QA with David Sirota, 'Back to Our Future' author
Financially, the '80s excesses led to today's disaster, writer says
Did Reaganomics lead to our Great Recession?
Did Gordon Gekko's "greed is good" creed spawn
|David Sirota, author,
'Back to Our Future'
The financial world of the early 21st century was looking somehow familiar to author David Sirota. In his "Back to Our Future," he details how events of today can be seen in the narratives of the 1980s, in everything from politics to Wall Street.
Did Heathcliff Huxtable and "The Cosby Show" set
the stage for President Obama's "post-racial" America?
Are we still living in the 1980s?
Yes, yes, yes and definitely yes, according to syndicated
columnist and talk radio host David Sirota, whose new book, "Back to Our
Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now -- Our Culture, Our
Politics, Our Everything" could only have been written by a
culturally obsessed child of that Camelot era of excess.
Since the '80s also marked the explosion of the consumer
credit card industry, we thought it prudent to chat with Sirota about the rise
of plastic and its ascension to cultural icon status.
No wonder these times seem strangely familiar. We've gone back to the '80s!
(Laughs) The thesis of the book is that the '80s have never ended, that
we're basically still living in the 1980s. But I think that has become much
more obvious in the past few years.
How did you make this discovery?
evolution was, I started hearing things in my own work in the political and
media world that just sounded really, really
familiar, and I was wondering why. There's sort of that deja vu where you don't
know where you heard it, but you could swear you've been there before.
Can you give some examples?
situation on Wall Street, all the Gordon Gekko "Wall Street" stuff
came back out, the "Bonfires of the Vanities" and "masters of
the universe." All of that was so iconic of the '80s and then suddenly
it was hugely iconic in the Wall Street collapse and its aftermath and the
whole debate about executive pay.
And then all the stuff about war. What woke me up to this
was this attitude that was really explicit in the Bush administration that the
only thing a politician should do is defer to "the commanders on the
ground." And you had the [now-retired Gen. Stanley] McChrystal battle where he was giving
orders to the president, which offended me as a small-d Democrat who believes
in civilian control of the military. I knew I had heard that before because
that was the entire theme of the Rambo movies.
Between the Wall Street stuff and the debate over who
actually runs the military and all of this stuff about post-racial politics and
Barack Obama, which was right off of "The Cosby Show," those things
got me onto the idea that we are simply rehashing some of the same narratives
and themes and ways of thinking that really dominated and defined the '80s.
Do you think that's because they remain unresolved?
Sirota: Yeah, I
do. Maybe unresolved is not the right word; maybe it's that there haven't been
new narratives interjected to counter those narratives, those stories that we
told ourselves in the 1980s. The differences between Democrats and Republicans
are variations on the story, but nobody is telling a wholly different story.
How did the tea party emerge from this flashback?
analogs are so incredible. There was that story in the New York Times in 1978
about anti-tax protests that the New York Times labeled the new Boston Tea
Party. Pretty creepy. So the most obvious way was the language of that anti-tax
crowd; the government-is-evil rhetoric is the tea party's ideology.
The less obvious part, although equally as trenchant, is the
tea party's focus on going back to the 1950s, going back before the '60s. The '50s has come to
mean in our mind the World War II era through the Kennedy assassination, and the
'60s is all of the chaos and none of the progress that came between the JFK
assassination into the mid-1970s. So this sanitized idea of the '50s was
very prevalent in the '80s as a backlash against the '60s. When the tea
party talks about going back to this earlier time, they're not actually talking
about the 1950s; they're talking about the 1980s version of the 1950s.
The '80s also marked the explosion of easy credit, thanks to the credit card. How did that symbiosis work?
Sirota: There was
an obvious connection when we moved to a society that equated the American
dream with (the movie) "The Secret of My Success." This meant that
the American dream was about amassing huge amounts of wealth in a materialistic
way. Ostentatious spending became part of the norm; it became part of
"making it." That's everything from the yuppie phenomenon, the
deification of the yuppie in movies like "The Secret of My Success"
to TV shows that glorified wealth -- "Dallas," "Dynasty,"
"Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."
The '80s was the time when the American Express card
became a status symbol unto itself. "Don't leave home without it."
And there were celebrities who talked about having this special thing; "Membership
has its privileges." The outgrowth of all of this was not just spending on
credit cards, but actually turning specific credit cards into status symbols of
the American dream. It stepped out of utility, as just an instrument to achieve
this changed dream, and became a symbol unto itself.
The '80s also led to the rise of reality TV. Explain why this has been so
TV did start in the 1980s, either with "Cops" or the contest shows
"Star Search" and "Dance Fever." What reality TV represents
is the kind of hyper-narcissism that came out of the '80s. You had
celebrity deification; if we just follow the celebrities, the Michael Jordans,
the Oprah Winfreys, we'll be OK. What followed that was, we can all be our own celebrities; we can all be the next Michael Jordan.
We see that in the rise of the self-help industry, which was
huge in the 1980s. There was a big focus on the self and one of the outgrowths
of that and the celebrity worship is reality TV, where everybody theoretically
has a chance to be a celebrity in a completely self-focused way. Reality is
turning non-celebrities into celebrities via a narcissistic narrative, which
says that the production is simply a camera on someone in real life. "The
Truman Show" was trying to lambast this. That self-focus, self-worship
started in the '80s and reality TV has only grown since then.
Are we doomed to be stuck in this '80s time warp for another decade?
now, I think the '80s has reached its apex of cultural saturation, both
culturally and in politics. We're going to start to reach a place where the
competition in politics is between the old '80s narratives and something
new. For instance, you see more people now questioning defense spending, more
people questioning our overall militarist posture in the world, which really is
just an extension of what we learned in the 1980s.
are we headed back to the '60s!?!
The thesis of the 1980s was that inequality may not be desirable, but it's not
bad if rising tides lift all boats. But I think we may be reaching a point now
where people are saying, you know what? Maybe inequality isn't all that
tolerable because now it's even worse than it was in the Gordon Gekko age. I
think it goes to the deeper question of, are we happy with a society where, if
you're really lucky you may get to be a "master of the universe,"
though you're probably not going to be that, or do we want a society that does
a better job of guaranteeing some minimum living standards, but may curtail the
possibility that you'll become a billionaire? That's the real, deeper tectonic
debate that's happening.
See related: When credit cards were cool: The golden days of plastic
Published: April 7, 2011
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