Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now--Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything

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9780345518781: Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now--Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything

Wall Street scandals. Fights over taxes. Racial resentments. A Lakers-Celtics championship. The Karate Kid topping the box-office charts. Bon Jovi touring the country. These words could describe our current moment—or the vaunted iconography of three decades past.

In this wide-ranging and wickedly entertaining book, New York Times bestselling journalist David Sirota takes readers on a rollicking DeLorean ride back in time to reveal how so many of our present-day conflicts are rooted in the larger-than-life pop culture of the 1980s—from the “Greed is good” ethos of Gordon Gekko (and Bernie Madoff) to the “Make my day” foreign policy of Ronald Reagan (and George W. Bush) to the “transcendence” of Cliff Huxtable (and Barack Obama).

Today’s mindless militarism and hypernarcissism, Sirota argues, first became the norm when an ’80s generation weaned on Rambo one-liners and “Just Do It” exhortations embraced a new religion—with comic books, cartoons, sneaker commercials, videogames, and even children’s toys serving as the key instruments of cultural indoctrination. Meanwhile, in productions such as Back to the Future, Family Ties, and The Big Chill, a campaign was launched to reimagine the 1950s as America’s lost golden age and vilify the 1960s as the source of all our troubles. That 1980s revisionism, Sirota shows, still rages today, with Barack Obama cast as the 60s hippie being assailed by Alex P. Keaton–esque Republicans who long for a return to Eisenhower-era conservatism.

“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner wrote. “It’s not even past.” The 1980s—even more so. With the native dexterity only a child of the Atari Age could possess, David Sirota twists and turns this multicolored Rubik’s Cube of a decade, exposing it as a warning for our own troubled present—and possible future.

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Review:

An Essay from Author David Sirota

Five ’80s Flicks That Explain How the ’80s Still Define Our World
Back To Our Future posits that the 1980s--and specifically 1980s pop culture--frames the way we think about major issues today. The decade is the lens through which we see our world. To understand what that means, here are five classic flicks that show how the 1980s still shapes our thinking on government, the “rogue,” militarism, race, and even our not-so-distant past.

1. Ghostbusters (1984): Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, Egon Spengler, and Winston Zeddmore seem like happy-go-lucky guys, but these are cold, hard military contractors. Between evading the Environmental Protection Agency, charging exorbitant rates for apparition captures, and summoning a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, the merry band shows a Zoul-haunted New York that their for-profit services are far more reliable than those of the Big Apple’s wholly inept government. At the same time, the Ghostbusters were providing 1980s audiences with a cinematic version of what would later become the very real Blackwater--and what would be the anti-government, privatize-everything narrative of the twenty-first century.

2. Die Hard (1988): Though the 1980s was setting the stage for the rise of anti-government politics today, it was also creating the Palin-esque “rogue” to conveniently explain the good things government undeniably accomplishes. Hitting the silver screen just a few years after Ollie North’s rogue triumphalism, John McClane became the ’80s most famous of this “rogue” archetype--a government employee who becomes a hero specifically by defying his police superiors and rescuing hostages from the twin threat of terrorism and his boss’s bureaucratic clumsiness. This message is so clear in Die Hard, that in one memorable scene, McClane is yelling at one police lieutenant that the government has become “part of the problem.” Die Hard, like almost every national politician today, says government can only work if it gets out of the way of the rogues, mavericks, and rule-breakers within its own midst.

3. Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985): “Sir, do we get to win this time?” So begins the second--and most culturally important--installment of the Rambo series. The question was a direct rip-off of Ronald Reagan’s insistence that when it came to the loss in Vietnam, America had been too “afraid to let them win”--them, of course, being the troops. The theory embedded in this refrain is simple: If only meddling politicians and a weak-kneed public had deferred to the Pentagon, then we would have won the conflict in Southeast Asia. Repeated ad nauseum since the 1980s, the “let them win” idea now defines our modern discussion of war. If only we let the Pentagon’s Rambos do whatever they want with no question or oversight whatsoever, then we can decisively conclude the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan...and we can win the neverending “War on Terror.”

4. Rocky III (1982): Before the 2008 presidential campaign devolved into cartoonish media portrayals of the palatable “post-racial” Barack Obama and his allegedly unpalatable “overly racial” pastor Jeremiah Wright, there was Rocky III more explicitly outlining this binary and bigoted portrayal of African Americans. Here was Rocky Balboa as the determined but slightly ignorant stand-in for White Middle America. Surveying the diverse landscape, the Italian Stallion could see only two kinds of black people—on one side the suave, smooth, post-racial Apollo Creed, and on the other side the enraged, animalistic Clubber Lang. Rocky thus gravitated to the former, and reflexively feared the latter, essentially summarizing twenty-first-century White America’s often over-simplistic and bigoted attitudes toward the black community today.

5. The Big Chill (1983): This college reunion flick from Lawrence Kasdan is hilarious, morose, and seemingly nostalgic for the halcyon days of the past; but powerfully propagandistic in its negative framing of the 1960s. Over the course of the film’s weekend, character after character berates the 1960s as an overly decadent age that may have been rooted in idealism, but was fundamentally destined to fail. Sound familiar? Of course it does. The 1980s-created narrative of the Bad Sixties can still be found in everything from national Tea Party protests to never-ending culture-war battles on local school boards. The message is always the same: If only America can emulate the Big Chillers and get past its Sixties immaturity and liberalism, everything will be A-okay.

About the Author:

David Sirota is a journalist, nationally syndicated weekly newspaper columnist, and radio host. His weekly column is based at The Denver Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Portland Oregonian, and The Seattle Times and now appears in newspapers with a combined daily circulation of more than 1.6 million readers. He has contributed to The New York Times Magazine and The Nation and hosts an award-winning daily talk show on Denver’s Clear Channel affiliate, KKZN-AM760. He is a senior editor at In These Times magazine and a Huffington Post contributor and appears periodically on CNN, The Colbert Report, PBS, and NPR. He received a degree in journalism and political science from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He lives in Denver with his wife, Emily, and their dog, Monty.

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