BACK TO OUR FUTURE: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now by David Sirota
David Sirota makes no secret of his political leanings. He blogs for the left, does radio for the left and writes books for the left. His last book, The Uprising (2008), chronicled recent political activism with the express hope that the left would seize the moment to reshape the current state of affairs. It also revealed that Lou Dobbs was mean to his staff.
A book about 1980s pop culture may seem an unlikely change of pace for Sirota, but Back to Our Future posits that the decade’s movies, advertising and TV shows forever changed the way Americans view the world, advancing jingoistic ideals and promoting selfish, indulgent hedonism. Sirota delves into of the Age of Excess to reveal how we were hoodwinked—all of us, of course, except for Sirota, the clear-eyed Cassandra of rec rooms everywhere.
I accept Sirota’s premise—1980s pop culture did indeed mark a turning point. But 1980s pop culture did not ruin America; it made America awesome.
A few weeks ago, in an effort to cut my 2.5-mile treadmill run to under 30 minutes, I popped in Vision Quest, the 1985 film about a high-school wrestler who comes of age while pursuing a single-minded obsession to get on the mat with the state’s chiseled-from-stone champion grappler. Madonna was singing, Matthew Modine was sweating, the stud from Sixteen Candles was pretending to be an Indian. And I formed the thought, during the scene in which Modine climbs the peg board to the strains of John Waite: “This movie is about everything. It’s exactly like Moby Dick. But better, because it’s got Linda Fiorentino.”
To Sirota, who used to work for Sen. Bernie Sanders, the chamber’s lone socialist, there is no rotten element of today’s culture not rooted in 1980s selfishness. Sirota’s anger at the U.S. doesn’t begin with the ’80s—”America had never actually been a functioning democracy,” we’re told—but he makes clear that our worst instincts blossomed then. He blames ’80s culture for people cutting each other off on the highway, buying cars on credit and leaning back in airplane seats. Every Harvard grad is a soulless John Galt with a new edition of Atlas Shrugged in his briefcase.
Predictably, Ronald Reagan is the juiciest target. Sirota mocks Reagan incessantly, citing many irrefutable proofs of shallowness, dumbness and uncoolness. These include the president’s affection for the TV series “Family Ties” and his habit of saluting those in uniform—the beginning of a presidential tradition that lasts to this day. I’m not sure if Alex P. Keaton’s sensible sweater-vest and sensible Republicanism helped bring down the Berlin Wall, but surely Reagan’s salutes to soldiers are less offensive than the deep bows bestowed on despots by President Obama.
Sirota also takes The Cosby Show to task, for insufficiently keepin’ it real. Bill Cosby shamefully concentrated on family over race, he asserts, avoiding class issues for domestic ones. He disapproves of Cosby-loving luminaries such as Ralph Ellison and even pooh-poohs Coretta Scott King’s affection for the show, mocking her naïveté.
“Rather than being nudged toward self-reflection and remorse,” he writes, “white America was being told that Huxtable-level wealth was common among blacks; that such wealth was universally available to blacks who were willing to follow the Huxtables’ transcendent values.” Had Sirota considered the early-’80s “Incredible Hulk” TV show, he surely would have accused the show of tricking Americans into believing that scientists routinely transform themselves into growling green giants.
Sirota’s take on Islamophobia in the ’80s is similarly blinkered. He labels terrorism “the T-word,” as if the current war against it had invalidated as a historical concept. He also claims that Americans in the 1980s were hard-wired to fear Muslims. Was this because of the bombing of the American Marine barracks in Lebanon? TWA Flight 847 or other hijackings? No. It was because a pro wrestler dressed up as a scary Iranian called the Iron Sheik.
Back to Our Future is really a swollen blog entry masquerading as a book, the writing a regrettable amalgamation of Ward Churchill and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, combining blame-America indictments with pious sociological tsk-tsking. Sirota’s jeering tone makes it difficult to take his theories seriously. “In a never-ending reprise of Die Hard, 9-11 made it simple to sell almost any action with ends-justify-the-means, stand-on-principle rogueness.” Frequently the author grabs at any 1980s allusion he can to manufacture a point. He links the architects of the stock-market bubble, for instance, to a forgettable movie: “Like Patrick Dempsey and his high-school friends in Can’t Buy Me Love, these cool kids finally—happily— shit on our house.”
Finally, in one of the book’s more befuddling passages, Sirota blasts Nike’s “Just Do It” commercials as examples of 1980s advertising that celebrated outlaws, to the grave detriment of American society. Never mind that, in “The Uprising,” Sirota praised maverick activism within American’s political parties.
What’s most disappointing about Back to Our Future is Sirota’s tendency to cherry-pick his way through the decade. He pores over minor influencers such as The A-Team and the Soviet-invasion movie Red Dawn while disregarding pop-culture phenomena that don’t fit his thesis, including such antimilitary Hollywood hits as War Games, Platoon and the miniseries The Day After. He ignores the films of John Hughes, even though The Breakfast Club in particular portrays kids forming real relationships in the face of the very class issues that are so important to Sirota. He dissects Ghostbusters II (I didn’t see it either) but doesn’t devote a word to the Live Aid fund-raising concerts or songs like “We Are the World,” since they illustrate a charitable streak not relevant to his 200-page hymn of hate.
Most egregiously, Sirota ignores MTV: There’s really no point in writing about ’80s pop culture without addressing its single biggest engine of influence. All you really need to know to understand the 1980s happened during two glorious cable-televised hours in July 1984. Purple Rain premiered. Prince welcomed Lionel Richie, John “Cougar” Mellencamp and Weird Al. Eddie Murphy wore a leopard-skin blazer. It was awesome. And David Sirota missed it.
BACK TO OUR FUTURE: HOW THE 1980S EXPLAIN THE WORLD WE LIVE IN NOW—OUR CULTURE, OUR POLITICS, OUR EVERYTHING By David Sirota (Ballantine, 276 pages)