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That 80s Show

Did Michael Jordan and Michael J. Fox invent modern individualism?

Jesse Walker
June 10, 2011

Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now—Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything, by David Sirota, Ballantine Books, 220 pages, $25

1971 saw the debut of All in the Family, a generation-gap comedy that pitted a liberal college student against his conservative father-in-law. 1982 saw the debut of Family Ties, a generation-gap comedy that pitted a pair of liberal ex-hippies against their conservative son. As anyone with a taste for reruns knows, the two shows had drastically different styles. In Back to Our Future, a book about the pop culture of the 1980s, David Sirota makes a much shakier claim: that All in the Family used “sixties-motivated youth and progressivism to ridicule fifties-rooted parents and their traditionalism,” while Family Ties was its “antithesis.”

Actually, the shows had a lot in common. Both were launched by liberal writers who were surprised when large swaths of the audience identified with their conservative creations. Both programs processed this viewer reaction by shifting their focus and tone. On All in the Family, the crusty old bigot played by Carroll O’Connor became cuddlier and less offensive, and in some episodes it was his son-in-law who came off as the greater fool. On Family Ties, Michael J. Fox’s kid Reaganite moved to the center of the show and, after a while, became less of a Young Republican stereotype. (He may have been a conservative, but he was also, as far as I can recall, the only sitcom character of the 1980s to have spoken up for the First Amendment rights of Eugene V. Debs.) Sirota, a liberal columnist and broadcaster, uses Family Ties to illustrate the era’s “fifties-glorifying jihad against the sixties.” But while the show did make its share of hippie jokes, its attitude toward the ’60s always struck me as more bittersweet nostalgia than anything else: the liberalism of a thirtysomething professional who’s given up on levitating the Pentagon but still tries to live his life by his youthful values. Family Ties feels less like a farewell to the ’60s than a sign that the older era’s ghosts still had a home in the age of Reagan.

Sirota thinks the ’80s marked the beginning of an ethos that still governs the country today. The decade, he argues, saw an overt rejection of the ideals of the ’60s, with a series of pop artifacts that held up hippies and protesters for ridicule. It exalted the individual, with hero worship of talented figures like Michael Jordan (and not-so-talented figures who wanted to Be Like Mike) replacing the spirit of teamwork. It promoted a new narcissism, now on display everywhere from the blogosphere to the self-help shelf. Its pop culture methodically denigrated the government, preferring private-sector remedies like the Ghostbusters and the A Team over traditional tax-funded bureaucracies—except the military, which was relentlessly glorified. On top of all that, the decade’s most popular TV comedy, The Cosby Show, laid the groundwork for Barack Obama’s “postracial” appeal. Today, Sirota concludes, “almost every major cultural touchstone is rooted in the 1980s.”

There is some truth to all of this and a lot of truth to some of this. But Sirota’s political preferences obscure his vision, allowing him to declare, for example, that the two major political parties are now “fundamentally antigovernment,” a claim on par with arguing that McDonald’s and Wendy’s are both “fundamentally antihamburger.” And while Sirota’s deep knowledge of ’80s pop culture makes for fun reading, his insufficient attention to the days before the decade leads him to credit the Reagan years for trends that began far earlier, sometimes in ways that considerably complicate his argument.

Take his chapter on “the cult of the individual,” which carelessly conflates economic individualism with something closer to the leader principle. This allows Sirota to link any imposing charismatic figure, from Michael Jordan to Pat Robertson, with the writer who stands near the center of his personal demonology, the pop philosopher Ayn Rand. Jordan’s Nike ads, Sirota writes, “exalted Jordan as sports’ equivalent of Yahweh”; his personal story fit “every individual-glorifying myth the biggest Ayn Rand fan could ever hope to invent.”

There’s a serious point lurking around here, a challenge to the idea that “history is really the story of a few larger-than-life Michael Jordans (or Ronald Reagans, George W. Bushes or Barack Obamas), not mass movements of workmanlike Horace Grants (or local activists).” But Sirota’s eagerness to attribute virtually every ill to the ’80s keeps him from seeing just how far back this worldview goes. “The 1980s may have taught us,” Sirota writes, “that every obstacle can be overcome by emulating this or that Michael Jordan and defeating this or that Jordan nemesis. But there’s no way for one guy to instantaneously block the shot of, say, a 9 percent jobless rate.” That’s true. But if you think celebrity-driven, great-man-hailing politics are a recent development, you should take a look at the 1930s.

Depression-era pop culture was filled with films exalting the larger-than-life leader in the Oval Office, complete with a dance number in the 1933 musical Footlight Parade where the chorus combines to form the face of Franklin Roosevelt. Better yet, there’s a short subject from that year called Give a Man a Job, with Jimmy Durante telling potential employers to Just Do It: “If the old name of Roosevelt/makes the old heart throb/you take this message straight from the president/and give a man a job.” The short ends with the camera zooming in on FDR’s portrait.

Many of the New Deal’s critics, a diverse crew that ranged from Frank Capra to John Dos Passos, contrasted that authoritarian spirit with the more intimate arena of small businesses and decentralized markets. They saw themselves as individualists not because they longed for a heroic individual to tower over the masses but because they worried the individual was being crushed by the system. (A lot of them also complained about Roosevelt’s abuses of the constitutional separation of powers, just as Sirota does in reference to Bush.)

While it’s fascinating that the admen of the ’80s were able to adapt those propaganda techniques to sell sneakers, let’s get the chain of influence straight. The exaltation appeared in politics first. Then, like a NASA spinoff, it spread to the private sector.

Sirota makes a similar mistake in a chapter called “Outlaws With Morals,” a meditation on movies and TV shows about “the outside savior who swoops in to resolve the issues the government cannot—or will not—solve itself.” Sirota says this age-old Hollywood trope was a “new ideology” that both reflected and reinforced the Reaganist worldview. This would come as a considerable surprise to the producers and consumers of westerns, private eye stories, and superhero comics, which were using the same basic plot when Reagan was still broadcasting baseball games for a living.

If there was a more caustic edge to the anti-government tales of the ’80s, that was due to changes that began much earlier, with the advent of the counterculture and the collapse of the old Motion Picture Production Code. No longer restrained from ridiculing the law, a wave of upstarts took Hollywood by storm, offering skeptical takes not just on established institutions but on the idea of heroism itself. When the New Hollywood faded at the end of the ’70s, traditional heroes started re-appearing at the cineplex, a change that reflected both the political mood of the country and the entertainment preferences of many filmgoers. But those heroes still operated in a world shaped by the films of the ’70s.

Put another way: The pop culture of the ’80s absorbed the anti-establishment ethos of the ’70s but sometimes turned it toward pro-establishment ends—a change that, perhaps not coincidentally, paralleled the Reaganite alchemy that transmuted a populist anti-state rebellion into a crowd chanting “U.S.A.!” In some movies, such as the Die Hard series, the rogue hero is not an outsider but a rule-breaking agent of the government itself. As Sirota says, such films “individualized the concept of government and avoided explicitly radical attacks on beloved institutions—all while simultaneously ascribing those institutions’ failures to faceless bureaucratic intransigence and their successes to” heroic icons. The key figure here, Sirota suggests, is Dirty Harry Callahan, the San Francisco cop who played by his own rules.

He’s got a point, though it’s worth noting that Hawkeye Pierce fits the same profile. But because he neglects the pre-’80s roots of these archetypes, Sirota misses an important part of the story. The first Dirty Harry movie came out in 1971, and it’s illuminating to compare the early entries in that series to the Dirty Harry films made in the ’80s. Both feature police departments that are unreliable and corrupt—an environment not unlike the one seen in Death Wish or, on the left side of the aisle, in Serpico. But Harry Callahan evolves from a half-mad Peeping Tom to a lovable superman, from an antihero to a hero.

The lesson ought to be that rebellion can be co-opted by the people in power, to the point where a lawless government can be framed as an alternative to decaying institutions rather than as a deeply decayed institution itself. But Sirota despises not just the movies’ unconstitutional cores but their broader anti-government trappings; indeed, he acts as though they’re the same thing. In his book, there’s no fundamental difference between an individual-exalting warrior movie like Top Gun, which is ultimately a recruitment film for the Navy Fighter Weapons School, and a warrior movie like Red Dawn, which is ultimately a film about the follies of occupation, complete with a sympathetic Cuban communist who assists the story’s anti-communist heroes. And there’s no room at all here for ’80s movies that are both anti-government and anti-warrior. Sirota alludes briefly to the “antiwar tilt” of some films the Pentagon refused to assist, but his examples are the prestige pictures Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. Since Sirota is more concerned with ideas that are “seamlessly integrated” into the culture than with overt political critiques, it’s more interesting to consider the antipathy for the Pentagon and the arms race on display in WarGames, Real Genius, or the Short Circuit series. But those movies are essentially absent. (The book makes a few passing references to Short Circuit and WarGames but never acknowledges their anti-war themes.)

If Sirota is too quick to attribute today’s ills to the ’80s, he is also overeager to see such ills reigning supreme in the present. “More and more of us no longer study up on public issues,” he writes. (“More and more”? Really? Any data on that?) “We trade in the responsibilities of democratic citizenship for the pleasure of a superfan’s hysterical enthusiasm by simply backing whatever is being pushed by the political Michael Jordans we like, and opposing whatever his or her archenemy supports.” That may be a decent description of how the modal Red Team or Blue Team enthusiast thinks, but how many politically engaged Americans are trapped in those Red Team and Blue Team enthusiasms? In the era of the long tail, with more political flavors available at a click of a mouse than a Crossfire booker could conceive of, is Sirota describing the average American or just the average partisan? Is this the same David Sirota whose last book, The Uprising, celebrated the “self-organized activism” of “a swarm of Internet activists, without the top-down control of any traditional authority”?

The jeremiad hits an angry peak in a chapter on the supposed scourge of narcissism. Sirota suggests that America is becoming a nation of would-be reality TV stars striving to emulate our celebrity idols by taking our place in front of the crowd. Here again, it seems odd to start the clock running in the ’80s. It was far earlier, in 1968, that Andy Warhol famously predicted that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes.

What’s striking today is what Warhol didn’t predict: that everyone, in the words of the musician Momus, would be famous to 15 people. 2011 is a time not just of freakish reality TV performers broadcasting to millions but of microcelebrities communicating via blogs, Tweets, and YouTube. Those communicators don’t just express themselves: They listen, form networks, and engage with all those other proud selves out there. There’s a reason Twitter and Facebook are called social media. And the sociality they enable encompasses all sorts of mutual aid and collective problem solving, from support groups to disaster relief, from crowd-funded charities to those swarms of Internet activists trying to build a better world.

If all this owes a debt to the ’80s, it also has roots in the period the ’80s allegedly negated: the ’60s. Social critics denounced the hippies as narcissists too—and a lot of the time those critics were right. It’s just that the same people who threw themselves into self-indulgence also threw themselves into forging new types of tribes. The counterculture gave us both drum solos and drum circles, both new forms of personalization and new forms of collaboration. In the Carter years, a couple of journalists surveyed Americans who had been students in the ’60s for a book they called The Woodstock Census. Asked who had influenced their thinking in their youth, those ’60s survivors gave high marks to Martin Luther King. They also gave high marks to Ayn Rand.

I’m having a fun time imagining a sitcom starring a Sirota-style youngster who lectures his hippie parents about their poor taste in literature. Maybe Michael J. Fox could star.  

Managing Editor Jesse Walker (jwalker@reason.com) is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press). This column first appeared at Reason.com.


Jesse Walker is Senior Editor


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