Jay Kernis, senior producer of CNN's In the Arena program, promoted liberal writer David Sirota's thesis that "the mythology of the 1980s still defines our thinking on everything from militarism, to greed, to race relations." Sirota bashed 80s cultural touchstones such as The A Team and Ghostbusters for being "hideously militaristic" and the "ugliness of [their] anti-government message."
Kernis interviewed the Huffington Post contributor about his new book, "Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now—Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything" in an item on his program's blog on CNN.com on Monday. The producer first asked about the writer's hypothesis that "the political and cultural references from the 1980s have not only become cool again, but may be a way to explain our present-day issues and conflicts, and even influencing our thinking today."
Sirota, who once attacked Glenn Beck as a "right wing political terrorist" and labeled opponents of President Obama "a bunch of psychopaths," cited an apparent connection with the current Tea Party movement:
Consider, for instance, the Tea Party – a revival of what the New York Times called "modern Boston Tea Party" revolts against taxes on the eve of the 1980s. Notably, today's iteration of this uprising regularly laces its rhetoric with revivalist paeans to the Eisenhower Era. Summarizing the sentiment, one Tea Partier said: "Things we had in the fifties were better."
This rhetoric has resonated because for many, it no longer stirs memories of the actual 1950s of Jim Crow laws, gender inequality and religious bigotry. Instead, it evokes the sanitized idea of "The Fifties" that was originally created in the 1980s through movies like Back to the Future, Stand By Me and Hoosiers, television shows like Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, and rockabilly greaser bands like the Stray Cats.
Same thing for the Tea Party's use of red-baiting language that suggests the individual is more important than the common good. Though the Cold War ended years ago and though Ayn Rand is long dead, the bromides elicit Red Dawn fears and Michael Jordan dreams from a generation that grew up being taught to see ourselves as both Soviet-oppressed Wolverines and the next superstars singularly soaring to MVP awards – as long as we will ourselves to just do it.
One glaring weakness in his cultural examples is the fact that Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley are not 80s programs. They began in the mid-1970s and were past their prime when they ended their runs in the early 80s (the famous phrase "jump the shark" comes from a later-season Happy Days episode). Also, Sirota would have us believe that Tea Partiers regularly harken back to 50s (which, of course, he cast in the worst light possible) based on an extrapolation from his one anecdote.
The Huffington Post writer then held up Michael J. Fox and his characters in Back to the Future and Family Ties as influences: "Those two characters perfectly represent exactly how the 1980s was revising and reimagining contemporary American history on ideological lines. Think about it: Marty McFly was a suburban teen fleeing the cartoonized dangers of modern life...into an idyllic Fifties of unity and safety. Alex P. Keaton, by contrast, spends his life lambasting his parents Sixties idealism." However, as the MRC's recent report "Rewriting Reagan" pointed out, Family Ties actually worked in anti-Reagan jokes into the dialogue.
In the process of singling out Fox, Sirota returned to his 50s talking point:
This "Back to the Future"-versus-"Family Ties" war between the 1980s version of "The Fifties" (supposedly 100% unified, universally happy, optimistic, safe, etc.) and the 1980s version of "The Sixties" (supposedly 100% violent, chaotic, overly idealistic, etc.) defines our politics today.
We are, for instance, supposed to forget that America in the actual 1950s was basically an apartheid state, and also had a 90% top tax bracket. Likewise, we are supposed to forget that the 1960s saw great progress on civil rights and that liberals in the 1960s ultimately helped end the Vietnam War.
The dominant political narrative today – whether through the Tea Party or through criticisms of President Obama as a supposed "socialist" – tells us that if we only go back to "The Fifties" (ie. the 1980s-revised memory of the 1950s) and shun "The Sixties" (ie. the 1980s-revised memories of the 1960s) then our problems will be solved. It's the replay of a bad 1980s movie – but it keeps playing.
When Kernis asked about the journalist's thesis about The A-Team's supposed influence on "how a generation views our government," the left-of-center narrative reached a new level:
It's one of the single-most anti-government parables of the modern age. From the beginning, we are told that the government wrongly accused and incarcerated these heroes; that the government is too inept to keep them incarcerated; that the A-Team is solving societal problems that the government refuses to solve; that the average person can find the A-Team but that the government can't; and that the government is actually trying to stop the A-Team from its good samaritan work.
Sounds familiar, right? Of course it does – this is the way government is framed in the 21st century. We're constantly told the government is either inept, evil, or both – and that the only way to solve problems is to either "go rogue" or hire a private contractor to fix the problem. That was the theme of not only the A-Team, but the entire "vigilante" genre of similar '80s productions like The Dukes of Hazzard, Ghostbusters, Die Hard and all the cheesy private detective shows. Their message was simple: You can’t rely on government, you must instead rely on the private corporation.
Sirota returned to these productions' apparent "anti-government" themes when the CNN producer asked what was the writer's "most embarassing 1980s guilty pleasure."
Probably that as much as I've realized the really pernicious messages of 1980s pop culture, I still nonetheless love a lot of it. For instance, I can see the ugliness of the anti-government message embedded in Ghost Busters [sic], but it remains one of my favorite movies – a film I watch over and over again and enjoy on Saturday nights whenever it reruns on cable.
Same thing for video games – as hideously militaristic as Atari's Combat and Missile Command were, I still love playing them on my old Atari, just like I now love playing Halo on my Xbox. In short, as much as I now see the problems of my propagandized youth, I still cling to that youth in a lot of ways. Maybe that's the definition – and power – of that ethereal thing we commonly call "nostalgia."
It's enough to make one cry out a catchphrase of one of the stars of The A Team: "I pity the fool."
Earlier in the interview, Kernis asked, "What is the main lesson Barack Obama should learn from what happened in the 1980s?" The Huffington Post contributor critiqued the President from the left as he revealed a central thesis from his book (played up by CNN in the title of their item):
The...lesson which I don't think he appreciates is the idea that in order for him to be the transformational president he says he wants to be, he's going to need to introduce genuinely new narratives and storylines, rather than simply trying to tweak the current ones that endure from the 1980s.
This is a key point of my book: The mythology of the 1980s still defines our thinking on everything from militarism, to greed, to race relations. If he is going to really change the country in a way he himself said he aspires to, he cannot simply accommodate or play within those fundamentally 1980s narratives. He has to offer up whole new storylines that say, for instance, unquestioned militarism is problematic, that greed is not good and that non-whites do not have to "transcend" their race/ethnicity in order to be valuable people in our society.
To date, Obama (like most politicians) has not done that – he has not offered up a fundamentally different analysis than the one that came out of the 1980s.