Thursday, February 16, 2012

Back to our Future (David Sirota)

Sirota sees the 1980s as a language-- with a common dialect of pop culture references. He argues that the 1980s emerged in this manner because a.) it was the first time a majority of Americans owned TV, VCR and cable; b.) media competition transformed our relationship with culture from "consolidated megaphone" to a far broader range of memes; c.) 1980s labor force participation by women led to more kids watching more TV. As for the timing and the extent of its renaissance, Sirota says it relates to those kids coming of age and returning to their roots. 

Sirota also argues, briefly, that "our 1980s fetish may actually be the intensification of an ethos that never actually went extinct, in part because no epochal force ever intervened to kill it." Could be. I wonder if the 1980s are themselves an extension of the 1960s and 1970s-- some combination of reflexive response and continuation of those decades. 

This sort of book is fun to read, but inherently sloppy since it's driven by anecdote and tends toward over-generalization. For example, Sirota sees Reagan as a purposeful re-do of the 1950s. Then again, what else would a politician do, in light of the events of the 1970s? Likewise, Sirota says "despising the 60s is now as much a part of 21st century Americana as South Park". But again, this seems almost inevitable given the perceived excesses of the 1960s and the troubles of the 1970s.

His discussion of Michael Jordan's emergence (along with Nike) and his impact was compelling. He extended this to the emergence of other "stars" in the 1980s such as Lee Iacocca. How much of this was media-driven (as per his argument above) and how much of this was a search for heroes in response to the 1960s/70s?

His discussion of the A-Team-- as type for the 1980s view of govt as inept and unjust-- was funny and provocative: the govt wrongly imprisoned our nation's heroes but couldn't properly incarcerate them; they permitted a flourishing criminal underground and couldn't catch the fugitives (even though common people could find them easily enough) who were then able to fix those problems. He notes the view of govt as "faceless menace" in some of the climactic scenes of E.T.-- and the resurgence of Westerns with similar themes.

Interestingly, Sirota joins many conservatives in imagining that culture moves the population-- more than vice versa or a co-determined relationship. Was govt being portrayed as inept because it had been inept and people found that entertaining-- or did mass media conspire to trash govt that had previously been effective. After the 1960s, it would seem difficult to hold the latter view. (At times, Sirota's "liberal" views are annoying, provocative, irritating, and laughable.) 

Some miscellany: 
-He notes that Red Dawn was the first PG-13 film-- and claims that it was the most violent motion picture released to that point. Difficult to believe, but interesting if hyperbolic. 
-He talks about race for two chapters. But his discussion of Cosby, Fresh Prince, Do the Right Thing is a combination of the weaknesses and strengths described above. 
-Some of Sirota's theories on the 1990s are incoherent. He has no explanation for Clinton's victory in 1992; ignores the GOP Congressional take-over in 1994; and seems to think Dole's candidacy in 1996 should have been a no-brainer. 

A fun book to skim for a walk down memory lane and to consider the evolution of culture and politics. Check it out!


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