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Defining a Decade

The lines in the sand are not yet redrawn.

Sep 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 01 • By JAMES BOWMAN
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Even the essays that are not primarily about Reagan or party politics are mostly on the left side of the cultural divide that we now think of as a feature of the last two decades but that got its start during the eighties. Record producer Steve Greenberg’s account of popular culture and popular music emphasizes a reaction to what he calls (quoting approvingly from Dave Marsh) “the ruthless laissez-faire heyday of upper and lower-class criminality that characterized the ’80s.” Not to mention “a backlash”—there’s that word again—“against the perceived dominance of black and gay culture in white America.” Lauren F. Winner of Duke has the wit to examine not only “how did the politically conservative activist evangelicals of the Religious Right shape American culture and politics during the 1980s,” but also “how did larger cultural shifts during the same decade reshape, however subtly, evangelicalism?” Yet she never quite gets around to explaining this in detail, or how and why it happened that “during the late 1970s and 1980s, abortion gelled as a central plank of evangelical political life.” In what way was this an example of evangelicalism which “had once again adapted itself to the mainstream American culture that it sought to transform”? 

Bruce J. Schulman of Boston University sees the social problems of the decade in relation to Reaganite enthusiasm for private and voluntary action over that which was public and government-run. In common with the other anti-Reagan partisans, Schulman represents his bugbear’s pernicious ideas as being far more powerful than in fact they ever were—implying that they were unchallenged, unquestioned, and uncriticized at the time and since: “Reagan’s once-controversial arguments about the superiority of the private sphere and the futility of public action had become an almost unchallenged assumption of American life.” This is so wildly at odds with the recognizable realities of life in America today that you might almost think it had been written around 1990, when despairing liberals were beginning to think that Reaganism might go on forever.

Come to mention it, Schulman has this in common with most of the other contributors whose views, pro and con, on the decade seem to have changed little if at all in 20 years. Journalistic cliché though it is, Philip Graham’s dictum that journalism is “the first draft of history” is actually a hopeful thought, since it implies that the second, third, and subsequent drafts will refine and improve the rough and ready insights of our less-than-sober or judicious media culture. But just as so many of today’s historians aspire to be journalists—it’s a far surer route to fame and fortune—so Living in the Eighties, though it must be somewhere around draft five, still burns with the partisan passions of the decade itself. Nowadays, even President Obama has good things to say about Ronald Reagan, but here the old hatred lives on. There is little sense of any perspective, no judicious reassessment of the period in the light of further experience. These are essays by those who, like the Bourbons, have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

That is particularly unfortunate because, from today’s vantage point, the eighties appear in retrospect to have been almost a Golden Age—if you’ll pardon the expression—of comity and national unity. The depth and bitterness of the split between left and right in the late 1960s and ’70s had lessened with the failures of Carterism, while the split between the cultural left and right of the nineties had not yet made itself felt to most people. Americans were generally at peace with the various “liberation” movements of the 1970s—either because their achievements had become accepted and even institutionalized, as with civil rights or the sexual revolution—or because there had been enough of a return to the status quo ante for it to be described by Sara M. Evans as a “backlash.”

Indeed, Madonna represented a new strain of feminism to which her generation of feminists were blind or dismissive—though looking backwards, once again, it appears to have had more staying power than her own brand. Partly because of that retrograde Boy Toy, lots of women felt a different kind of liberation in the freedom to think that it was okay for them to be sexy and feminine again, just as it was okay to flex America’s military muscle again or push back against some of the more unpopular social programs of the Johnson and Nixon administrations. The prosperity built on Reagan’s economic policies also served to bind the country together by success in what was seen by large majorities as a common enterprise.

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