Authors@Google Presents David Sirota: Back to Our Future

Uploaded by AtGoogleTalks on 07.07.2011

>>Male Presenter: Good afternoon everyone. Welcome to another outstanding Authors@Google
presentation. The main thing that I can say to preface today's talk is that I love the
'80s, born there, love the movies. It's just a great time to be around. And it ushered
in the technological and cultural revolution that, to a certain extent, continues to this
In this light, we're very pleased to welcome David Sirota to our Mountain View office today.
It's actually a return appearance for him. He made another talk at our Boulder headquarters
as well. David is an author, commentator, and radio host. And his books have been influential
and wide-reaching, ranging from subjects such as his book "Hostile Takeover" to his penultimate
one called "The Uprising."
He'll be speaking to us today about his latest book, which is called "Back to Our Future:
How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now-- Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything."
Using the backdrop of five movies, he paints a picture of our modern political and economic
The DeLorean is still here and David is here to tell us what it means. After the conclusion
of his presentation, we'll have time for some questions and answers using the Q and A mic.
And without further ado, please join me in welcoming David to Google. Thank you.
>>David Sirota: Thank you. Thanks
>>David Sirota: I'll plug this in. That's right. There are a lot of cords up here. Thank
you. Thanks for coming. And thanks for having me here. So, I have an audio/visual presentation
which I will go through and just to let you know, there's gonna be some trivia questions
in here.
And I'll give you the trivia answers at the end. They're sort of interspersed. I wish
I had prizes to give out, but I don't. So, I apologize. And just for some background
on me, I am a big child of the '80s. I'm 35 years old, which means that I was--I guess--in
6th grade in 1988.
And a lot of the premise of this presentation and the premise of my book is that we don't
appreciate as much how much cultural products impact children in particular, cultural products
that you'll see in this presentation that are not necessarily critically-acclaimed,
[chuckles] but do have a huge impact on kids, especially, I would argue, at that age somewhere
between,I dunno,second grade and ninth grade.
But obviously throughout childhood. So, that's basically the premise of the book. So, I start
out in the book. And I'm gonna take you through basically three of the chapters, or the themes
of the book's chapters. And so, just to start out to give you some background about why
I wrote this book is because clearly the 1980s are back right now, culturally.
And here's some examples, some analogs, to how the 1980s are back. So, we've got Top
Gun being remade. We have the Rambo remakes. Wall Street was remade. Tron was remade. The
A-Team was remade. GI Joe. Hulk Hogan's now a reality TV star. The Lakers and the Celtics
were playing in the championships.
The Lakers and the Celtics are playing in the championships. Apple, which was a huge
company in the 1980s, went out a little bit between now. Obviously now it's back in a
big way. And what I argue in the book is that the 1980s aren't just back in an entertainment
The 1980s, what they taught us in the entertainment of the 1980s is actually back in the real
world, or there are analogs to what the entertainment archetypes were in the 1980s to actual real-world
figures. So, the first obvious one is, you know, this is a picture of Maverick from Top
And we had a President who is basically dressing up like Maverick for a very serious set of
issues:the Iraq War. We have Rambo III. It took place in Afghanistan. Obviously, we're
still fighting a war in Afghanistan. Wall Street. Greed is good. Gordon Gekko.
These kind of figures become very, very real world figures. That's a picture of Bernie
Madoff. The whole idea of master control. One, giant computer company taking over the
world. Luckily, my presentation had this guy, not Google, but--
you get the point. [chuckles] The A-Team. And we're gonna go into this a little bit
more in specific. The A-Team, this ideas of mercenaries who solve problems. This has a
very real world application in how we've privatized the way we deal with National Security.
And then, of course, stateless terrorism. Cobra Commander, the faceless, stateless terrorist
as a fictional archetype became and turns into Osama bin Laden. And not to say, very
quickly, not to say that all off of these examples are designed to be in their own minds
connected to '80s entertainment archetypes, but it is to say that some of them are.
And it is to say that the others that aren't, the way they are portrayed, the language with
which we talk about these figures in our real world, are oftentimes talked about in the
language of 1980s and specifically 1980s' entertainment. So, why was the 1980s so powerful?
Why is it back? Now, lemme just stipulate and say there's kind of a trend where everything
that's old become new again. So yes, there's nostalgia. Yes, there's retreading old brands.
Yes, Hollywood directors and screenwriters, it's easier to write the sequel to the sequel
to the sequel, than to actually write something new.
But I also would argue that the 1980s, there were some pretty unique things about the 1980s
that have made it stick around for as long as it’s stuck around for. And the basic
thesis of my book is that in many ways we are still living in the 1980s, that there
were distinct eras before the 1980s and that we're still essentially living in the era
of the 1980s.
And I think the reason is, there's a couple of reasons I think the 1980s stuck around.
First of all, the 1980s was the first decade that most people had a TV, a VCR, and cable.
It was the first decade where there was that much media saturation.
And especially one-way media, broadcast media, which is perfectly calibrated to propagandize
as opposed to two-way media. The second thing that happened in the 1980s was integration,
which is the idea that as we became more media-saturated, more of the messages were integrated around
each other in a self-reinforcing way.
And as an example, the rise of synergy, right? And this is, synergy is the marketing technique
which I'm sure a lot of you know about, which is basically cross-marketing a brand across
different products that in some cases have nothing to do with the product.
I mean, there's an ET Happy Meal. What does a McDonald's Happy Meal have to do with ET?
What does Mr. T have to do with a cereal? So, this was really the golden age of integration
and synergy in the 1980s. And then of course, there was consolidation.
And that word should be consolidation on there, but,. Consolidation. By the mid-1980s, mergers
meant 50 companies controlled most newspapers, magazines, TV stations, and movie studios.
And so, this allowed synergized marketing to happen in a way that was repetitious, that
we had never experienced before in our culture, that yeah, there was TV and yeah, there was
radio and there was newspapers, but with more independent ownership before the 1980s.
It wasn't necessarily that the same messages, the same brands, the same political ideologies
were so rapidly and repetitiously marketed. And I say that this created a,. let me turn
the music up, here. [sounds of music in the background] I need the music to be up but
I have the Phil Collins thing playing, but it really did create a land of confusion,
I think, for a lot of people.
And confusion, by which I mean, it encouraged, I think, children and adults, people who were
becoming culturalized in the 1980s, to lose the idea of where you should get the stories
about your world, how to see your world. And this is just a quote from the Boston Globe
based on some sociological research.
And it says, "TV and movie characters can shape how we look at real world events. Fiction,
in fact,--" and again, this was a story about sociological research, "Fiction shapes our
perception of the world, even more than reality." And one of the main reasons I think that happened
in the 1980s was because a lot of the entertainment products of the 1980s were actually drawing
on real world events.
And here's just a couple of examples. This is a quote that I found in my research from
a maker of a video game,excuse me, a video game maker who said, "Coin-op designers take
anything remotely in the news and make it into a video game." Here's a couple of examples,
This is Operation: Wolf, Contra, Guerrilla, this was coming out at the time that there
really were guerrilla wars. There really was a situation with the Contras.
Now granted, Contra wasn't necessarily about that, but the point of this is to say that
one of the reasons the 1980s entertainment products continue to have traction in our
culture and continue, as I argue, to shape the way we think about real world issues is
because the entertainment products themselves were shaped in the 1980s around real world
I mean, if you were a kid playing Contra, you knew up up down down A B A B back right
back right to get all the free men [chuckles]. But what were you really being taught? You
were being taught that to be a hero is to go and mow down people and to mow down the
Contras. [music turns off]
All right. So, the first chapter of my book is about how the 1980s redefined and created
the '50s and the '60s. Now, you'll notice I use the numbers "1980s" there and I use
the fifties and the sixties,I spelled them out. And in the book, I've got a little TM
next to them to suggest that the '50s and the '60s, quote-unquote, are really brands.
We're not really talking about the actual 1960s:1960 to 1969, or 1950 to 1959. Typically,
when we're talking about the '50s and '60s, we're actually talking about a 1980s' version
of the '50s and '60s. And I use as examples to explain how this happened. Michael J Fox,
playing two separate roles.
I mean, on the left you have him from Back to the Future, going back into the 1950s.
On the right, you have him in the 1980s, the archetype of the aspiring Yuppie. And I'm
gonna explain how that embodies how the 1980s re-remembered the 1950s and 1960s.
So, we'll start with the 1950s. So, this is the key scene, the set-up, for what happens
in Back to the Future.
[plays video clip]
[scary music]
>>Doc: Oh my God. They found me. I don't know how, but they found me. Run for it, Marty.
>>Marty McFly: Who? Who?
>>Doc: Who do you think? The Libyans.
[foreign language in background] [car screeches]
>>Marty McFly: [screaming] Holy shit. [gun fire and tires squealing]
>>Marty McFly: You're telling you built a time machine, out of a DeLorian?
[fifties guitar music plays] >>David Sirota: This is one of the most ethnically,
racially offensive stereotype ever and I have a whole chapter in the book about that. But,
where does Marty McFly, a teenager in the 1980s, flee to?
Or, he's being hunted by bazooka-wielding Libyan terrorists in his suburban town, right?
This is the ultimate fear of every suburbanite, right? My mom, "Oh, my God. The Libyans are
coming to kill us." So where, and again, I have a whole chapter on how this is so wildly
racist and everything.
But where does he flee? Where does this teenager flee? Where do, when parents bring their kids
to watch this movie, where are they so relieved that their child is? That Marty McFly flees
[song playing, Go Johnny Go] [audience voices heard quietly in background]
Right? So he flees into the 1950s, this safe place where the biggest threat to humanity
is Biff and a bald Vice Principal who calls him "Slacker." This is like the idea that
the 1950s is this great time where there was,
Everybody was unified. Everything was safe. America was on the way up. Written out of
the story, of course, is the fact that it was basically America was an apartheid state
in the 1950s. There was all sorts of bigotry. That's written out of the story. And the 1980s
really created this, not just through Back to the Future, but through all sorts of other
I mean, that's Dirty Dancing. You had it in music.
[sound of tires squealing and car crashing into truck]
You had it in, again, those are music examples. Other movies. [sounds of an explosion]
That's the Outsiders. Billy Joel's songs. Hoosiers. Superman. If you watched Superman,
think about this is a character from the 1950s. So the 1980s was really, really big on saying
[punches sound] that the 1950s is a time that we should all want to go back to.
And of course, the ultimate avatar of this was Ronald Reagan,a guy who that was his whole
career up until that point and throughout the 1980s. Ronald Reagan first became a famous
political figure as the Governor of California, [lightening and electricity sounds] who was
ripping on the hippies of Berkeley.
And so, the flip side of this becomes[time machine sounds]. So, that's the 1950s. Now
the 1980s. [clip ends][music stops] And I go into all in the book about how the 1980s
built up the '50s.
And at the same time, it was demonizing the 1960s. Here's a clip. Here's the beginning
of one of the top-rated shows in the 1980s, Family Ties. And watch it very carefully.
[plays clip]
[Family Ties theme song plays]
>>David Sirota: So, it's kind of cartoonish images of the '60s of the parents as hippies.
And this show was set up, interestingly enough, was set up to tell the story of the parents.
[video clip ends] [music stops] But they showed it to test groups, to focus
groups, and people liked Alex, the aspiring Yuppie and how he was making fun of his parents'
hippiness. They liked that a lot more, so ultimately the show was actually redeveloped
around Alex and around the idea of basically making fun of the '60s.
Now, here's an example of what I'm talking about. Oh, and I'm screwing up my order here,
but these are some other examples of the 1980s making fun of the 1960s. Now listen to this.
[plays clip]
>>Alex: Is this a permanent addition?
[laugh track]
Because if it is, I'm getting out my "Bombs are people, too" throw pillows.
[laugh track]
>>Dad: The banner's a surprise from Matt. We had this hanging in our dorm room at Berkeley.
>>Alex: It's a little outdated, isn't it?
>>Dad: Well, maybe the slogan is different now, but the concept is the same.
>>Alex: No, I meant the concept.
[laugh track]
>>Dad: Alex. Don't you ever worry about the fact that there are enough bombs in the world
to destroy every living creature and wipe out life as we know it?
>>Alex: Hey. I got bigger things on my mind.
[laugh track]
Can I use the business section here, Mom?
[laugh track]
>>Mom: Why don't we just tell Matt he's one of the neighbor children?
>>Alex: It's just so predictable, that's all. Every time one of these ex-hippies goes prancing
in from yesteryear, we gotta get out the love beads.
[laugh track] [end clip]
>>David Sirota: OK. So, that's a good example of, right? So the 1950s was this great time
that we should all want to go back to. And the 1960s was this ridiculous time where none
of the social progress happened.
It was all just about crazy hippies smoking weed, ruining our country. Now, if this all
sounds familiar and here's a couple of other examples of how that was epitomized. And if
you really wanna watch, and I cite The Big Chill here, and I love The Big Chill. It's
a great movie.
But if you really, really wanna see how this works, that's the one movie you should watch.
Really. The Big Chill is so unbelievable in what it's really saying about the 1960s. The
whole story is about how they're forgiving themselves for abandoning who they were in
the 1960s.
Anyway. So here's just a couple of other examples. But you get the point. The 1950s was great.
The 1960s was evil. This becomes a way that we see our politics. This becomes a way that
we see our world. So you have all sorts of products that basically glorify the 1950s.
And I should be clear. In the book, I define the '50s as basically the beginning of World
War II until the JFK assassination that that is what we think of when we think of the '50s.
The great time. The greatest generation. And then when we really think about the '60s,
we're actually talking about after John F Kennedy was killed all the way through much
of the 1970s.
That's what the brand has become. And in the 1980s and subsequently after the 1980s, carries
on into our politics. And here is just some examples of how we glorified the '50s, how
we've made it into remembering and nostalgia of the '50s into a brand.
And the '60s,all of the great political progress, the serious political progress of the '60s,
is basically written out of the story. And the '60s has been commodified into like, Ben
and Jerry's hippie ice cream, 1969 Gap jeans, Phish shows, Cheech and Chong, even Whole
Foods,tries to glom on to this
brand of the '60s was this crunchy, happy, but not really serious decade. And all of
the serious stuff out of the '60s gets written out of the story. Now, what I show in the
book is that this then becomes, starting in the '80s, the way we see our politics. So,
let's just go through a couple of Presidential campaigns to see how this works.
So, here's the 1988 race. You got George H W Bush, the ultimate aristocrat running for
President. Vice President, his dad was a Senator, super wealthy. I mean this guy is the walking
avatar of American aristocracy versus a second-generation--. I always forget how those work.
The first generation. His parents were immigrants. Michael Dukakis, was he first generation?
First generation American. A working class guy and this campaign gets turned into,. No.
George W Bush is not an aristocrat. He's the hard-working guy from the 1950s.
Go back and listen to his speech of the 1988 Republican Convention how this ultra-aristocrat
reimagines himself that he grew up in a shotgun house. The 1950s is talking about how you
go back to the Norman Rockwell America. And he turns Michael Dukakis through the flag-burning
issue into this,a ridiculous 1960s guy, or a guy who can't get by in the 1960s, kind
of a cartoon.
That's him in the tank, the famous picture. OK, so then we get to 1992. George H W Bush,
still this completely out of touch guy. Here he is not knowing what a supermarket scanner
is. And there's Bill Clinton. This is the ultimate 1950,the '50s. I remember before
the JFK assassination.
This is the good guy from the 1950s. This race then gets turned into. No, no, no. George
H W Bush is not an aristocrat, is not the guy who doesn't know what a supermarket scanner
is. He's the World War II hero. He's the hero of that brand of the 50s.
And through the whole thing about draft-dodging, he tries to turn Bill Clinton into that. Now,
in fairness, that is Bill Clinton.
But that's what he wanted us to remember about Bill Clinton. Then we get to 1996. All right.
Bob Dole, the ultimate Washington insider. He's been a Senator for a thousand years.
[audience chuckles] Bill Clinton is this moderate Democrat. Basically,
many people think that he's a very, very conservative Democrat. Bob Dole tries to turn himself into,
he's on the 1950s. He's a bridge to the past. And he uses the idea that Bill Clinton is
some huge '60s liberal to try to turn Bill Clinton into this,the second coming of George
Now again in fairness, that is Bill Clinton.
But that's what he wanted us to remember. And it continues. Here's George W Bush, the
frat guy versus Al Gore, who enlisted in the military, who went to Vietnam. And George
W Bush tries to turn it into no, no, no, he was the guy serving his country loyally and
in that '50s, in that era of the '50s.
And that Al Gore, using this idea of Al Gore's environmentalism, tried to turn Al Gore into
this basically, the parents from Family Ties-,this '60s guy who can't get by, can't get beyond,
is just out of touch, an unreconstructed hippie. And Al Gore, I think as much as I like Al
Gore, the whole Earth-tone thing did not help.
All right. So here's some trivia. And we'll get to the answers, but interspersed some
trivia here just to make it fun. What was the name of the song that Patrick Swayze performed
on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack? Don't shout them out.
I'll give you the answers at the end. "I've Had the Time of My Life," "She's Like the
Wind," "Baby in the Corner," or "Hungry Eyes?" All right. Second question. What famous actor played the corpse in The
Big Chill? Christopher Reeve, Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin, or Kevin Costner?
What city is The Outsiders set in? Omaha, Tulsa, Amarillo, or Topeka? All right. So,
my book then moves on after going through how this creation of the '50s and the '60s
on to the idea of how the 1980s really gave us our views of the individual and hyper individualism.
And the chapter and the section start with a look at this.
[sounds of plane taking off]
That is, of course, Michael Jordan. And that image basically becomes this, this iconic
image of the single individual soaring over everything. And it gets basically, it becomes
decontextualized even from the image and it becomes a silhouette.
And just for some beginning context to understand why Michael Jordan is so important to this.
Michael Jordan obviously became the biggest, most famous person, really, in the world.
And I think you need to look at the rise of individualism and narcissism in our culture
through the prism of Michael Jordan, because he was such a powerful figure.
And just here are some examples of how this guy became really larger than life. And this
is a fellow basketball player, Larry Bird, saying, "I think it's God disguised as Michael
Jordan." Chinese kids listed Jordan and communist leader Zhao Ziyang as the two greatest men
in history.
The Washington Post called him the most famous man on Earth. Fellow NBA players referred
to Jordan as quote "Jesus in Nike's." [laughter] All right. So, to understand,and Michael Jordan
had probably, I don't think there's ever been a study done about it, but more money in terms
of advertising him, behind him, than probably any Presidential candidate and probably all
the Presidential candidates combined during his career.
So this was a heavily obviously marketed guy. And I argue in the book that he was marketed
not just as a great basketball player, but underneath that was his individual qualities.
This was a guy who, if you were an NBA fan,
And I was a huge NBA fan and I hated Michael Jordan's guts because I was into Charles Barkley
'cause I grew up in Philadelphia. And I can't talk about Michael Jordan without getting
angry because I hated him so much because he always beat The Sixers.
But, he was marketed in particular as a guy who pulled his entire team up. And if you
remember The Bulls in the 1980s and into the 1990s, most of their team kinda sucked. I
mean, we can debate Scottie Pippen, but basically the team sucked and Michael Jordan really
was a team unto himself.
And I'm sorry if there's any Bulls fans here that I've offended. But it's a great credit
to Michael Jordan. And basically, that idea even gets decontextualized from Michael Jordan
himself. He becomes the individual, but that image right there, becomes marketed everywhere.
And the ethos behind it becomes marketed everywhere. And it becomes, I think, a cult of the individual
in the 1980s. And here, just some examples of how individuals, and the individual's saving
the world, the individual fixing all of our problems, becomes the major thing that is
sold to us in our culture,that you don't need a team.
You don't need to work together. The common good isn't important. You just gotta get an
individual or yourself, be an individual hero, and all of our problems will be solved. This
is my, And this is my, Sorry about that. I clicked the wrong button, but, As an example
of what this becomes, it becomes all these one-liner movies, right?
This is my favorite one-liner.
[plays audio clip]
>>Action Jackson: Barbecue, huh? How do you like your ribs? [sounds of explosion]
>>David Sirota: Right? It's just like, this is how to deal with the world. You get an
individual who violates all the rules, blows people away, solves problems individually.
Now, watch this ad.
[plays clip] [hip-hop music begins]
>>Mars: Yo, Mars Black in here with my main man Michael Jordan. Yo, Mike. What makes you
the best player in the universe? Is it the vicious dunks?
>>Jordan: No, Mars.
>>Mars: Is it the hair cut?
>>Jordan: No, Mars.
>>Mars: Is it the shoes?
>>Jordan: No, Mars.
>>Mars: Is it the extra-long shorts?
>>Jordan: No, Mars.
>>Mars: It's the shoes then, right?
>>Jordan: Nah.
>>Mars: Is it the short socks?
>>Jordan: No, Mars.
>>Mars: C'mon, it's gotta be the shoes, shoes, shoes, shoes, shoes; are you sure it's not
the shoes?
>>David Sirota: Now, there's a lot to think about in this ad.
>>Jordan: Sure, Mars >>Mars: What about the shoes?
>>Jordan: No, Mars >>Mars: C'mon it's got to be the shoes
>>David Sirota: OK. So, think about the two things that were said in that ad. And that
was one of the most famous ads in the 1980s.
One, it's Michael Jordan saying, "No, it's not the shoes. It's just that I, individually,
am God." Right? I mean, that's the first message of that movie. And I guess in fairness, give
Nike some credit, there's some honesty there. It really wasn't the shoes. I put on some
Nike's and I wasn't Michael Jordan.
But secondly, what is the most interesting part, I think, of that ad is that it was saying
that to worship an individual is a virtue. Mars Blackman is a guy who is a super fan.
And I would argue that in the 1980s, that became the idea that you should and could
and must worship individual deities and take your cues from them,exclusively from them,is
what that ad really was all about, that to be a super fan is to be good, is to be something
that is celebrated, is to be Mars Blackman.
And this, I think, transcends obviously sports. We get all sorts of these huge iconic individual
deities, for lack of a better term, in the 1980s. You get the rise of individual televangelists
that people create all sorts of movements around. They look, in a top-down way, for
what these deities say.
You had the CEO becomes a deity unto him or herself in the 1980s. This was different than
in the 1970s, 1960s and before. The idea that the CEO singularly turns a whole company and
with Lee Iaccoca was the whole economy around. Donald Trump obviously, I don't know what
Well, in the 1980s he was a businessman. I don't know what you call him today, but he
again, becomes this guy, this singular guy, who can save economies, who can make huge
vast sums of riches of wealth. Obviously, Oprah Winfrey. Talk radio hosts, Rush Limbaugh,
Howard Stern.
These are people who don't just have fans, they have I think in the truest sense of the
word, followers. And the rise of the self-help industry starts in the 1980s. Now, this has
obvious analogs to today 'cause that's what my book argues, that we're still living in
the 1980s with a 1980s mindset.
And it lives in our politics. How we see the President, for instance. Does the President
work for us, or do we follow whatever the President says? In the 1980s, this starts
becoming the unitary executive theory, of Ronald Reagan saying anything a President
does is in our national interest.
And this becomes George W. Bush. "God want me to become President." Another answer from
him, "I'm the Commander. I don't need to explain. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me when
they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation."
This idea that the President dictates to all of us where we go, what we do, who we are
as a people. And this is not just coming from the President because lots of people believe
this. A lot of people today, out of this culture of the individual in the 1980s, see that whatever
the President says, or the President's in my party, I'm not gonna question it.
And the attitude now, it's symbiotic. It comes from the President and then it's reflected
back onto the President. And it's not just Republicans. President Obama, "I'm a better
speech writer than my speech writers. I know more about policies on any issue than my policy
And I'm gonna think I'm a better political director than my political director." When
a staffer later sent him an email message saying "you are more clutch than Michael Jordan,"
Obama replied, "Just give me the ball." I mean, this is straight out of the '80s, or
at least referencing the '80s, referencing what we learned in the 1980s.
All right. This is more trivia. What film was Spike Lee's first feature film? "She's
Gotta Have It," "Do the Right Thing," "Malcolm X,” or "Colors?" What's the name of Jack Burton's nemesis in
"Big Trouble in Little China?" David Lo Pan, Egg Chin, Wang, or Mr. Fuji?
What famed singer performs an ode to American right before Apollo Creed is killed by Ivan
Drago? Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett, James Brown, or Cher? OK.
[electric guitar plays]
>> The Beatles: [singing]"You say you want a revolution
Well, you know We all want to change the world."
>>David Sirota: So this ad comes out in 1988.
>> The Beatles: [singing]"But when you talk about destruction
Don't you know that you can count me out Don't you know it's gonna be
All right? All right, all right, all right."
>>David Sirota: All right. So, this ad comes out in 1988 [music stops]
and what I've just told you before, or gone through, is this idea that there are these
great individuals that have super powers and who can save the world singularly.
But on top of being taught that in the 1980s, I argue in the book that we were taught that
ultimately, we could all be the Michael Jordans. We could all be the super heroes. And I cite
this ad as an example. Again, just one example. But watch this ad, this part of the ad, slowed
down to see what this ad is really saying.
[plays ad]
So, that's a regular kid. Just a nobody kid, who basically becomes Michael Jordan. And
if you actually watch that ad in slow-mo over the course of the ad, that's what the ad is
It's interspersing the greats, the great heroes, with regular people playing sports. And this
becomes, obviously, Nike's "Just Do It" campaign. And if you really think about what is Nike
really saying with its "Just Do It" campaign, it's saying all of us can be Michael Jordan
if we just do it, whatever that actually means.
And Nike marketed this and marketed this and this becomes a bigger thing through all sorts of other echo chambers.
And I play this and I gave away the punch line, but--.
[plays clip]
>>Michael Douglas: Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. And greed, you mark my words,
will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioned corporation called the
[end clip]
>>David Sirota: Right. So, just doing it, in some senses, means making as much money
as possible regardless of the consequences. Just doing it means huge, huge sums of wealth.
And this is echoed in all sorts of cultural products. This idea of getting wealthy is
the way to just do it. And no just movies, right? In all sorts of television shows.
[plays clip]
[theme song of Dallas]
>>David Sirota: This is Dallas. There's Falcon Crest.
[theme of Falcon Crest plays]
[theme of Dynasty plays]
I'm from Denver. It looks a little bigger now. And even to kids, right? Silver Spoons.
Just doing it means achieving enormous sums of wealth. The American dream goes from a
middle class dream of wanting two and a half kids, a white picket fence to I want Rick
Schroeder's life.
[Silver Spoons theme plays]
Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous is another example.
>>Theme song: 'Silver Spoons, we're two of a kind, making a go, making it grow."
>>David Sirota: Now, just to show you how this was all working in some social science
data, Just Do It. The individual. I can be a great success if I make a huge amount of
wealth, don't think about my community, am only focused on me, me, me. This is from some
data from the book, "Bowling Alone."
The percentage of Americans in a local club or civic organization. 1985, 15% of Americans.
By the mid-1990s, 8%. I mean, that's cutting in half essentially, the number of Americans
who engage in one of the hallmarks that we call community civic life.
This is a really shocking and disturbing one. The top goals of college freshmen. So, in
1980, 62% of college freshmen say that they wanted to be very well off financially. That
was their top goal. 74%, by, excuse me. 72%, by the end of the 1980s.
A huge jump. Now what's really mind-blowing about this is to put it next to the other
things that college freshmen were saying about what they wanted to achieve, what just doing
it really meant. So you take that same graph. OK. So, there's that line that we just saw.
Now the other line there measures college freshmen saying that they wanna develop a
meaningful philosophy of life.
OK. So, in 1980, at the beginning of the 1980s, just doing it is shared basically, the same
goals, big goals, of college freshmen. Basically, the same amount are saying, are listing as
a top goal being, getting a meaningful philosophy of life. Basically, greed is good.
And then, you see that drop precipitously during the 1980s. So, this is how this message
is an example of how this message really got through to people, and to kids in particular.
All right. Another trivia question. Who hosted Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous?
Robin Colcourt, Robin Leech, Robin Ventura, or Piers Morgan? Would you be surprised if
it was Piers Morgan? Which real-life tycoon gave the speech that inspired Gordon Gekko's
"greed is good" oration? Donald Trump, Ivan Boesky, Michael Milliken, George Soros.
What was the principal commodity being speculated on in "Trading Places?" Wheat, soy beans,
pork bellies, or frozen concentrated orange juice? What was Montgomery Brewster's job
before he inherited $30 million? Minor League baseball player, janitor, limousine driver,
or bartender?
All right. So the final section of my presentation is about how this all became. So we went from
the great deities who have individual super powers, to we can all be the great deities
who have individual superpowers. And all of this was being in the 1980s, coming through
at a time in the nation's political moment where we were being told the government is
The Ronald Reagan speech, the nine scariest words, "I'm from the government; I'm here
to help". And there needed to be a way in the 1980s to explain how the government still,
even though it was supposedly evil, how it was doing certain things it does indisputably
well. And out of that need comes the idea of the rogue.
[plays clip]
>>Charles Barkley: I am not a role model. I'm not paid to be a role model. I'm paid
to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models. Just because I dunk
a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids.
[end clip]
>>David Sirota: All right. So, this is an ad that transcended advertising. I mean, there
were editorials about it. It became a,I think The New York Times called it the first advertisement
as social commentary. This has a huge impact and this right at the--.
And I define, I should have mentioned this earlier, I define "the '80s" in our mind as
the entire Reagan era, Reagan-Bush era. So, into the early 1990s. This came out right
in the very, very early 1990s, but it was the culmination of the idea that we should
love and trust and respect and venerate only the rogues, the people who go rogue against
And this became an explanation for how the government still did things right, is that
there were people inside the government who said, "I'm not gonna listen to the rules put
on me inside the government. I'm gonna go rogue." And we'll get into some examples of
But let's just say in the sports arena for a second, Nike was quoted, well, a Nike executive,
was quoted in saying they wanted to market quote-unquote "outlaws with morals." That's
the ultimate ethos of the good rogue, right? And Nike started this. This was
Here are the examples of the icons that Nike marketed, Steve Prefontaine, John McEnroe,
Charles Barkley obviously, Bo Jackson, Andre Agassi, Deion Sanders. All of them came out
of that rogue spirit. They were doing something. They were breaking barriers.
They were breaking rules that were put on them. And this was sold to us by Nike and
it was also sold to us in all sorts of other entertainment products. So, think about how
all of the major rogue characters of the 1980s. And I can go through all of these, but let
me just get them all laid out here.
You've got, here you've got Magnum PI. You can't rely on the government to solve crimes.
You've gotta hire a PI. You've got Highway to Heaven. This guy, he's an angel who comes
down from Heaven to solve the problems, to go rogue and solve the problems where society
and the government refuse to solve them. Hans Solo.
Think about the guy's last name: Solo. A loner. He's gonna go rogue to basically overthrow
the empire. And all of these examples. I mean, this one's my favorite actually. The Fall
Guy, right? I mean, the Fall Guy was a bounty hunter who was a stunt man.
And talk about selling to kids, he's on the cover, the bounty hunter who was a stunt man,
he's on the cover of a children's magazine. So, as just an example of how this was sold
to children in many ways, directly to children. And it had real-world applications.
The 1980s was a time when the Guardian Angels from New York City were making all sorts of
headlines and the New York City police officers, they can't solve problems. We have to have
a vigilante. And it became the era of the Bernie Goetz mythology.
Bernie Goetz, if you don't know who Bernie Goetz was, he was the guy who made the argument
in court that he shot a couple of African American, I think they were teenagers, in
a subway hall because he afraid that they were gonna rob him and he was going rogue
essentially to protect New York.
And more New Yorkers need to go rogue to re-establish safety in New York City.
[plays clip]
[theme from Knight Rider]
>>David Sirota: Now talk about children's programs selling this.
>>Male Voice: Knight Rider. A shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does
not exist.
>>David Sirota: Listen to what the story of Knight Rider is.
>>Male Voice: Michael Knight. A young loner on a crusade to champion the cause of the
innocent, the helpless, the powerless in a world of criminals who operate above the law.
>>David Sirota: Now just think about what this show is saying to children, right? You
can't rely on your government. You can't rely on your police force, but a right-wing foundation
called the Foundation for Law and Government--FLAG, has hired Michael Knight, a young loner, to
save you if you can find him.
And he, not the government, not your community, he will champion the cause of the innocent,
the helpless, and the powerless. And this idea is not just in Knight Rider.
[end Knight Rider clip}
[plays clip]
[The Dukes of Hazzard theme plays] l>>Waylon Jennings: [singing]"Just two good
ol' boys Never meaning no harm
Beats all you never saw been in trouble with the law
since the day they was born"
>>David Sirota: All right. So, what are they in trouble with the law for? They're in trouble
with the law because they're trying to stop bad things in society. So, it takes the Michael
Knight idea, The Dukes of Hazzard did, and it doubles down on it and says that the people
who were trying to help you, they're actually outlaws for trying to help you.
They're being chased by the police because they are trying to solve problems. The Dukes
of Hazzard, obvious rogue archetypes, again sold to kids. And this then, of course, is
the ultimate example, my favorite example of all, my favorite part of the book to write,
which is about
So let's take a look at the A-Team. And before we take a look in the A-Team, and this is
the last part of the presentation here, because I've been criticized for this and some reviewers
have said, "Well, you know Sirota focuses on cultural products that weren’t really
critically-acclaimed. In the 1980s, they really didn't have much of an impact."
Just as one example, the A-Team was the highest-rated program among children ages two through eleven.
The highest rated program among pre-teens. So, it's true. A lot of these cultural products
may not have been reviewed very well, but they had huge audiences among people who were
first developing the way they look at life.
And so, take a look at what the A-Team is saying.
[plays clip]
>>Male announcer: In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court
for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade
to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as
soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem and if no one else can help, and if you can
find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team. [gunfire noise]
[end clip]
>>David Sirota: All right. Let's break this down a little bit. 'Cause remember, the biggest
show among kids ages two to eleven, what is it really saying? What's the story of the
A-Team? And kids saw that every single time that the show came on, that introduction.
So let's break down what is really being said here.
>>Announcer: In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for
a crime they didn't commit.
>>David Sirota: All right. So, the A-Team is wrongly accused by the evil government.
And the real story is, if you watch the first episodes of the A-Team, classified, they were
ordered secretly by their government to rob the bank of Hanoi to end the Vietnam war.
Now, I'm not really sure how robbing the bank of Hanoi would've actually ended the Vietnam
war. And when their commanding officer is killed, the government denies all responsibility
and says that just the A-Team was trying to get rich. So, the A-Team goes to jail. So
the government is evil, sending our good heroes to jail.
>>Announcer: These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles
>>David Sirota: So the government is so utterly incompetent that what else would you do but
promptly escape from a maximum security prison. [audience chuckles] I mean, they just promptly
It's just that easy. And after prompt escape, where else would you go than the thriving
lawless Los Angeles underground?
>>Announcer: Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune.
>>David Sirota: All right. Now this is where it really gets ridiculous. So, a government
that can't maintain a maximum security prison or shut down a geographically confined underground,
obviously can't catch these guys. And the A-Team is surviving solving problems that
the government refuses to solve, or cannot solve.
Now, what are some of those problems that the; Hold on. One more clip.
>>Announcer: If you have a problem and no one else can help, and if you can find them,
maybe you can hire the A-Team.
>>David Sirota: All right. So the A-Team. No one else can help. The government can't
help. The military can't help. Here are some of the services that the A-Team goes and achieves.
They conduct high-level military operations. They rescue a high-jacked plane, for instance.
They bring a rogue CIA unit to justice 'cause the government can't do that. They protect
small businesses from larger, bullying, often violent, competitors. That includes two sisters
who own a soda factory. [chuckles}
An up-start LA cab company [chuckles] and a small construction company. And rescuing
the kidnapped. Now, here's the part that really is mind-blowing. So, who can find the A-Team?
Farmers, old people, [audience laughs] church groups, an African country looking for help
in finding their son, [audience chuckles] Rick James can find the A-Team. [audience
Hulk Hogan can find the A-Team. Boy George can find the A-Team.
[loud laughter]
All right. So who can't find the A-Team? The combined resources of the national security
state in the United States. And so what this says is that the government is incompetent,
but the outsiders outside of the government are the only ones who can help.
And it ultimately ends up portraying the government this portrayal, like this, which is the scariest
scene ever for a child.
[plays ET clip] [scary music and heavy breathing sounds]
>>David Sirota: This ends up becoming the image of the government to kids. A faceless
thing that is going to rip into your house and try to steal the innocent alien, aka ET,
who you are trying to protect, of course, from the government.
Just watch this. I mean, this is a children's movie. This is the image of the government
to kids. Looks like a Gestapo. I'm sure many of you remember watching this as kids. I mean,
it was really horrifying. And if you think about it, Steven Spielberg, you're gonna have
like people in spacesuits go zombie-busting.
Like, why don't you just knock on the door of the house [audience laughs] instead of
going zombie into the house? And it's because this was the idea of the government. And here's
the idea of how to solve problems.
[plays Ghostbusters clip]
>>Bill Murray: We came; we saw; we kicked it's ass
>>Man in Suit: Did you see it? What is it? My God, what is it? Are there any more of
>>Dan Aykroyd: Sir, what you have there is what we refer to as a focused, non-terminal
repeating phantasm--.
[end clip]
>>David Sirota: The only people who can solve problems are hired guns. For-profit hired
guns. I mean, this guy, think about what he's saying here.
>>Bill Murray: We are having a special this week on proton charging and storage of the
beast. And that's only gonna come to one thousand.
>>David Sirota: It's like extortion.
>>Man in Suit: Five thousand dollars? I had no idea it'd be so much. I won't pay it.
>>Bill Murray: Well, that's all right. We can just put it right back in there. We certainly
can, Dr. Venkman.
>>Man in Suit: No, no.
>>David Sirota: He's threatening to throw, basically this intergalactic terrorist, back
into the hotel unless the hotel pays the private contractor. Now, all of this is funny. And
I'm a huge fan of the Ghostbusters and of ET. But it's not a coincidence that a generation
was brought up on things like this
is going to be a generation that asks relatively fewer questions about, "Hey, wait a minute.
Why is our government hiring private contractors at a higher cost than it would cost to do
things through the government itself for things like the Iraq War, for things like Homeland
It's because when you bring up a generation, and these are just singular examples, if you
bring up a generation on this kind of thing, that generation learns this is the way the
world works, when in fact this way that the world works is actually a radical vision,
is actually a departure from the way the world had worked in our own country.
The story of the Ghostbusters literally, the biggest city in the country is attacked by
intergalactic terrorists. The military, the police force, the government leadership, can't
deal with it. They have to hire the private, for-profit company. That was one solution
that the 80s posited to us.
The other solution was to go rogue from within. And these are all the cultural products about
the people in the government who go up against the bureaucracy in the government to try to
solve problems. Half of the problems in all of these products is that the government won't
let them do what they need to do to solve society's problems.
And ultimately becomes one-liners like this.
[plays clip]
>>Old Man: Diplomatic immunity.
>>Danny Glover: Has just been revoked.
[end clip]
>>David Sirota: So the idea is that, and then this is of course, Lethal Weapon 2, the archetype
of doing right and protecting us means letting a lowly Sergeant in a police force gun down
an unarmed Ambassador and unilaterally revoke that unarmed Ambassador's diplomatic privileges
as established by the law.
He's the hero. The guy who just shot the unarmed man is the hero. And we get this, of course,
the analog to this is our entire political debate. That when you hear George Bush talk
about warrantless wire-tapping, or Barack Obama talk about how he should have the authority
to, without judge, jury, or trial, execute American citizens through assassination orders.
What they are really tapping into is what we all learned in the 1980s that that's the
way to solve problems, is to go rogue and ignore the law and ignore civil institutions,
because the law and civil institutions are the problem, not the solution. And out of
the 1980s, this starts becoming political, as an example, through Oliver North.
One thing that will blow your mind, go read George Bush's speech on warrantless wire-tapping
and then go read Oliver North's speech to the Senate committee about Iran Contra. It's
really, really creepy. All right. A couple last trivia questions and then I'll take some
questions if you wanna ask me some questions.
What was Michael Knight's name before he was shot in the face and then nursed back to health
by the Foundation for Law and Government? Michael Smith, Michael Keaton, Michael Long,
Michael Kitt? What college did both Charles Barkley and Bo Jackson both attend?
University of Alabama, Bob Jones University, Auburn University, or Clemson University?
What US state is the fictional Hazzard County supposed to be in? Mississippi, Florida, Alabama,
or Georgia? And the final question. What famed game show did Cliff Clavin appear on and then
Tic Tac Dough, Press Your Luck, Jeopardy, or The Price is Right? Now, we'll just go
through the answers here. All right. Question One, She's Like the Wind was the song that
Patrick Swayze performed. Kevin Costner played the corpse in The Big Chill, but you never
see his face.
The Outsiders took place in Tulsa. Spike Lee's first film was She's Gotta Have It. David
Lo Pan was the major nemesis in Big Trouble in Little China. James Brown sang that song
before Apollo Creed was killed. Robin Leech was the host of Lifestyles of the Rich and
Ivan Boesky gave the "greed is good" speech. Frozen concentrated orange juice was the commodity
being traded in Trading Places. Minor League baseball player was Montgomery Brewster's
job. He was a pitcher for the Hackensack Bulls, I think. Michael Long was his name before
he was Michael Knight.
Auburn University. No, it wasn't Bob Jones University. [laughter]Georgia is where Hazzard
County, the fictional Hazzard County was. And Cliff Clavin lost on Jeopardy. That's
my presentation. If you have any questions, I'd be happy to answer them.
Anybody? Oh, yeah.
>>MALE AUDIENCE MEMBER #1: So, I have a question and it's probably covered in your book. What
happened to the '90s if the '80s are still so powerful? Because you saw in the '90s the
rise of several big things like environmentalism. We did see like, in movies like Independence
Day, which is like a quintessential '90s film, the hero of that movie is somebody from the
government. So, did the '90s just not count or what happened?
>>David Sirota: Yeah. I mean, look, one thing with my book and my argument is I think it's
hard to. It's obviously hard to say any decade epitomized a finite amount of things. Because
there's basically an infinite amount of things that happen in a decade.
What my book is concerned with is what you might call the quote/unquote "mainstream cultural
products and messages" that were pumped out in the 1980s. And what I think is there were
obviously. There were actually products and messages in the 1980s that ran counter to
all of this, as there were in the 1990s, as there were in 2000.
But what I would say is that we still live in a 1980s world in the sense that the way
we look at the world and what majority culture and mainstream culture tells us and embeds
in our culture and makes us assume. The stories that we tell ourselves are still very much
the stories of the 1980s.
Now, I wanna be clear, I think that may be changing in some ways. And I think that's
a good thing. But I think when you look at a culture that is so focused on the individual
over the common good, when you look at a culture that is still having our political debates,
are still framed as let's go back to the '50s, the '60s and the progress of the '60s were
good, and that's still the debate.
And my book also goes into the whole idea of militarism and how the 1980s told us that
the major way to solve problems is to use the military. I have a whole section on that.
It's not that I'm saying there were no 1990s.
What I'm saying is, is that the things that you mention out of the 1990s, I don't think
have yet become the new stories, the new dominant stories that we tell ourselves and that direct
our public policy, for instance, just yet.
>>MALE AUDIENCE MEMBER #2: So, Spielberg and most of Hollywood are pretty much liberals
and still in good standing, I would assume. And so, where do these messages come from?
'Cause they do seem to be contrary to liberal world view.
Are they coming from the corporate control, or is this just reflecting what the audience
wants to hear?
>>David Sirota: I'm glad you asked that question because I get asked this question a lot. Are
you saying, it's basically, are you saying there's some sort of conspiracy, and I'm not
saying you're saying there's a conspiracy. [chuckles]
But did all these people get into a room and say, "All right, listen. We're gonna sell
America on the idea that the government is that spaceman busting into people's homes."
And I don't think that's the way it worked. I did a lot of interviews with people who
created some of these products.
And overwhelmingly what they say is that "Look, our job was to sell tickets. Our job was to
get ratings. Our job was to fill seats at the movie theater. So, when we sat down and
came up with stories to create and tell people, we weren't saying, 'I'm gonna sell this audience
that doesn't believe this already on a new idea.'
It was, 'We need the quickest, shortest shorthand,storytelling shorthand to get people to watch our product,
consume our product, buy tickets.' “And so, I interviewed a good example is I interviewed
the creator of Family Ties, who was a hippie in the 1960s. And I said, "You made this show
and a lot of this show is like, making fun of hippies."
And he's like, "Well, you know, I was just trying to tell the story of how my family
and I had a son and how it felt in our house." And he's like, "I never really thought about
the fact that we were really making fun of the hippies." And he said it and he didn't
say it like he's ignorant.
It's just that it was never on their mind. I was that in the midst of the Reagan era,
the backlash to the Civil Rights movement, the military buildup of the Soviets, it was
what's the quickest point between A, the audience, and B, the storyteller. And we're gonna default
basically to the lowest common denominator.
And the lowest common denominator at that point was this set of stories. And the reason
I ultimately wrote this book was not to just look back and say, "Hey, the 1980s is still
today." It's to say those stories, the rogue is the only one we can trust. We can't trust
civic institutions, the individual over the common good, militarism.
And I have a whole chapter, by the way, on the idea that we've become a post-racial society.
That comes out of the '80s. Those stories are radical departures from the stories we
had been telling ourselves as a country. And that,
I don't wanna give too much away about the kind of conclusion of my book, but if we can
acknowledge that they were radical departures, if we can acknowledge that they were manufactured
stories, then it means we have the capacity to tell ourselves different stories.
But that's gonna require an awareness that the story lines here are not just mystical,
magical forces of nature. They were actually artificially constructed.
>>MALE AUDIENCE MEMBER #3: Why did the audience's preferences change?
>>David Sirota: I mean, that's a good question. And I would say this. I would say that people
ask me a lot, "Well, did Ronald Reagan create the 1980s or did the '80s create Ronald Reagan?"
And I just think it's a symbiotic. There was a symbiotic relationship going on with the
politics of the moment that in the aftermath of Civil Rights movement, Women's Rights movement,
the end of the Vietnam War, and I have a whole section in my book about the Vietnam War played
into this and the whole idea that we lost the Vietnam War because people opposed the
Vietnam War.
That was a huge thing that happened in the 1980s. The revisionist memory of what happened
in the Vietnam War. That I think there was a perfect storm of people looking for answers
to the tumult, perhaps, of the '60s and the '70s. And these stories provided crystal clear,
very simple and very, very ideological storylines that seemed to explain the world.
>>MALE AUDIENCE MEMBER #4: So, I would like to understand, I guess the fact that you said
that people, when they were born in the '80s looked fondly on the '50s and then again,
we still tell the stories of the '80s today and a lot that we do. How much of that is
people in certain--.
Obviously, people in the '50s having the Baby Boomers coming into age, or coming of age,
and positions of power in order to be the people who generated this content, made these
decisions in the '80s. Subsequently, people who were born in the '80s and who are in those
positions today obviously remember fondly on those stories and how does it perpetuate
And then this focus of going rogue, being driven by having expansion in the American
family in the '50s due to Baby Boomers and people trying to effectively maybe fight free
of that family unit and maybe now this culture of individuality forcing people to achieve
at higher levels as individuals.
>>David Sirota: Yeah, well, OK. So, two parts. No, no, no. They're both good questions. The
first part is that I do think that the idealization of the '50s that happened in the 1980s, you're
right, was naturally from storytellers who grew up in the '50s and remembered their childhood.
And in some ways, for most people, I mean there are very traumatic troubled childhood
among some people, but for most people you naturally remember your childhood as this
time of innocence because for you it was.
And so, a lot of Spielberg’s products, even though they're not set in the '50s, that's
the perfect representation of that, is this idea of innocence, childhood innocence. So
the '50s, among people who were children,in the '80s, the people who were children in
the '50s were looking at the '50s through the lens of their own childhood.
A good example of this, by the way, is the movie Stand By Me. Stand By Me is looking
back at the '50s as a very innocent time, although there was obviously lack of innocence
there as well.
But I think that was a natural part of it, but I also think, and we also can't negate
that the most revered and iconic political figure of the moment was Ronald Reagan, who
was originally famous as an actor in the 1950s, was a guy whose entire politics and a lot
of his speeches were about having to go back to the '50s and we have to stand up to the
We have to literally a war on the 1960s. Now to your point about going rogue, some people
have said about this book, they said, "Well, the '60s is a time of individuality and individual
expression and rebellion and going rogue against society." And I think there's something to
And when I think some of the genius of the 1980s, especially in politics, was that conservatives
and Republicans stole the rhetoric of and the zeitgeist of rebellion and turned it into
"You don't need to rebel against society. You need to rebel against specifically, the
That the government, either through taxes or regulation or anything else, is trying
to keep you down." And I think one of the,. There's a story in the book about Jerry Rubin
the Yippee. He was a protestor in the 1960s, one of the leaders of the student movement.
And in the 1980s he became a corporate guy. And he was interviewed in the 1980s and he
was talking about in the interview, and it's in the book, he was talking about how he realized
that rebellion meant basically rebelling against the government, not really rebelling against
the social mores of society.
And whether, again, it's not a conspiracy. I don't think a bunch of people got in a room
and said we're gonna do this, but I think it's metastasized into not let's rebel and
have a revolution of, a cultural revolution in society. It became "let's rebel against
the government."
>>FEMALE AUDIENCE MEMBER #5: I noticed in your presentation that Oprah was the only
female. I was just curious. Is this story, was it also towards women, or was there a
totally different message?
>>David Sirota: In the book, or in--?
>>David Sirota: Yeah. Well, there's two things about that. One is that I think in the 1980s
that the cause of women's rights actually was a cause that was as successful or even
more successful than any other, I guess you could call it, progressive cause in the 1980s.
And so, for purposes of my book, my book was trying to raise what happened in the 1980s
that continue today that hold us down and hold us back. And in the chapter that I have,
the last chapter, actually about the Cosby Show.
I have an entire discussion about how we foisted upon us, maybe not foisted upon us, but the
Cosby Show represented, and there was a big debate about it in the 1980s, whether the
Cosby Show was saying that there is no racism anymore, or there is.
As an example, the Cosby Show, some scholars argue, that it substituted gender equity for
a discussion of race, for a discussion of what was really going on in America at a time
of institutional racism in the 1980s. And the Cosby Show really, I think, represented
what was happening in the country in the 1980s for women, that it was actually a
I mean, I think the 1980s was economically a bad time for most people, despite all of
the, I mean, inequality got bigger, poverty rose, etc., etc. But in terms of women's relative
place in society in the 1980s, and I'm happy about this, was a time where women made real
And we're still not an equal society. So, I guess what I would say is that a lot of
militarism, the 1950s, the 1960s, the individual, it's, that happened to us all. And so, I guess
I didn't single out women and I didn't discriminate against women and I'm not trying to make this
a defense of my book, I guess I'm giving a long answer to a shorter question, which is
just basically that I really think that women were one of the very few groups that managed
to make, as a group, real progress at a very reactionary time. Yes.
>>MALE AUDIENCE MEMBER #6: So you mentioned a lot of different tropes that were coming
out in popular media during the '80s and I can think of times where widespread media
would focus on at least one of those.
So, you talk about Silver Spoons and I can think of Little Orphan Annie and things like
it, or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the guy going rogue inside the government.
>>David Sirota: Yeah, yeah.
>>MALE AUDIENCE MEMBER #6: And those had a lot of similar followers. So, you had these
pockets in time of some of these things being popular among most of America, but not all
of it together.
I can also think of times where a lot of this was popular among a particular subculture,
a lot of black exploitation films had the hero going rogue in a community where you
can't trust the government. I'm wondering if these patterns that you're drawing for
all of America during the '80s, if you could find pockets of those earlier or different,
>>David Sirota: Yeah. Yes, absolutely. And I'm glad you bring it up. None of this,I think
I can say none of it. Most of it is not exclusive to the 1980s, but I think its traction in
the world is exclusive to the 1980s. By that I mean yes, you always had people in society
who were saying that,
William F Buckley, Mr. Individual, Ayn Rand. They were around but they didn't, they're
ideas didn't become the embedded assumption in society until the 1980s. My book is actually
chock full of data to prove that point. And I have a lot of data in there, especially
on the chapter by the way, of individualism and narcissism and people's goals about OK,
in 1980, this is what polls said.
In 1990, this is what polls said. And polls have subsequently not gone back to their pre-'80s
level. So I'll give you one example on a topic that we didn't talk about in this presentation,
the one example that just is mind blowing. In 1980, 50% of Americans said that they did
not have confidence in the military and that they had questions about our military posture,
how much we were spending on defense budgets.
So, a huge number of Americans saying basically, "We're not comfortable with us being such
a militarist country." By 1990, 85% of Americans said they had full confidence in the military
and the military was the most revered and respected institution in the country, where
that number has basically stayed.
And you have to ask yourself well, what intervened in-between a time when the country was saying
"hey, maybe we gotta rethink this whole invade everybody idea," to "we're not gonna question
the military at all. The military is the central organizing institution in our country."
And what I did in the book was say there was militarism in the 1940s, '50s, '60s. I try
to look at areas where the '80s had an impact and that the impact has remained and stayed.
>>MALE AUDIENCE MEMBER #7: But it comes down about the military, I think is a good example.
It comes down to specific examples. I mean, in 1980, it was just after the Vietnam War
where people had some issue with the military. But then in '79, of course, was the hostage
rescue fiasco.
So of course people were gonna be way down on the military. And then,
>>David Sirota: But just to give you some context on that, I do agree with you. But
that number was not a spike. In other words, the number was not like, up here and then
was like boom, right?
It was a gradual decline and then a steep incline, up to beyond where it had ever been
before that, or at least before that since the end of World War II.
>>MALE AUDIENCE MEMBER #7: Sure. OK. So my real question was more about do you think
this is cyclical? So, is this, the 1980s and then in X number of years, we're gonna go
back to what the '60s were, the '50s, and then sort of cycle through. I know that there's
a whole theory on history,
>>David Sirota: Right. That we keep repeating ourselves, or the same themes come up every
30 years. Look, I think that there is something cyclical about it, except for this point,
which I worry about which is that I cite a study in there by Temple University which
found that the 1980s was the first time in any mass way that the media began presenting
our politics through the lens of generations and eras.
That I know we think about with Generation X and Generation Y and the '80s and there's
the '50s and there's the '60s. Actually, Temple University did this study looking at magazine
covers and magazine copy over a hundred years. And that the 1980s was the first time where
it started, where the media started defining very clearly the '60s generation, the '70s,
the '80s.
And what I would say is that that was the first time and if the 1980s, if so much of
the 1980s was a battle over previous eras, or to define previous eras, then if it is
cyclical, so much of the 1980s was about previous eras that it's not, that we haven't stepped
forward into another era.
So, what I fear is that it's all just gonna be a derivative of the '80s. Right? That the
cycle, because there hasn't been a new set of storylines, is simply going to be more
and more of the 1980s, even though we may not call it the 1980s. I mean, we're still
talking about the Tea Party folks.
I quote a bunch of Tea Party folks. They're still talking about the '50s. I mean, people
who didn't live in the '50s. Like, the New York Times did this great quote from this
guy that's "we gotta get back to the '50s, life was better in the '50s." And they said,
"Well, what were your memories of the '50s?"
"Well, I was born in 1964." And so, what I'm saying is that it's cyclical, but I don't
think it's gonna go back to what it was before the 1980s until there are actually a new set
of storylines that actually challenge the 1980s.
I mean, we haven't yet had a President, and I lament this, I don't think, who has said,
"You know what? The common good is more important than the individual." I mean, that just hasn't
been the way we talk about our world in this country. It used to be the way we talked.
In the 1940s, everybody's gotta sacrifice for the World War II. Everybody's put out
the, my grandmother always tells a story. Whatever they got at the supermarket, if they
got tin, they had to put it out on their doorstep and it got picked up and melted down for the
Those are radical concepts. And nobody has even presented a counter to what intervened
in the '80s. So, what I'm saying is it's cyclical, but I think we're caught in an on-loop. So
I just wanna thank you all for coming. I really appreciate it and if you have any questions
or you want me to sign a book, I'd be happy to. Thanks again.