more honest, all-American decade than the 60s. There were films such as Diner, Back to the Future, La Bamba, Great Balls of Fire, The Outcasts and TV shows such as Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley and a penchant for rock n’roll revival among acts such as ZZ Topp, Queen, Billy Joel and Meat Loaf. All this while The Gipper himself was in the White House, plotting his revenge on the generation that was such a thorn in his side when he was California governor in the 1960s. Part of the 50s craze was certainly to do with cycles of fashion but there was also a sense that the times were, in the words of that wonderful satirical creation Bob Roberts, ‘a’changin’ back’.

Alex Keaton, Michael J. Fox’s fiendish young Republican character in the sitcom Family Ties, was forever ridiculing his parents’ residual sixties idealism, something which at the time had a frisson of genuine comedy about it but which now looks bland, so ingrained has it become in the popular conscience.

Individual agency was extolled in the rise of the self-help industry, as a seemingly benign outcropping of Ayn Rand-style objectivism while the Nike’s use of Michael Jordan’s ‘Jump Man’ and the accompanying slogan ‘Just Do It’ gave the enterprise a recognisable brand. Rogue individuals, or ‘outlaws with morals’, as Sirota calls them, fought against government bodies that were invariably corrupt or incompetent. A prime example is The A-Team, to which you can add The Dukes of Hazzard, Knight Rider, The Fall Guy, McGyver and Magnum P.I. Interestingly, these shows’ existentialist-lite heroes were often ex-Vietnam vets, a ready-made back-story whose ubiquity was far from coincidental. The ultimate ‘good rogues’ film is Ghostbusters (and its 1989 sequel), which Sirota, in one of the book’s more entertaining passages, shows to be a cornucopia of reactionary politics that rails against big government and saves largely privileged Manahattanites from terrorist phantoms, led by a malignant god from a shadowy Persian religion.

Television in the 1980s was also timid and retrogressive in its portrayal of race. Shows such as Diff’rent Strokes, The Cosby Show and later, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air only seemed really at ease if they were able to elide the reality of inner-city life, which was the reality for the vast majority of black Americans. This was intentional – Cosby’s original submission to NBC had a working-class family headed by a carpenter and a nurse, but the station wanted to make the family more middle class. The effect was to not only make the show more palatable for a white audience, but also to give the impression of greater social mobility among African Americans, something which belied their actual increasing levels of poverty throughout the decade. It was also notable, that references to apartheid and Nelson Mandela aside, racism was something the family in The Cosby Show never encountered or even contemplated. Sirota makes a compelling argument that the ‘transcendental effect’ of such racial portrayals, making the black fictional Huxtables look as white as possible, reflected the ‘benign neglect’ on race first proposed by Nixon White House aide Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the early 70s and which later led to widespread views among white Americans in various 2009 polls that racial discrimination was no longer such a big problem. Significantly, this is post-Obama’s election and Sirota finds the roots of the polemics and thinly veiled racism that surrounded his election campaign in the 1980s and the changing racial discourse in society and popular culture of the day. Like the Huxtables, Obama is the exceptional success story that proves anyone can get ahead. Sirota’s implication that Obama’s success is a ‘transcendent moment’ similar to the Huxtables, or even Michael Jordan’s, is less persuasive – it’s likely that the election of the first black US president would have been dependent on a softening of his ‘blackness’ even without the 80s – just remember the brouhaha over the Boston Brahmin JFK’s Catholicism as late as 1959. Racism in the United States might have been effectively marginalised and eliminated rather than sublimated under a benign patina of phony egalitarianism had the 80s not have happened. It remains however a hypothesis.

Being practically the same age as David Sirota – I was born a month before him, in 1975 – I am tempted to think he gives the 80s far greater emphasis having been a child of that era than he might otherwise have done. To be fair to him, I’m sure he would be the first to admit that the theories he floats in this entertaining book cannot all be shoehorned into one over-reaching thesis on the basis of the eighties alone – some are clearly more pertinent, and obvious, than others. To people of our generation, the 80s seems like the last days before big changes – the twilight of the analogue world, the last time many of us would see dial-up phones and hard-copy files in offices, schools and libraries, the last gasp of the Soviet empire, the end of the Cold War. In hindsight the 1990s looks like the beginning of something else, the rise of the global capital and the internet, the wholesale rebranding of sports and television, the advent of managerial government – Fukuyama’s much maligned End of History. In a way, the culture wars of the early 90s that raged on US campuses and in state and federal legislatures look like minor skirmishes compared to the seismic re-ordering of the political terrain that Sirota delineates. He might possibly be charting that terrain with too great a personal investment but on many points it’s hard to argue with him.

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One Response

  1. vincent wood

    April 6, 2011 9:37 am

    Spot on. I was 17 in 1980 and I think that Sirota’s observations are beyond that of a child born in the 70′s.

    One of the other phenonomenon arising from that period is the focus on conspiracy theories. That Sirota avoids being defensive and ploughs on with his chronical of the decade in the likely face of being accused of seeing a conspiracy in everything, is to his credit.

    All of this should remind us that it takes more than the organisation of a progressive political party to action change. The arts, music, literature and film play a massive role in the shaping and promotion of ideas. It took several decades for the progressive ideas outplayed in the 60′s to take hold. Lots of brave creative people – and political activists – slugging it out from the 30′s and before.

    No change will be effected without that type of joined-up thinking. The Right figured that out in the 70′s, as we can now see.