Look Back in Horror: The Rumpus Interview with David Sirota

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David Sirota writes a weekly column that appears in dozens of newspapers. He has his own radio show. And he’s a frequent guest on cable TV gabfests. These facts should qualify Sirota as a pundit.

But it feels wrong – and slightly dirty – to use that word. Because that would imply Sirota is part of the vast Grievance Industrial Complex, a wildly profitable adjunct to the Fourth Estate that seeks not to dispense fact but to excite primal negative emotions.

In fact, Sirota spends most of his life trying to reverse the odious effects of pundits. He is a genuine cultural commentator, one whose view of America is essentially moral. We are, he argues, a country in which greed has run roughshod over generosity, and the blind pursuit of wealth has led our politicians and journalists astray.

Sirota also happens to be a terrific writer. His new book, Back to Our Future, is a dazzling survey of the ways in which the 1980s managed to indoctrinate us. As those of us who were kids back then lumber into middle age, he observes, the ethos of that dark era has reemerged as the dominant cultural mindset.

It’s a very funny book, but one likely to induce sober realizations about the state of our union, as well as (in my case anyway) painful wardrobe flashbacks.

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The Rumpus: Just so folks get a flavor of the book, can you explain why Alex P. Keating, the Michael J. Fox character on Family Ties, was the transcendental signifier of the Eighties? (Please remember that we are old and some Rumpus readers may not know what Family Ties is.)

David Sirota: Family Ties is a story of inter-generational friction fired through the concave lens of Reagan-era caricature. Here were fortysomethings Steven and Elyse Keaton trying to live out a yuppified suburban version of their pot-and-protest youth. And here was their son Alex, as the suit-and-tie Eighties conservative ridiculing their idealism. What made the show so enduring was its role reversal. Whereas President Reagan’s advanced age always made his Sixties-bashing seem a bit curmudgeonly, Alex was a younger hipper version of the Gipper who made his parents’ hippie liberalism look like the thing that was so outdated. In that sense, Alex was waging the anti-Sixties war California Gov. Reagan first waged on Berkeley hippies—only Alex carried that fight into the 1980s, and helped make that fight cool to the younger generation of television watchers who are today’s world-shaping adults. Now sure, the show poked fun at both Alex and his parents. But its humor fundamentally pivoted off of the Eighties backlash against the Sixties ethos—a backlash that replaced “kumbaya” with “greed is good” and faith in government with “government is the problem.” This backlash, of course, still frames our thinking today, whether it’s Wall Streeters justifying their avarice, Tea Partiers demanding a return to the pre-1960s, or politicians branding tax cuts as the ultimate public policy virtue.

Rumpus: Take us through some of the other obvious parallels between the Age of Bon Jovi and the Age of Gaga.

Sirota: Let’s start with Hollywood, which is not only remaking ‘80s brands (Karate Kid, A-Team, etc.) but actually setting up new movies in the ‘80s (Hot Tub Time Machine and Take Me Home Tonight, etc.). As much as that’s a lazy entertainment industry just betting big on nostalgia, it’s also the easiest way to psychologically meet the audience where we still are. Though there are certainly exceptions, we generally remain an Eighties culture—for instance, we generally fetishize obscene wealth, organize our economy around militarism, and remain obsessed with the anti-government idea of the “rogue.” And what’s really telling is that this remains a truism even in a moment of economic and imperial crisis. That’s right, we are still so totally Eighties, that even after the Wall Street collapse, we’re still worshiping the Gordon Gekkos and Sherman McCoys as untouchable Masters of the Universe. We’re still so totally Eighties that even after the Iraq and Afghanistan fiascos, we’re still reflexively equating militarism with patriotism. We’re still so totally Eighties that even after deregulation ushered in a horrific recession, we nonetheless see government’s value as only that which can be mustered from its law-breaking Ollie North-style mavericks.

Again, this is a bit of a generalization, because some are (finally!) starting to see things a bit differently. But in general, this is what our society still is: an Eighties society.

Rumpus: I was trying to think of the book that sums up the Eighties as a literary era and the one that leaped to mind was Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero. It was supposed to be a kind of chic minimalism. But it struck me as thinly veiled nihilism. The plot is basically, a bunch of rich kids drive around LA trying, and mostly failing, to feel anything. And yet I often wonder if the growing cultural addiction to screens and on-line interaction isn’t some version of the same thing. What do you think?

Sirota: I think you are onto something in that today’s screen addiction really seems like a symptom of something deeper – a narcissism and self-absorption that quite clearly intensified in the Eighties. This isn’t theorizing, by the way. Look at the public opinion data and you see that the 1980s was the moment that young people began telling pollsters that money and fame – rather than social change or justice – were their foremost objectives. It was the decade that conspicuous consumption – that is, buying inanely ostentatious bling for the sole purpose of showing off – really became a mass-market trend. And it was the decade in which concepts like solidarity and social movement went from being viewed as high-minded objectives to being ridiculed as wastes of time. This isn’t surprising coming from the decade of The Big Chill, The Secret of My Success, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Star Search, and of course, a president who was lionized for abject union busting. So when you add it up – when you realize that zeitgeist was injected into an Atari and Nintendo generation already addicted to the screen – you see that the 21st century of Facebook-conceit, Twitter whoring, and now-epidemic levels of diagnosed Narcissistic Personality Disorder is really just the longevity of the 1980s.

Rumpus: One of the most interesting sections of the book was about the A-Team and its anti-government message. Can you explain – particularly to my wife, an ardent A-Team fan – the insidious philosophy the show was peddling?

Sirota: Like your wife, I remain a big A-Team fan, if only because the show stands as one of the most unselfconsciously ridiculous spectacles of meme-amplification in TV history. And in being that, it provides a perfect example of how we were sold the idea that the government is both inherently inept and evil. Think about it: The premise of the A-Team is that these good guys were unduly incarcerated by the government – and for a crime that their government jailers secretly ordered them to commit. Additionally, the government is so incapable of performing the most basic incarceration functions, it lets these framed do-gooders “promptly” escape (as the voiceover tells us) and then can’t track them down, even though the government knows their rough location (Los Angeles, as the voiceover says), and even though average individuals can find them whenever they “have a problem” (again, the voiceover). That gets to the ultimate anti-government narrative: the A-Team busies itself righting societal wrongs that its government pursuers refuse to fix. This was the “rogue” meme of so many 1980s productions, from Highway to Heaven to the Ghostbusters to all the private detective shows. They told us that “if you have a problem” you cannot rely on your government. You can only rely on the hired gun. In the 1980s, kids called that hired gun The A-Team. And today those kids-turned-grownups call it names like Blackwater or Halliburton or Goldman Sachs. But it’s all rooted in the same Eighties ideology that says societal problems are best handled by the private gang rather than the public institution.

Rumpus: One thing I’d forgotten, that totally freaked me out, was that the final episode of The Cosby Show was actually aired during the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. And even more weirdly, that Tom Bradley, the black mayor of LA, urged people to stay inside and watch the show. Can you sort of talk me through that weirdness?

Sirota: The 1980s saw a big shift in the images that were used to show African Americans to White America. In the broad strokes, the late 1960s was the image of civil rights protest. In the early and mid 1970s, it was Norman Lear’s ghetto sitcoms, which critics said minstrelized African Americans but which others said humanized them in regular working-class environs. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was onto programs like Benson and The Jeffersons that showed the upwardly mobile African American caught between the Lear world and the world of truly elite society. And then came The Cosby Show. It showed an upper-income African American family wholly ensconced in that elite society, and offered almost no references to racism, the black working class, or to the fact that most African Americans remained disproportionately poorer than whites. So basically, Eighties television started telling White America that racial inequality no longer existed. Then comes the Rodney King case, which exposed the reality of rampant racism. The whole thing just blew the doors off all this propaganda about America being a “colorblind” or “post-racial” society. And what was the reaction by our leaders? They told people to watch The Cosby Show. It was a desperate attempt to further shove all that 1980s bullshit down our throats, as if to beg America to keep averting its eyes from the reality of racism.

Rumpus: The book argues, quite persuasively, that folks in the Eighties lionized the Fifties and vilified the Sixties. But you’re also careful not to fall into the trap of painting particular decades with that lazy marketing brush.

Sirota: There are an infinite number of things happening in any ten-year period. Just because a ten-year period starts on the zero years doesn’t mean it’s any more worthy of “era” distinction than a more randomly dated ten-year period. So yeah, trying to come up with a finite definition of a decade is ridiculous, if you take it literally.

But that’s the thing – I don’t think you can take it literally. My book is as much about the ideas associated with these decades than it is about a chronological history of events in ten-year periods. That’s why in the book when analyzing how the Eighties distorted our memory of the Sixties and the Fifties, I referred to them with a trademark sign and spelled them out rather than calling them the 1980s, 1960s and 1950s – because they are concepts as much as actual epochs. In fact, I argue that when we think of The EightiesTM we are really thinking about the entire Reagan-Bush era (1980-1992), when we think of The SixtiesTM we are thinking of the years after the JFK assassination and into the mid-1970s, and when we think of The FiftiesTM we are thinking of the entire period between the end of World War II and the JFK assassination. And as I show in the book, The EightiesTM revised the actual history of the actual 1950s and 1960s to turn them into the The FiftiesTM and The SixtiesTM – that is, into ideologically-fraught memories that still define our thinking today.

Rumpus: One final question. The book is really, in a very canny way, a call to action. The idea – as I read it – is that we’re doomed as a country and a planet if we don’t shed the selfish and facile habits of thought and feeling that marked the Eighties™. What should people be doing?

Sirota: I think before we can mature beyond our Eighties-inhibited world, we need more of our society to better understand what a radical departure the Eighties was from our own previous history. It’s easy to forget this point because Eighties-marketed isms – narcissism, militarism, racism, to name a few – are now so baked into our present culture that it seems like the long-term norm. Now, I’m not saying there wasn’t greed, narcissism, militarism or racism in every historical era. Of course there was. But those ugly forces never became such mass-marketed, cheered-on, and ubiquitous parts of society before that decade. As just one example, take militarism. The 1980s began with polls showing the country rationally questioning our increasingly Pentagon-centric posture. The decade ended with the same polls showing the military as the country’s most revered institution.

So it’s important for there to be a deeper awareness that the Eighties pathologies that still define us today represent something ahistorical. Appreciating that basic fact is key because it reminds us that there is another way into the future than simply our current Eighties way – a way that is more about common good, a way that we’ve actually tried and succeeded with before the Eighties.


Steve Almond is the author of eight books, including Letters from People Who Hate Me. You can order his new collection of stories, "God Bless America," here. More from this author →