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.