Monday, July 11, 2011

David Sirota: Back to Our Future

If anyone could write a scathing critique of the 80s, it would be a product of the 80s, a child who grew up in the 80s and was obsessed with the culture of it, the politics of it, the semiotics. This person is David Sirota. This person is most definitely not themacinator. Though I'm only a couple years younger than Sirota, and probably squeezed in just before the end of being an 80s kid, I was (fortunately) sheltered from most of the schlock that Sirota argues created the world we are still living now. The EightiesTM were not just ten years like any other "historical period," they are, both for him personally, and for the nation (and when the US is affected, you know what happens next), now: "The eighties fixation in our current culture and politics may not really be a resurrection at alll... our 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."

In the 80s, ideas and propoganda went viral much more easily as it was the first decade where every household had a TV, a VCR and cable, and most had video game consoles. (Part of the rock we lived under came due to lack of cable my entire home life and lack of video game console until late teens. This is not a complaint. This book is one of the many times I give thanks to living outside of the culture machine.) Just as we're seeing media conglomerates merge and merge and merge into smaller monopilies, in the 80s, "50 conglomerates controlled the vast majority of the newspaper, broadcast magazine, movie and publishing firms." And their products were designed specifically for vertical integration. Sirota gives the example of the movie "ET": not just designed for the movie theatre, you got the little alien and his buddy terrified of the government on TV (all the time), on the Atari, in your Happy meal, your action figures, the little give-aways in the cereal boxes, the cartoons, the binder covers, etc. And the marketing, of course, was aimed at kids. The propaganda was everywhere, and for the kids of The EightiesTM (who are the leaders or burgeoning leaders) of today, "we were a tabula rasa without today's well-honed bullshit detectors, and the first imprint on our psychological blank slate- the pulverizing imprint of 1980s pop culture- has naturally been the most lasting."

One of the most enduring traits of The EightiesTM that comes back over and over to both pop/mainstream culture and themacinator is post-racialism. Remember Bill Cosby aka Dr Huxtable? I'm not sure you could forget- I'm pretty sure reruns of "The Cosby Show" are playing all day every day on one of the cable packages somewhere on a TV near you. "The Cosby Show" worked (i.e. succeeded in making money while portraying a black family) because the characters and the show didn't make the audience think about blackness or race. "The logical conclusion," Sirota writes "is that to be 'black' is wholly separate from, and maybe even antithetical to, being 'American.'" While "The Cosby Show" was still airing, 60 million people watched the Huxtables each week. The well-to-do black family was appeasing to white audiences: economics trumped race and aussaged fears. Bill Cosby also chose not to talk about or confront any issues that could remotely be linked to race or bigotry in a single episode of the show. Nor did he include any black culture that could potentially threaten the idea of a post-racial family. Dr Huxtable and family were acheivable black role models for black families (supposedly) and changed white people's attitudes toward black people in the "my brother's wife is black" kind of way.

Now, substitute President Obama in both his pre-election campaign for Bill Cosby/Dr Huxtable, and you've got a scary situation that speaks to Sirota's point: The EightiesTM aren't over. Read this quote and answer this question: Is this a reviewer speaking about "The Cosby Show" shortly after it came out or a shockjock talking about Obama during his campaign? "I forgot he was black for a few minutes!" Does it matter what the answer is? Here's another quote, you pick the referent: The New York Times wrote that [insert your answer here] is forced to play a game "of trying to appeal to the widest possible audience, which means offending as few people and groups as possible," which Sirota adds, "when it comes to race, that's Establishment-speak for 'whites' and their unrelenting desire for the wholesale absolution that the transcendance brand affords." (The answers: The first quote was about President Obama, and the second was about Bill Cosby. But I think they're interchangeable, which is the point.)

There's a lot more to this book. Even more fascinating, to me, was the section about war and the military, and patriotism, which I may write about more later, but I tend to get slightly fanatical about the military and war, and the argument is slightly (though not terribly) complicated, and deserves a real treatment, not a hysterical one. The book is funny, and nostaglic, and is full of "aha!" moments for really anyone over 28. And anyone under 28 should relate, as The EightiesTM are back, or never went away in the first place. Highly recommended.