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The Corner

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Jesse Walker v. David Sirota



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Walker reviews Sirota’s book, Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now—Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything. I particularly liked this passage:

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.)

Walker’s right on target, but if anything he soft-sells his point about the 1930s (and fails to include the 1920s when the yearning for Great Men was also pronounced). The great individual and larger than life leader ethos of the 1930s dwarfs anything Sirota could even imagine about the 1980s. The Charles Lindbergh cult after his transatlantic flight in 1927 set much of the tone for the decade to follow. The film Gabriel Over the White House — script-doctored by Roosevelt himself — alone makes Sirota’s claims about Family Ties into a joke.

I liked this bit, too:

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.

Anyway, read the whole thing, as they say.



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