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Cliff Schecter
Cliff Schecter
Cliff Schecter is an author, pundit and public relations strategist whose firm Libertas, LLC handles media relations for political, corporate and non-profit clients.
The cultural Kryptonite of the American Right
Looking back at the cultural climate of the 80s can help us explain American behaviour today.
Last Modified: 30 Mar 2011 13:48
1980s pop culture indoctrinated a cabal of youth that are growing up using Hollywood as a template  [GALLO/GETTY]

Before US Tomahawk cruise missiles began to rain down on Muammar Gaddafi's air defences this past week, the only conversation that president Obama had to have was with his senior advisors.

They, and they alone would decide whether a country founded as a democratic republic would engage in what George Washington would have likely viewed as a "foreign entanglement" using 21st century ordinance against a sociopath with a history of violence and a worse hat fetish than Sammy Davis Jr.

Obviously, in 200 years the United States has evolved from a rebel-with-a-cause into a world power, and additional involvement in world affairs has become part of the cost of doing business.

There is also a good argument to be made that after the terrible mistake of the Iraq invasion, the US can do some good by putting an end to the murderous Gaddafi in Libya, as part of an international coalition made up of Arab and African countries, blessed by the United Nations.

Yet, that does not change the fact that congressional support for this operation was as important as an appendix or a Newt Gingrich marriage vow.

Obama and his people simply knew they could ignore the people's representatives and safely rely upon a militarised culture primed to support an attack on an Arab nation. Particularly one the US had already thrown down with only a generation ago. 

It is this fact that makes author, syndicated columnist and talk radio host David Sirota's new book, Back To Our Future, not only a fascinating read about the culture of the 1980s, but a manifestly important work in helping explain why the United States does the things it does today.

From involvement in a civil war in Libya to allowing a madman sans background check to saunter into his local arms bazaar and purchase a high-powered firearm for an attempted assassination of a congresswoman.

The latter being easier than say, finding plutonium for your DeLorean in 1955.

'Outlaw with morals'

As Sirota explains it, the 80s were the age of cross-marketing, when concepts that had a place in American history suddenly became commonplace. The anti-government language of president Ronald Reagan adorned films such as Ghostbusters and E.T.

These "political messages in non-political settings indoctrinated the young, when their filter for political propaganda was turned off." As a result, these framed narratives became part of the conventional wisdom, continuing to this day.

In much the way E.T. heightened suspicions about our government, Lybian terrorists in Back To The Future and a bad-guy professional wrestling star named The Iron Sheikh helped prepare the American people for the role we've played in the Arab world over the past decade.

Meanwhile, the "outlaw with morals", or rogue who had to work against the system to get things done, was a key message that reached the masses.

The bromide of "government being the problem, not the solution", was not only contained in Reagan's philosophy, but Wall Street's ethic, the frontier mythology of many regions of the country, and films, music, and television series, but perhaps most importantly promoted using athletes by one of the most powerful marketing machines ever seen Nike.

As Sirota offers about Nike's effect, "they took this narrative to the level of societal saturation".

This can at least partially explain the rogue individualism that can be found in the love affair certain Americans have with guns, and even more importantly, the corollary that only they can protect themselves, often from the very government they once looked upon for this service.

Of course, this cultural sea change did not just happen by itself. An array of right-wing think tanks and media organisations, born in the 1970s to lead this kind of a cultural revolution, synergistically grabbed this societal zeitgeist and hopped, skipped and jumped with it, declaring the 1960s and 1970s an illegitimate, naïve, or even dangerous social experiment.

As Sirota reminds us, in the 1980s a minister speaking at The Heritage Foundation, one of these newish (1973) and lavishly funded right-wing media and policy operations intricately tied to the Reagan administration, believed he and his ilk, were "here to turn the clock back to 1954 in this country".

'Prepubescents' in charge

Danny Goldberg, former CEO of Air America, has also recognised this cultural evolution, and the role played by well-funded conservative organs in helping spread the non-love.

As he sees it, appealing to the psyche and vision of the American people or pulling on their heartstrings, if you will, is in short supply on the Left, as "Democrats do not use imagination and culture to open minds for their agenda".

As Goldberg put it in a Nation piece, "you can count how many people click onto a web page, how long it was viewed and how many people it was forwarded to but determining how much impact it has on the minds of the readers requires educated guesses and fallible intuitive human analysis."

The Left had better begin to under this outsized role of culture, imagination and emotion in our politics soon.

Because if we are indeed operating in parameters set up by not only the politics, but the arts and letters of 1980s, reinforced by millions of dollars invested in long-term conservative projects to convince the American people this is the way it has always been, we are in for a rough decade or three.

For as Sirota says, "our world is increasingly run by the prepubescents, college kids, and young ladder-climbers who were originally indoctrinated and inculcated in the 1980s."

Therefore, if we are looking for an alternative to all-too-present strains of foreign adventurism, Wall Street me-ism and domestic militia-ism among other challenges we will need our own cultural rebirth to return to the values that once animated this nation.

Because, whether he comes from Krypton, Kansas City or Kazakhstan, I am not ready to start kneeling before Zod anytime soon.

Cliff Schecter is the President of Libertas, LLC, a progressive public relations firm, the author of the 2008 bestseller The Real McCain, and a regular contributor to The Huffington Post.

Follow Cliff Schecter On Twitter: @Cliffschecter

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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