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Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now--Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything Hardcover – March 15, 2011

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Editorial Reviews Review

An Essay from Author David Sirota

Five ’80s Flicks That Explain How the ’80s Still Define Our World
Back To Our Future posits that the 1980s--and specifically 1980s pop culture--frames the way we think about major issues today. The decade is the lens through which we see our world. To understand what that means, here are five classic flicks that show how the 1980s still shapes our thinking on government, the “rogue,” militarism, race, and even our not-so-distant past.

1. Ghostbusters (1984): Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, Egon Spengler, and Winston Zeddmore seem like happy-go-lucky guys, but these are cold, hard military contractors. Between evading the Environmental Protection Agency, charging exorbitant rates for apparition captures, and summoning a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, the merry band shows a Zoul-haunted New York that their for-profit services are far more reliable than those of the Big Apple’s wholly inept government. At the same time, the Ghostbusters were providing 1980s audiences with a cinematic version of what would later become the very real Blackwater--and what would be the anti-government, privatize-everything narrative of the twenty-first century.

2. Die Hard (1988): Though the 1980s was setting the stage for the rise of anti-government politics today, it was also creating the Palin-esque “rogue” to conveniently explain the good things government undeniably accomplishes. Hitting the silver screen just a few years after Ollie North’s rogue triumphalism, John McClane became the ’80s most famous of this “rogue” archetype--a government employee who becomes a hero specifically by defying his police superiors and rescuing hostages from the twin threat of terrorism and his boss’s bureaucratic clumsiness. This message is so clear in Die Hard, that in one memorable scene, McClane is yelling at one police lieutenant that the government has become “part of the problem.” Die Hard, like almost every national politician today, says government can only work if it gets out of the way of the rogues, mavericks, and rule-breakers within its own midst.

3. Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985): “Sir, do we get to win this time?” So begins the second--and most culturally important--installment of the Rambo series. The question was a direct rip-off of Ronald Reagan’s insistence that when it came to the loss in Vietnam, America had been too “afraid to let them win”--them, of course, being the troops. The theory embedded in this refrain is simple: If only meddling politicians and a weak-kneed public had deferred to the Pentagon, then we would have won the conflict in Southeast Asia. Repeated ad nauseum since the 1980s, the “let them win” idea now defines our modern discussion of war. If only we let the Pentagon’s Rambos do whatever they want with no question or oversight whatsoever, then we can decisively conclude the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan…and we can win the neverending “War on Terror.”

4. Rocky III (1982): Before the 2008 presidential campaign devolved into cartoonish media portrayals of the palatable “post-racial” Barack Obama and his allegedly unpalatable “overly racial” pastor Jeremiah Wright, there was Rocky III more explicitly outlining this binary and bigoted portrayal of African Americans. Here was Rocky Balboa as the determined but slightly ignorant stand-in for White Middle America. Surveying the diverse landscape, the Italian Stallion could see only two kinds of black people—on one side the suave, smooth, post-racial Apollo Creed, and on the other side the enraged, animalistic Clubber Lang. Rocky thus gravitated to the former, and reflexively feared the latter, essentially summarizing twenty-first-century White America’s often over-simplistic and bigoted attitudes toward the black community today.

5. The Big Chill (1983): This college reunion flick from Lawrence Kasdan is hilarious, morose, and seemingly nostalgic for the halcyon days of the past; but powerfully propagandistic in its negative framing of the 1960s. Over the course of the film’s weekend, character after character berates the 1960s as an overly decadent age that may have been rooted in idealism, but was fundamentally destined to fail. Sound familiar? Of course it does. The 1980s-created narrative of the Bad Sixties can still be found in everything from national Tea Party protests to never-ending culture-war battles on local school boards. The message is always the same: If only America can emulate the Big Chillers and get past its Sixties immaturity and liberalism, everything will be A-okay.

From Publishers Weekly

Sirota (The Uprising) ushers readers back to the era of big money and bigger hair, the yuppie and the Gipper to show how the 1980s transformed—and continues to influence—America's culture and politics. As Carter's presidency began to crumble in 1978, a revival of back-to-the-'50s theater, television, and film productions (Grease, Happy Days, La Bamba) overtook grittier 1960s imagery of "urbanity, ethnicity and strife" and came to define the Reagan era in a country eager to forget—or unwilling to learn from—the failure of Vietnam. Sirota argues that the combination of Reagan, the "candidate of nostalgia"; hypermilitarist movies that re-demonized communism; and sophisticated marketing campaigns glorifying the cult of the individual led to our current culture's narcissism and obsessive pursuit of wealth and celebrity. In his effort to fit current trends to his overriding thesis, Sirota occasionally makes some sweeping statements, such as claiming the military's public relations campaign was so successful that Americans "never dare question" the military, ignoring the numerous anti–Iraq War protests and the outrage over the Abu Ghraib photographs. But the many of his arguments are well informed and sparkle with wit and irreverence. (Mar.)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books (March 15, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345518780
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345518781
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #411,101 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

David Sirota is a journalist, TV commentator and nationally syndicated weekly newspaper columnist. His weekly column is based at the San Francisco Chronicle, Portland Oregonian and The Seattle Times and now appears in newspapers with a combined daily circulation of more than 1.6 million readers. He has written three books, the latter of which became the basis for the National Geographic Channel's major miniseries on the 1980s. He has contributed to The New York Times Magazine, Harper's and The Nation. He appears regularly as a guest on MSNBC and Current TV and has been featured on The Colbert Report and NBC's Last Call with Carson Daly. Sirota received a degree in journalism and political science from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. He lives in Denver with his wife, Emily; his son Isaac; and his dog, Monty. Find his website at

You can schedule Sirota to appear at your book club, civic organization or local bookstore at his website at

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

83 of 96 people found the following review helpful By 1. on March 18, 2011
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According to David Sirota, the United States has been unable to solve its current problems due to narcissism, nostalgia for the fifties, militarism, paranoia about the government, and racial divisions which were created or became exacerbated in the eighties. Sirota believes that the eighties created an era of narcissism in which the individual counted more than the team or the nation. An example of this eighties style narcissism, that Sirota mentions, is Michael Jordan, who played for himself and not the team, and this autistic view of teamwork, was replicated in the film "Hoosiers," in which the hero of the movie goes against his coach and the team. So much attention to the self, Sirota contends, led to the cult of personality in the eighties in which people looked to celebrities or politicians on an individual basis to look for answers, and Americans gave up on the idea of collective effort in solving the problems of the nation. Due to this deification of the individual, Americans thought they could be just like the fictional Gordon Gekko or the real Micheal Milken by making millions of dollars by taking advantage of their fellow citizens. The only impediment to this Randian version of the hero from achieving his or her potential was the government in which pop culture took a dim view of in the eighties. Sirota describes how the movie "E.T." depicted government agents as being thugs out to terrorize suburbia. Sirota states that the government was seen as the problem and not the solution in television shows like the "A-Team," "Knight Rider," and movies such as "Die Hard," "Rambo," and "Lethal Weapon," in which it was okay to go rogue against the laws of the United States.Read more ›
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66 of 83 people found the following review helpful By Dienne TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 25, 2011
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How is it that we went from the Civil Rights 60s to the anti-war, "Free to be You and Me" 70s to the "War Games" 80s? And how has that transition impacted our current culture and political landscape? These are among the questions David Sirota sets out to explore and answer in this book.

Sirota opens by describing his own experience of the 80s - how the decade had its own feel and style and even language, which language he still finds himself thinking in. He grew up believing that the movies, television and other cultural accoutrements which formed the basis of his formative years were just good, clean, exuberant fun. Yet as the 80s shows, images and themes have resurfaced in the last few years, Sirota has come to believe that there was something much more powerful - subversive even - about the 80s. He argues that there was a deliberate, conscious, propagandistic re-working of previous generations to create a new 80s' mass mindset of materialism and martial/military dominance.

Sirota argues that 80s propaganda deliberately re-worked previous generations to create the twin myths of "The 50s" and "The 60s". The 60s were portrayed as a period of radical upheaval and violent instability - a "bad" time in our history (the gains of the Civil Rights Movement thereby getting swept under the rug). The 50s, meanwhile, were portrayed as the antidote - a stable, peaceful time when children were respectful, father knew best and America had "values". If we want to "return" society to its pre-1960 "good", we need to throw out the hippies and return to the clean-cut, all-American 50s.

Sirota next explores the 80s generation's heroification of certain individuals (mainly sports and movie stars, personified by Michael Jordan) and the companion message, "Just Do It.
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31 of 39 people found the following review helpful By drp103 on March 20, 2011
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I'm about half way through the Kindle Edition, and I must say, this book really picks away at your brain by quickly driving home its message. And I'll have to confess, I'm now a believer. Of course, it wasn't very difficult as I grew up in the '80s.

In a nutshell, the Author believes that all of our current political worldviews about war and economics-and that of our politician's-were influenced by many of the TV shows, commercials and pop culture references that we grew up watching as kids during the 1980's......WOW.....I know, what a stretch, right! But it's so TRUE.

For example, thanks to the A-TEAM, Americans simultaneously LOVE the military and military types like Sarah-the Commie-Watcher-Palin and John-the Maverick-McCain, but HATE the government-even though they're the exact same thing!

It's why we believe that if we "JUST DO IT" we will become rich and famous like Micheal Jordan.

And it's why we still believe that "greed is good". In fact, it's doing better than ever. All because of our affinity for the GO GO '80s.

According to some Americans, a group of pansy-assed hippie, spitter-on'ers are to blame for losing the War in Vietnam, and by the early '80s they could not accept it any longer. So, we as a nation, had had enough, and through TV, we revised our past. That's why one man-RAMBO!-went back to Vietnam: to finally do the "right" thing and win the war; something that our inept, lefty government could never do.

Of course it all started with one of the decade's biggest icons: the ACTOR!-turned-President Ronald Reagan-the "right" man for the "right" job.

I could go on and on but I don't want to give away too much. You get the idea. It's all very, very interesting.

Anyone who grew up in the '80s should get a kick out of reading this book. Snort a line and ENJOY!
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