Sirota’s writing is animated and feverishly referential. Armed with a trivia master’s repository of cultural arcana, he deploys David Foster Wallace footnotes to either spell out a point (typically about the details of Pentagon spending or Top Gun interpretations); or, more tediously, to carry on conversations with readers. A typical footnote begins: “The professional screenwriters and amateur film enthusiasts that I know often cite 1986’s Cobra’s first fifteen minutes as the most cartoonish rendering of the rogue cop ever to grace the silver screen ” and continues for nearly a paragraph. Suddenly, as if in a cliché eighties movie, readers are stuck at the nerd table in the cafeteria, privy to fights over cultural minutiae. Sirota is entertaining enough to make reading about Knight Rider or post-Vietnam military history engaging, but a vested interest in his subject matter comes in handy.
It’s not until the final half of the book that Sirota really lets his politics fly. He mounts a convincing, if excessively detailed, case for how politicians manipulating the media manipulationenabled runaway militarism; and traces the evolution of Huxtable-era racial attitudes into contemporary political discourse. (White America is okay with black people, but only if they’re appropriately ‘transcendent.’) By this point, readers are familiar enough with the source material/political subtext/bigger picture structure of Sirota’s arguments to see where he’s going pages before he gets there, and, more significantly, whether they’re willing to go with him. If you’ve still got the energy, one usually is.
That is, until the very last chapter. Invoking Fukuyama’s overplayed ‘end of history’ argument, Sirota wonders if American history really did culminate in the eighties, and if society is doomed to live out the decade, Groundhog Day-style, until further notice. His answer is no: grassroots politics are making a comeback, new college grads are going into public service, and the “1980s outlook is outdated and inappropriate for the challenges at hand.” And this is where the book’s limitations are most obvious. Sirota uses his formative decade as an instrument for explaining pathologies in the American psyche—greed, rampant individualism—but never convincingly makes the case that these began, or ended, in the eighties. As a work of pop scholarship, Back to Our Future is impressive, but it could benefit from a lighter touch.
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