Book Review: “Back to Our Future”

I’m a big fan of David Sirota, and when I saw “Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now – Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything,” I practically squealed. OK, I did squeal. I have been saying this for years, and when someone as smart as Sirota writes a whole book about it, it feels pretty vindicating.

First, my homegirl Rachel Maddow’s interview with Sirota here:

I’m just about Sirota’s age, maybe a couple of years older. As a kid and a teenager, I was savvy enough to see even then that the new culture that was being created was not good – not good for working and poor people, not good for peace, not good for democracy. But I didn’t have either the hindsight or extensive research Sirota lays out in this book. BTOF lays out all the ways the 1980s laid the psychological foundation for the hyper-consumerist, warmongering culture we live in now – and it does it with the kind of whip-smart humor only a Gen Xer would understand.

In a nutshell, us Gen Xers were the first generation of Americans to be so heavily propagandized on so many fronts. As he states in the introduction, the 80s was the first decade “in which the majority of American households possessed a television, a VCR, and cable service … By 1983, just fifty conglomerates controlled the vast majority of the newspaper, broadcast, magazine, movie, and publishing firms. Such a consolidated megaphone … was perfectly constructed to reinforce narrow cultural memes, and in the eighties those were the ones emanating from an ultra-conservative Reagan Revolution, a growing Me Generation, a racist reaction to the civil rights movement, and a bitterly nationalistic backlash to the Vietnam disaster.”

As Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi states in his review, “I went into ‘Back to Our Future’ thinking that I had grown up in an era of endearingly mindless pop-culture entertainments, and came out of it convinced that from my childhood on I had been fed an almost endless stream of ruthless mind-bending propaganda of a sort that would have made the Soviets sick with jealousy.” I, too, remember the 80s, and as the kid of a poor single mother, for me and others like me, the decade was not the fabulous, happy time it has been mythologized into. It seemed every time we turned on the TV, some rich white man in Washington was bad-mouthing “welfare queens,” like we were driving around in Cadillacs and eating foie gras (for the record, we went through one 20-year-old clunker after another, counting our food stamp change for a dollar in gas here and there). Reagan, who has been turned into some kind of right-wing messiah, slashed money for school lunches, meaning we poor kids who had to eat free lunches got ever crappier (and greasier, saltier) food. He also slashed funding for anything and everything for the poor; when mental health facilities saw their funding cut, they had to turn people out on the street in record numbers, creating so many mentally unstable homeless it’s become a modern archetype.

First, Sirota lays out how the first task of this mammoth propaganda machine was to erase recent history, namely, the 1960s. In Part I, “Die, Hippie, Die!” he dissects that insidious meme that infected the 80s: that the 1960s was the cause of everything bad and evil, that flower children were just deluded and naive, and the 1950s was a paradise of wholesome, safe, family-friendly whiteness. Later, he comes down with both feet on what I thought was the dirtiest, most despicable idea to come out of the 80s: that the reason we lost Vietnam was because of the protesters, that somehow domestic opinion against the war “tied the generals’ hands,” making it impossible to win. I grew up around Vietnam vets. To a man, they all knew, looking back, that it was an unwinnable war, that they were asked to do things no human being should ever do. I saw this blatant revisionism at the time, and it angered me on a very deep level.

The book is a sweeping survey of 80s pop culture and its effects; he shows how sports, and Nike in particular, laid the foundation for the celebration of Ayn-Rand-style hyper-individualism and explains how “The Cosby Show” polarized the mainstream perception of blacks into “good” or “transcendent” vs. “bad,” criminal, violent blacks.

Perhaps most relevant to our situation now, he exposes how toys and movies aimed at a younger audience created a mindset that every Muslim is a terrorist and the best way to solve any problem is with force (preferably firepower). He calls this the “Top-Gun-ifcation” of society, correctly pointing out how our international relationships and crises got played out in the world of the WWF. Every match was essentially Hulk Hogan vs. the Iron Shiek; the bad guy is always from “over there,” and the good guy is always white.

I was surprised that Sirota picks out professional wresting as the perfect, strongest example of this. I’m surprised because I’m from the South; “wrasslin'” is practically a religion here – when I was a kid, people would get into fights over whatever drama was unfolding in the ring. I called it “soap opera for rednecks,” and just assumed people outside the South were smart enough to see through it.

Sometimes the text does get a little dense, and starts to feel like I’m reading a history textbook, but even that is a good thing. I teach at a community college; most of my students were not even born in the 1980s. They need to know this history, which is just as important and relevant – maybe more so – than the battle of Bunker Hill or the Stamp Act. As Sirota so perfectly puts it in his final chapter, “The End of History?”, “Today, the quandaries we face are so massive and so global that we need to excavate the values the 1980s tried to bury, and that requires us to face up to the destructive shortcomings of the 1980s mind-set which created and perpetuated those crises in the first place. That doesn’t mean we can’t still laugh at eighties TV reruns and flock to remakes of eighties movies and rock out (as I do) to eighties music during the workday … It does, however, mean questioning what that decade was telling us, and understanding why the 1980s outlook is now so outdated and inappropriate for the challenges at hand.” Amen, brother.

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