[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
Teddy Partridge, Host:
David Sirota has written a wonderful new book with an expansive Theory of Our Zeitgeist: that the toxic 1980s — as well as our current culture’s funhouse-mirror view of that warped decade — are still poisoning our country. His powerful argument will be familiar to Firepups: the adulation of Ronald Reagan, along with our renewed taxcut fetish, admiration of greed, and mainstreaming of militarism have ruined any chance of restoring balance to our nation’s income inequity and spoiled our planet’s chance for peace, harmony and (possibly) survival.
David Sirota’s 1980s differed from mine. His toys were action figures from Star Wars. My talisman of the 1980s was the very first Macintosh. The movies important to David’s theory of America besotted with a culture of violence, government ineptitude and rugged individualism are Red Dawn, Ghostbusters, Top Gun and Rambo. The important movies in my 1980s were Blue Velvet, Maurice and Torch Song Trilogy, along with Making Love, Blade Runner, Querrelle, and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior.
Despite our very dissimilar perspectives on this awful American decade, though, David and I agree that the current false narratives about the 1980s are dangerous and destructive to American political debate and cultural progress.
In the 1980s, I learned the hard way not to trust our government: the government was letting my friends and neighbors die. I spent the decade trying to understand the strange new disease killing people around me. We got no help from the government. Those of us whose 1980s were disaffected from the hideous popular culture learned right then and there that the awful values foisted on us were corrupting America and mocking what was good about our country.
We don’t need the current, corporate-washed Green Movement to tell us we’re poisoning our planet, because we marched with the anti-nuke protesters and got arrested at the gates of bases for subs carrying Trident missiles. We don’t need Lady GaGa to comment ironically on the nature of sexuality with her Madonna homage, because we were there for Madonna’s own self-referential sexual transgressions. We don’t need Barack Obama to tell us anew about the menace Ghaddafi represents; my brother just missed the final boarding call for Pan Am 103.
What struck me, reading David’s book, is that growing up in any decade is not the same as living in it as an adult. People who, like David, experienced the 1980s as children mainlining the cultural uptake of militarism, anti-drug hysteria, and the glamor of rich, powerful celebrities and athletes do need the wakeup call his book provides: there is very little about the 1980s we should celebrate in America. The 1980s are when the covenant of The Great Compression began to come apart: middle class wages stagnated, more people fell into poverty, elites invented a narrative of racial transcendence to excuse their racism. Additionally, gays were harassed and our issues ignored, women were marginalized as the E.R.A. expired, and immigrants were demonized.
Just like now.
There was nothing very good about the 1980s. But people who experienced the decade as children need reminding. This book speaks most clearly to them, showing why the fetishization of the decade that is currently underway (disenfranchising public employees, hello?) is unfolding so that elites can sell a warped story to the American people. And because our cultural touchstones differ so widely, David’s book also provides good arguments for us greybeards to use with the Alex P Keatons in our lives, who can’t help remember the 1980s’ glitz and greed and Cult of Individualism fondly.
After all, they grew up on it.
The folks in charge of our economy, our polity, and our elite institutions want us — especially younger people who experienced the decade through their television, their movies, and their adulation of sports heroes — to remember the 1980s as a time when everyone lived like a Colby or a Carrington or a Ewing or a Jordan, a time when everyone could achieve their goals if only they would Just Do It, and a time when race was no longer an impediment to becoming a beloved sweater-clad sitcom star who made one television network very, very rich.
Most sweeping narratives propounded by elites have a single purpose: making those elites richer, more comfortable, and less fraught with the difficulties of daily life you and I face. David Sirota shows us — and our young friends — why the 1980s is no decade to emulate, let alone admire. Along the way, he’s written a funny, revelatory, and sharp-witted book that adds to his already excellent continuing commentary on American life in the 21st century.
Join me in welcoming David Sirota, please.