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.
Sirota (The Uprising) ushers readers back to the era of big money and bigger hair, the yuppie and the Gipper to show how the 1980s transformed and continues to influence America's culture and politics. As Carter's presidency began to crumble in 1978, a revival of back-to-the-'50s theater, television, and film productions (Grease, Happy Days, La Bamba) overtook grittier 1960s imagery of "urbanity, ethnicity and strife" and came to define the Reagan era in a country eager to forget or unwilling to learn from the failure of Vietnam. Sirota argues that the combination of Reagan, the "candidate of nostalgia"; hypermilitarist movies that re-demonized communism; and sophisticated marketing campaigns glorifying the cult of the individual led to our current culture's narcissism and obsessive pursuit of wealth and celebrity. In his effort to fit current trends to his overriding thesis, Sirota occasionally makes some sweeping statements, such as claiming the military's public relations campaign was so successful that Americans "never dare question" the military, ignoring the numerous anti Iraq War protests and the outrage over the Abu Ghraib photographs. But the many of his arguments are well informed and sparkle with wit and irreverence.
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Grist for the mill
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, even though I only happened on it. An interesting take on the militarization of America. While I do not agree with all the points the author makes, he provides plenty of food for thought. The missing link, however, is the solution. While expecting some discussion of how to overcome the challenges of the military-entertainment complex, all the author provided was an observation that there are signs of hope. Great read, but if you are looking for solutions, look elsewhere.