Back to Our Future and Age of Fracture

By David Sirota
By Daniel T. Rodgers

Historians are invested in change, seeing the past as a story of either progress or decline, moving through a series of transformations, watersheds, and turning points. In-between lie historical periods that, in the twentieth century, can be evoked in a word or two: the jazz age, the Depression, the greatest generation, the psychedelic ’60s.

Given the need to first acquire a bit of perspective, we haven’t heard as much about the 1980s yet. But oh, what a horrible time it was! So much of what happened just seemed like a dry run for what we now enjoy in new and improved versions: the Walkman replaced by the iPod, VHS by Blu-Ray, the Savings and Loan collapse by the subprime mortgage meltdown, acid rain by global warming!

How empty and embarrassing it all seems now: the big hair, the leg warmers! May we never see these things again! The age demanded crap and got it, starting at the very top and rolling downhill fast. The label usually attached to the period is the “Reagan ’80s,” named after someone who scarcely seemed to know what decade he was in. Remember his partnering onstage with Brian Mulroney for a stirring rendition of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”? You can’t make things like that up. If only we could forget it all ever happened.

Was it any surprise when “That 80s Show” flopped so quickly? Who in their right mind would want to relive those years?

Both of these new books seek to explain what, if anything, it all meant. They take two very different routes: David Sirota, a columnist and radio host, takes the low road, viewing the decade through the prism of its popular culture; Daniel T. Rodgers, a history professor at Princeton, looks at the last quarter of the twentieth century in terms of its intellectual developments and shaping metaphors.

Rodgers offers an excellent survey of a lot of difficult material, though he often tries to hedge his bets in the attempt to qualify an otherwise strong thesis: that the end of the twentieth century saw a fragmenting of American intellectual culture. The master metaphor of the period was that of an idealized free market, with individual choice and immediacy taking precedence over notions of the public good and historical consciousness. Group identities splintered into, and then even within, sub-groups of race, gender, and class, leading to a “cascade of disaggregations” and a “thinning of the social.”

Sirota, who if anything tends to overstate his case, is interested in cause and effect, drawing a series of links between “the pulverizing effect of 1980s pop culture” and the world we live in today. His argument is grounded in the fact that the ’80s were the last decade when television – in the form not only of network TV, but Atari, VHS, and MTV – could have a mass effect. And so his emphasis is on television shows, movies and videogames, with nary a mention of the books that Rodgers talks about.

But on a deeper level the two books have much in common. Sirota’s thesis is that pop culture led us all to internalize what would become norms in later years. From the militarism celebrated in Top Gun and Red Dawn, to the cult of the superhuman celebrity personified in basketball superstar and Nike pitchman Michael Jordan, we fed our hearts on fantasy in a way that bears some resemblance to how Rodgers describes the speeches of Ronald Reagan setting the note of a culture preferring to live in a dream world. Both authors also stress the shift toward increased individualism: Rodgers as a symptom of ideological fracture, Sirota as “another spin-off of a virulent egomania spawned in the 1980s.”

Our brave guides have to be commended for their willingness to relive this historical nightmare. Rodgers is steeped in the literature of the period, and digested a large pile of books that were trendy at the time but are even less readable today than they were thirty years ago. Sirota claims to have seen Ghostbusters II “probably forty times.” It’s tough to say who to feel sorrier for.

Fellow survivors may not want to relive the pain, but they will learn a lot from these books. We can’t forget the ’80s, however much we may want to, because they’re still with us. It wasn’t much of a decade, no matter how you look at it, but it made us what we are today.

Review first published online January 16, 2012.

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