(Swans - January 13, 2014) In discussing mythic worlds, I do not seek to write about the fantasy epics of J.R.R. Tolkien novels or the future utopias of the Christian or Marxist sagas. In connecting with old friends from childhood on social media, I've noticed a rather disturbing pattern: each generation seems to romanticize the past at the expense of ignoring darker cultural phenomena of a previous time period. In a way, we've done this recently in the news with reminiscences about the Kennedy assassination: the moment in which Camelot fell to tragedy. That we still refer to the Kennedy family as "Camelot" betrays not only our understanding of American history but also its realities: the Kennedys were not royals and still are not royals, and J.F.K. was no prince charming who was dedicated to the pursuit of the common good. During the 1960s -- a period still romanticized by the left as the wonderful explosion of social justice, peace, and freedom -- Kennedy was very timid about his support for the civil rights of African Americans and did not challenge the military-industrial complex, whose mission then was to stamp out communism anywhere it existed while trampling over the civil rights of individuals to express their political beliefs. This Kennedy backed a failed attempt to overthrow a foreign government (Bay of Pigs), had many sexual liaisons with women who were not his wife, and allowed the FBI to compile information on and track the movements of people who were involved in social justice movements. Camelot was anything but regal or noble.
The decade of my youth was the 1980s, and sometimes I am surprised at friends of my generation who glorify the '80s as some idyllic wonder world. My generation witnessed the emergence of arcade games, rap music and hip hop, the happy-go-lucky party music and movies of the '80s, the birth of MTV, and the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who they often say was the greatest president of modern times and who singlehandedly brought about the fall of communism. For this latter aspect of the decade, Reagan has come to symbolize almost a very mythic figure himself as an exponent of pure capitalism, a credible critic of the welfare state, and a champion of the taxpayer. This picture of Reagan is far too idealized to take seriously, but we also have to remember Reagan's own distorted rhetoric. The black welfare queen rolling around in a (pink?) Cadillac while collecting unemployment checks and food stamps was perhaps one of his greatest distortions, one which sought to demonize people in poverty as lazy. (Reagan's welfare queen didn't drive of pink Cadillac but Aretha Franklin did on the "Freeway of Love" in 1985. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ip_pjb5_fgA.) This rhetoric, though not as imagistic today, still underlies much of our political discourse in addressing the issue of poverty: congressional grandstanders, mostly in the Republican Party but also Blue Dog and centrist Democrats, still employ the fundamental assumptions of people who are dependent upon some form of government assistance. It is always as if the failure to find work must always be the fault of the unemployed worker who either lacks marketable skills or the initiative to "pound the pavement." It is unfortunate that these things are said by elected leaders in the aftermath of one of the greatest economic collapses in history that was brought on by a financial industry that gave out bad loans and then gambled on the outcomes of those who could not afford the homes that they purchased with those loans. This collapse led to the economy's disposal of millions of jobs not seen since the Great Depression; because of the still high unemployment rate and dismal outlook for consumer spending, the economy still flirts with disaster. Nevertheless, my point here is to warn against idealized pictures of history that fail to look at the underlying elements that may not support that picture. We know, for example, that part of the reason communism fell in European countries was that ordinary people -- teachers, artists, and laborers -- banded together against the tyranny of communist governments; in the case of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms for openness helped to hasten the end of communism, but also the Soviet Union's decade-long war with Afghanistan nearly brought the USSR to its knees. So it is false that Reagan singlehandedly banished communism from the face of the earth.
The happy-go-lucky zeitgeist of art and music that characterized the '80s is far from being a general, all-encompassing description of the decade. I think of musicians such as Madonna, Michael Jackson, the B-52s, Devo, etc., who helped to foster the fun-loving, party aspect of the '80s, but hip hop was also a musical force at that time, and it is safe to say that while hip hop also had its infatuation with having fun (think of the Beastie Boys and 2 Live Crew for example), hip hop had its moments of critical social consciousness. Public Enemy was one of early hip hop groups that altered the landscape with its revolutionary hip hop: a hip hop that criticized institutionalized racism and urban poverty. For groups like Public Enemy, raps that exhibited this critical social consciousness were preferred over raps about material bravado and women's curvature.
Perhaps one of the biggest issues in the 1980s that overshadows the pristine, fun-loving, idealized description of it was the AIDS crisis. Reagan at first did nothing to address the crisis, and individuals who supported his presidency in the guise of the Moral Majority often did not hesitate to ostracize gay Americans, for whom this disease wreaked havoc. Contrary to the image of the '80s as genuinely happy times, homophobia was institutionalized and endorsed by government and the specter of death through AIDS darkened this period in American history.
My generational peers think of the 1980s as a decade of economic boom times, but for many Americans, the 1980s was the last gasp of the American worker. Strange that we throw "globalization" around as the economic phenomena of the 1990s and 2000s, but globalization was emerging in the 1980s as companies like General Electric, then a large manufacturer of electronics, began moving their production operations overseas and hiring foreign workers at a fraction of what the American worker earned. The problem of the view of the 1980s as economically fruitful times is that it ignores the mass layoffs of American workers in the factories and automobile plants that were once a substantial part of American labor: layoffs made in order to make room for foreign workers in foreign lands at much cheaper wages. Unfortunately, our allegiance to the ideology of capitalism encourages us to see these types of labor transformations as natural (obviously, any good business wants to save costs), but they can be disruptive to an economy that purportedly relies upon consumer spending to sustain itself.
The mythic world of the 1980s that people of my generation glorify was not an innocent, genuinely good time, but my analysis here is not to invalidate the '80s. To be true to history, we need to account for all of the aspects of a historical time and not just the ones we favor over others. Such an account of history, one that privileges certain facts over others, can only be distorted and single-sided, and fails to appreciate a historical time in its complexity.
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About the Author
Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a doctoral candidate in history at Florida State University and teaches medieval and modern global history at Howard Community College in Maryland. To learn more, please visit his Web site at http://hewhitney.com/. (back)