Hot Tub Tea Machine: Back to the '80s
By Jared Crum '11
As this decade dawned, it seemed like the past was really dead, and we had proven Faulkner wrong. That great American author once said the past was never dead — not even past. Now, as the age of austerity begins in Europe, and the Tea Party flexes its muscle in America, we may be returning to a past age after all. The 1980s, a time of materialism, money and free markets run amok, could be clawing its way back into our consciousness.

In Hollywood, 1980s nostalgia has already returned. “Red Dawn,” the patriotic story of a Soviet Communist invasion repelled by rugged individualist teens in the mountain west, is set to be remade, this time with a Chinese menace. “The A-Team”, a movie reboot of the beloved ’80s show, opened earlier this year. Comedy film “Hot Tub Time Machine,” (not a remake) revisited the days of big hair, hedonism and cocaine.

While promoting that film, its star John Cusack reflected on the ’80s. He told the Associated Press, “I remember it being a kind of forced-Prozac- happy-time without the Prozac… We were sort of like optimism by martial law. There were jumbotrons of Ronald Reagan everywhere. There were Dr. Pepper people dancing. There was this militant patriotism, nationalism, faux spirituality to it. I look back on it as an intense, dark decade.”

It was indeed both intense and dark. On Wall Street, a deepening culture of greed (and its rewards) resulted in Michael Milken’s massive junk bond scandal and other blowups. Corporate raiders and hedge fund funny-money men were dubbed “masters of the universe.” Books like Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities and films like Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” sought to capture that ethos. Stone’s immortal character Gordon Gekko declared, “Greed…is good.” It was the decade’s slogan.

Washington joined in the fun. President Reagan ushered in an era of tax cuts for the rich and pursued cuts in benefits and services for everyone else. Reaganomics, and its transatlantic British soulmate Thatcherism, idolized free market absolutism, deregulation and rapacious sky-high profits, no matter what the risky or junky basis for such phenomena. Fittingly, Reagan installed Ayn Rand protégé Alan Greenspan as Federal Reserve chairman.

No account of the ’80s would be complete without the Material Girl herself, Madonna. In a decade that was glitzy, decadent and superficial, Madonna’s hit song “Material Girl” was emblematic. In the song’s video, she prances around in diamonds and fur, fending off the wealth-based appeals from moneyed suitors. Though she professes indifference to their material wooing, her eyes, hips and smile betray another opinion entirely. The chorus, too: “We are living in a material world,” she sings, “and I am a material girl.”

Has the ’80s ethos returned? Consider Kim Kardashian a material girl for the current era. She posed nude in the November issue of W magazine. Covering her body strategically were three phrases: “It’s all about me... I mean you… I mean me.” Like Madonna, Kardashian boldly announced the triumph of the self, then ostensibly repudiated it, then slipped the truth in again at the end. Madonna, who was clothed and relied on body language, at least had subtlety.

But it’s no matter. If Kim Kardashian can’t be subtle about material interest, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner can. While cloaking themselves with populist rhetoric, the Republicans in Congress have been pursuing a Reagan Redux agenda. The old Republican wish list is back, just in time for Christmas: tax cuts for the wealthiest, deregulation and deep cuts to programs. Balancing the budget, an ever-elusive goal of Reagan’s, may become constitutional requirement.

In a way, Reaganomics never went away, it just went underground. Driven from the scene by the early ’90s recession, it yielded to Clintonian centrist policies. But it was always there, deregulating and defanging corporate watchdogs in a steady legislative drip-drip that escaped notice until the financial meltdown. Thanks to the Tea Party, it now needs no cover.

The question is whether or not society will follow the uninhibited Republican embrace of the ’80s. It initially seems unlikely, since glitz and recession don’t mix, but self-centeredness in tough times need not begin with jewels and ermine. It begins instead with a retreat from community, a turning inward from our country and neighbors to self and tribe.

Perhaps we’ve begun this slide. As we start to care for only our kind, foreigners and religious minorities like Muslims suddenly become outsiders instead of fellow citizens, their houses of worship less tolerable. As a “me-first” attitude gains ground, proposals to keep immigrants’ children out of American schools gain ground. As “austerity” budget cuts are implemented, the recession that contributed to our current drop in charitable giving will lengthen, contributing further to the deterioration of the country’s social fabric.

Only robust economic growth can enable the gilded final steps toward a social embrace of ’80s values that unites the political class and broader society. At that point, spiritual retrenchment wrought by the recession may morph into spiritual decay.

What we need is something different — a spiritual awakening. We must reject Ms. Kardashian’s “it’s all about me” attitude. We need more substance and less glitz, more humility and less decadence. If vices are cultural, and come in waves, then virtues can as well. We are capable of building a culture with generosity and foresight. Tackling this problem will present a decisive challenge for all of us in the days ahead.

Issue 11, Submitted 2010-12-08 03:37:30