Video May Have Killed the Radio Star, but Reaganism Didn't Kill the Political Left
“Morning in America” became the slogan of the Reagan Revolution, a thermidorean counter-assault on the ‘60s. Hawkish pols, in both foreign and domestic policy, seized the reigns of the country even as neo-traditional cultural styles came into vogue. Punk was dead, an anti-communist actor who cut his teeth in the HUAC era was in the White House, and “Star Wars’’ now referred to a dubious missile defense system. Oxford shirts, short hair cuts and pastel sweaters made frat boys look like some sort of testosterone-poisoned version of Bobby Vinton.
Or at least that’s probably the way many readers see the ‘80s. Bradford Martin’s The Other Eighties: A Secret History of America in the Age of Reagan upends many of these simplistic assumptions. Martin, a historian at Bryant University in Rhode Island, constructs an alternative reading of the decade, well researched and highly readable, that will make political progressives “heart” the ‘80s and explode any simplistic conceptualizations of a very complex period.
Reaganism, and indeed the figure of Reagan himself, has dominated the narrative of the ‘80s. Martin convincingly argues that this aspect of historical memory has more to do with the ability of conservatives to shape the popular narrative than with the true significance of the era. The idea of traditionally marginalized voices being unleashed in the ‘60s only to be squashed by Reagan and his allies, Martin argues, gels a bit too closely with the conservative political narrative of a successful counter-revolution. The author wants to reframe the story with often-ignored evidence of widespread, grassroots political and cultural dissent.
Martin’s study of these forgotten progressive voices includes a much-needed discussion of the nuclear freeze movement, a political insurgency that declined by the late’80s but had “tremendous vitality at the grassroots” in the first few years of the Reagan administration. The author also looks at the Central American solidarity movement to challenge American interventionism, the women’s movement effort to fight against the much-talked about “backlash” and the LGBTQ struggle to force a somnolent America to recognize the seriousness, and the politics, of the AIDS epidemic.
Martin takes a fast flyover approach to his narrative that tends to prevent him from closely mapping the terrain of dissent. One exception to this is his vital examination of the divestment campaign and the struggle against South African apartheid. Especially strong is his discussion of the “shantytown” movement on American college campuses in which students built replicas of South Africa’s shantytowns in some of their institutions most public spaces. Martin shows that this movement not only became a struggle against racial oppression in an African nation but also a debate about the nature and meaning of life on campus.
What is missing is a discussion of why the divestment movement primarily flowered on elite campuses. This is particularly striking since the ‘80s was a crucial moment in America’s “college revolution” as more and more young, and older, Americans became students at thousands of technical and community colleges and new liberal arts institutions that sometimes used the community college model.
Many of these students were non-traditional (or at least a bit late to the college experience) and were taking classes primarily for career advancement. Their campuses did not become centers for the divestment struggle and their goals seem to largely represent the entrepreneurial individualism of the Reagan era rather than the more progressive “other eighties” that Martin examines.
The author also tries, mostly successfully, to forge a link between his discussion of progressive politics and progressive dissent in popular culture. He is the first historian to show all the complexities of Live Aid and USA for Africa, including how corporate branding and a shocking lack of sophistication in understanding race compromised both. He misses an opportunity to talk about the ‘80s as possible origin point for a style of celebrity activism that is still with us.
Post-punk musical styles also received a detailed discussion. A DIY aesthetic dominated the subculture of post-punk (what the punk band The Minutemen called “going econo”). This gave both individual bands and small labels enormous control over their music and its presentation. Martin tells the story of how this alternative scene really represented an alternative community of cultural dissent. Although a bit shaky when it comes to defining its politics, the author certainly shows that this community saw their music as a transgression against Reagan era norms and a direct political challenge to Reaganism as an ideology.
Obviously all roads lead to Seattle when it comes to ‘80s alternative music. Martin does include a brief discussion of what happened in 1991 and the Nevermind phenomenon though most readers will want more discussion of the ‘80s Seattle scene so essential to understand Cobain and crew. Indeed, the author missed an important opportunity to discuss the Sub Pop phenomenon, a story that embraces many of his larger themes about the delicate dance between capitalism and the politics of creating an alternative subculture. The fan newsletter that became a tiny label that became a corporate juggernaut only gets the briefest of mentions.
Martin misses some important cultural trends that would have complicated his argument but also made it a bit more convincing. He doesn’t really engage the new youth culture of the ‘80s beyond his valuable discussion of post-punk. Despite the emergence of the Christian right and its war on the sexual revolution, teenagers in the ‘80s found themselves in a weird mash-up of libertinism and conservative conceptions of gender roles. Teen films like Porky’s and Hardbodies cranked up the raunch and turned the teen comedy “T and A” flick into its own genre. Where would Martin place these films, give how they both celebrated sexual freedom and yet maintained the idea of the male as the universal sexual subject, the viewer and connoisseur of the female body?
It would have been useful for Martin to examine a raft of films that took a very different direction. What about Some kind of Wonderful and Say Anything that questioned the nature of traditional romance and reinvented the male romantic hero? Or films like The Last American Virgin, a shockingly dark exploration of teenage sex and romance that served notice on naïve notions about love, sex and marriage? These efforts to reimagine sex and gender would have nicely balanced the author’s fine discussion of how filmmakers like Oliver Stone worked to reimagine American history and its relationship to Vietnam.
Also missing in this discussion is the emergence of nostalgia for the sixties. By the late 80s, the tie-dye t-shirt craze and a renewed interest in the Beatles (especially John Lennon) played an important role in popular culture. At the end of the decade, younger teens embraced a slightly more political nostalgia through an interest in the environmental movement. This “Love your Mother’ craze gave birth to “the tree-hugger”, a recognizable teen and college type, complete with Birkenstocks and hacky-sack.
This latter question points to a larger concern left mostly unaddressed. Was even the progressivism of the ‘80s part of the dominant corporate culture’s project of commodification? Martin’s discussion of Live Aid, in particular, suggests that progressive values became something that could be turned into a product, a near perfect illustration of what Fredric Jameson called “the cultural logic of late capitalism” that could even make revolution into a commodity. Didn’t every purchase of a tie-dye tee shirt represent the same? Or, borrow an example from another ‘80s subculture, didn’t every “thrasher” who purchased an expensive skateboard in an effort to relive the anarchic impulses of ‘70s west coast skateboarding culture participate in this commodification?
One other elision seems worth mentioning. Martin fully convinces us that the pro-choice movement and ACT UP protected the basic rights of women and literally forced a reluctant America to take the AIDS crisis seriously. Though crucial in maintaining the hard-won rights of women and breaking new ground that made possible the modern LGBTQ struggle, neither directly addressed the question of economic class that is perhaps the true heritage of the ‘80s.
The ‘80s became the beginning of a long-arc of growing inequality of wealth in the United States. Although the economics of the era does get some discussion in Martin’s chapter on African-American life and dissent, it’s notable that Martin does not address the crisis in the ‘80s labor movement. Unfortunately, its fate during that decade strengthens our general stereotype of what the Reagan Revolution meant. Labor went from crushing defeat to crushing defeat, symbolized by Reagan’s decisive routing of the massive air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981. In many respects, the groundwork for the conservative attacks on collective bargaining in traditional union strongholds is a move that began in the age of Reagan.
Other than Sean Wilentz’ The Age of Reagan, Martin has created the first major historical work on this crucial decade. The Other Eighties is much needed opening salvo in a serious discussion about the role of dissent in this era. While leaving some important issues unaddressed, the author has offered a new and exciting interpretation of this decade that successfully challenges what we think we know.
The age of the Christian right was also the age that women and the LGBTQ community waged successful campaigns against great odds for basic rights. The age when the pop star and their music videos had seemingly destroyed rock ‘n’ roll music was also the age of Black Flag and Sonic Youth, a whole world of post punk subversion that, after 1991, came roaring into public view. This is not the final word on the meaning of the ‘80s, not even close, but it is a strong first word that gives pop culture and popular politics equal concern.