Review: Back to Our Future

Posted: December 20, 2020 in Advertising, Artistry, Cinema, Culture, Education, History, Media, Television
Tags: , , , ,

David Sirota, author of Back to our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now — Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything (2011), came to my attention (how else?) through a podcast. He riffed pretty entertainingly on his book, now roughly one decade old, like a rock ‘n’ roller stuck (re)playing his or her greatest hits into dotage. However, his thesis was strong and appealing enough that I picked up a copy (read: borrowed from the library) to investigate despite the datedness of the book (and my tardiness). It promised to be an easy read.

Sirota’s basic thesis is that memes and meme complexes (a/k/a memeplexes, though Sirota never uses the term meme) developed in the 80s and deployed through a combination of information and entertainment media (thus, infotainment) form the narrative background we take for granted in the early part of the 20th century. Children fed a steady diet of clichés, catchphrases, one-liners, archetypes, and story plots have now grown to adulthood and are scarcely able to peer behind the curtain to question the legitimacy or subtext of the narrative shapes and distortions imbibed during childhood like mother’s milk. The table of contents lists four parts (boldface section titles are Sirota’s; descriptive text is mine):

  • Liking Ike, Hating Woodstock. How the 50s and 60s decades were (the first?) assigned reductive demographic signifiers, handily ignoring the true diversity of experience during those decades. More specifically, the boom-boom 50s (economics, births) were recalled nostalgically in 80s TV and films while the 60s were recast as being all about those dirty, hairy hippies and their music, drugs, and sexual licentiousness, all of which had to be invalidated somehow to regain lost wholesomeness. The one-man promotional vehicle for this pleasing self-deception was Michael J. Fox, whose screen personae (TV and film) during the 80s (glorifying the 50s but openly shitting on the 60s) were instrumental in reforming attitudes about our mixed history.
  • The Jump Man Chronicles. How the Great Man Theory of History was developed through glorification of heroes, rogues, mavericks, and iconoclasts who came into their own during the 80s. That one-man vehicle was Michael Jordan, whose talents and personal magnetism were so outsized that everyone aspired to be “like Mike,” which is to say, a superhero elevated beyond mere mortal rules and thus immortalized. The effect was duplicated many times over in popular culture, with various entertainment icons and political operatives subverting thoughtful consideration of real-world problems in favor of jingoistic portrayals.
  • Why We (Continue to) Fight. How the U.S. military was rehabilitated after losing the Vietnam War, gifting us with today’s hypermilitarism and permanent wars. Two principal tropes were deployed to shape public opinion: the Legend of the Spat upon Veteran and the Hands Tied Behind Their Backs Myth. Each was trotted out reliably whenever we needed to misremember our past as fictionalized in the 80s.
  • The Huxtable Effect. How “America’s dad” helped accommodate race relations to white anxiety, primarily to sell a TV show. In contrast with various “ghetto TV” shows of the 70s that depicted urban working poor (various ethnicities), The Cosby Show presented an upscale black family who transcended race by simply ignoring the issue — a privilege of wealth and celebrity. The Obama campaign and subsequent administration copied this approach, pretending American society had become postracial despite his never truly being able to escape the modifier black because the default (no modifier needed) in America is always white. This is the most fraught part of the book, demonstrating that despite whatever instructions we get from entertainment media and pundits, we remain stuck in an unresolved, unhealed, inescapable trap.

It’s worth reinforcing that quite a lot of 80s entertainment media cum propaganda was aimed specifically at children, who watched the TV shows, attended the movies, and bought the action figures and video games. Sirota observes that 80s themes

… operated in an entertainment arena that, unlike politics, appears on the surface to be nonideological — an arena, thus, where an antigovernment ideology can be far more subliminal and therefore especially potent. And the most virulent expressions of this new ideology in the 1980s came via cartoons aimed at the malleable minds of the children that are now today’s adults. [p. 81]

Further, the military as potential career path was purposely marketing to children, the armed forces having been recharacterized during the 80s and rebranded from modest, 50s-era grunt G.I. Joe to a series of swaggering, high-tech superfighters (including G.I. Joe himself) like all those 80s video games:

The … offensive was a … surgical and preemptive strike designed to shape children’s future views of both combat and the military’s broader role in a post-Cold War society. This couldn’t be fought with presidents, anchormen, docudramas, anachronistic red-baiting, or any other conventional political weapons that young people typically ignore. Instead, it required asymmetrical ordnance such as after-school cartoons, comic books, video games, professional wrestling, trading cards, action figures, and most obviously, over-the-top action/adventure films. [p. 110]

Difficult to assess how lasting this effect may be, but I note that movie characters from the 80s such as Rocky and Rambo (to cite just two notorious examples) are permanently lodged in the national psyche as though they are real. Moreover, 80s themes are continuously recycled as the franchise system keeps these creaking properties alive, replacing old characters with next-gen clones or frankly bringing them back wholesale to bathe luxuriantly in some weird nostalgia (i.e., the hero of The Karate Kid returning as the villain in Cobra Kai).

As social and political criticism, Back to our Future could have offered the sort of unforgiving, even withering critique I tend to read (Thomas Frank, Chris Hedges, Matt Taibbi, Naomi Klein, Paul Street, etc.). Indeed, this well-argued and -documented jeremiad comes close. However, the author admits at the outset that 80s themes and characters were so fun he and his brother developed an entire shorthand language comprised of stolen one-liners, catchphrases, character names, and plot points. Revisiting them at some temporal remove (i.e., reading the book) was like an Easter egg hunt of the sort filmmakers routinely embed in DVDs and Blu-ray discs — a form of fan service. A lengthy passage in the middle of the book tours the reader through a constellation of 80s TV shows, movies, advertising campaigns, and political gambits that had me nodding in recognition as each was dredged up from memory. Further, a glossary of pop-culture bits is included as back matter of the book for those too young (or old) to remember. As it happens, I recognized some time back that incessant pop-culture citation and referencing are narrative and messaging failures; others may insist they’re narrative coups (but only in the darkest sense as wildly successful propaganda).

A Decade after Publication. Sirota ends the book with a brief happy chapter, mining for silver linings that frankly aren’t much in evidence. The post-mortem on the Obama presidency (opinions differ, I’m always forced to admit) reveals that for all his promise, he failed profoundly to reverse trends kicked off in the Reagan presidency. I kinda sorta defended Obama back in 2010 when there was still some, um, er, hope for change, but only five years later, it was clear that hope was for naught, especially with respect to war. Indeed, Sirota in 2010 seems stuck in a narrative that war was for winning (and ending), whereas I suspect we should already have figured out by then that war is for profiteering, thus, forever. Another issue, race relations, has also now blown up in our faces: Black Lives Matter bled into the streets and threatens to launch a new, decade-long struggle just like the original Civil Rights Era (not without reason, though this time around it’s far more irrational). Lastly, words fail as I note Bill Cosby was found (tried and convicted) to be the worst celebrity who’s a rapist ever (Harvey Weinstein and Roger Ailes don’t loom nearly as large as celebrities).

If the written word is too laborious for those more inclined to visual media, I suggest the embedded video below (long, at 2:15:26). It, too, examines memes and movies in an entertaining and yet disturbing fashion. Borrowing from an earlier post, it is “an attempt to ‘abstract the integument of structure from a piece of narrative art in order to begin to talk about how the thing means (i.e., creates an ethical world).’” The term ethical world might better be understood as cinematic universe, with questionable morality tales being central to Spielberg the Propagandist (unmentioned up to this point but directly on point).

Comments
  1. leavergirl says:

    Heh. I’ll pass. Don’t need more disturbing movies, the world out there is disturbing enough. Merry Christmas, Brutus. :-)

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