Don’t be fooled by that Rubik’s Cube on the cover: David Sirota’s new book, Back To Our Future: How The 1980s Explain The World We Live In Now—Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything isn’t some giddy nostalgic romp through the past. Instead, it’s a forceful critique of the greed, belligerence, and narcissism that defined the ’80s. For anyone who fondly recalls the decade’s seemingly innocuous pop culture, Back To Our Future makes for an engrossing, disillusioning read.
There’s a bit of sleight of hand in the subtitle of Sirota’s book; substituting “Reagan” for “the 1980s” offers a clearer idea of his thesis. This is a book about politics, as viewed through a pop-culture lens. Sirota argues that our present-day attitudes on everything from race to foreign policy can be traced back to the Reagan era, and that the decade’s sports, movies, and television shows were particularly influential in fostering a worldview.
First Blood’s ideology is hard to miss, but other culprits are more surprising. According to Sirota, Knight Rider and The Dukes Of Hazzard helped propel the idea of “benignly ineffectual government,” while Ghostbusters’ mercenaries presaged military contractors like Blackwater. Sirota’s arguments are provocative, though not uniformly convincing. A section on Top Gun, G.I. Joe, and the resurgence of American militarism after Vietnam is fascinating and alarming. But a chapter on the “cult of the individual,” in which Sirota draws parallels between Michael Jordan, Barack Obama, and Atlas Shrugged hero John Galt, lacks a similar rigor and impact. Sirota is also (perhaps inevitably) fond of punchy, ’80s-themed metaphors, but at times he piles them on so heavily, he obscures his basic point.
Sirota writes with an impassioned, obsessive style that will likely appeal to sympatico pop-culture fanatics. The book includes a lengthy exegesis of The A-Team’s opening voiceover; dozens of detailed, David Foster Wallace-esque footnotes; and a glossary of ’80s references. Sirota has clearly done his research, and his love for ’80s pop culture is evident on every page. Yet as infectious as that enthusiasm is, it’s also problematic, thanks to the contradiction between Sirota’s self-described progressive politics and the movies and TV shows he holds so dear. For example, Red Dawn might have seemed “awesome” to Sirota when he was 12, but why, at thirtysomething, does he still enjoy such an absurdly jingoistic film? Ultimately, it’s unclear whether his appreciation of Red Dawn and similar ’80s cheese is ironic, sincere, or nostalgic. So in execution as well as content, Back To Our Future suggests that there’s something uniquely—maybe even dangerously—irresistible about Reagan-era culture.