U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Who Owns the Eighties?

ET_MoonOne of my favorite historiographical essays appeared in the early summer of 1996 in a now defunct journal that probably quite a few of you used to read, Lingua Franca. I forget how I ran into it, but it was written by Rick Perlstein and contains all of the qualities his readers have come to expect: a rich, often puckish sense of irony; sharp but well-measured judgments; a gift for juxtaposition and an unerring eye for quotes. You can still read “Who Owns the Sixties?” online here. (Also, I would like to say that I wrote this post before I knew that Andrew Hartman was also going to write about Perlstein, though I obviously did know that Robert had written about him somewhat last Sunday and Tim even before that. At any rate, I swear the USIH bloggers aren’t being paid to promote The Invisible Bridge!)

“Who Owns the Sixties?” is about what was then a new phenomenon—the rise of a younger, debunking-minded generation of scholars of the Sixties (Doug Rossinow, Alice Echols, and Tom Sugrue are among those quoted) and their conflicts with the participant generation who wrote the first wave of Sixties histories (e.g., Todd Gitlin, Maurice Isserman). Perlstein did a fine job of giving space both to what I guess we could call the human drama of this quarrel—the tensions it created professionally, the frustrations it generated personally—as well as the wider intellectual stakes of the problem of doing recent history and the difficulty of telling participants of a past era that their memories are incomplete, self-centered, or otherwise distorted.

But 1996 was itself a long time ago now, and we are looking not at the Sixties as the unbroken sod of historiography, but the Eighties, and increasingly, the Nineties. Between 1996 and 1968 was 28 years; 28 years ago was… 1986. Grad school friends of mine whose work broaches or includes the Eighties do not seem, to me at any rate, to have faced any of the skepticism or disagreeableness that grad students in the Nineties encountered while writing about the Sixties—despite the fact that many of us have few firsthand memories of the Eighties, or, to be more specific, of the Reagan years. Perhaps this lack of generational tension points to the genuine exceptionalism of the Sixties—there is little reason to protect the Eighties (or the Seventies) from the intrusive questions of those who “weren’t there.”

Yet that is not to say that there is no generation gap—it is just a very different kind than that which separates Gitlin and Sugrue. Perlstein described the point of disagreement (correctly, I think) between Gitlin’s account of the Sixties and Sugrue’s account as being basically the difference between a history that emphasizes rupture and one that emphasizes continuity. In more general terms, the younger generation wanted to demystify, to invert, to be iconoclastic; their elders understandably felt they had done a pretty good job the first time in telling their histories.

The outlines of the Eighties generation gap are not yet clear, though there does not seem to be the same will to demystification among the current younger generation that animated the scholarship of the post-60s scholars. But perhaps that is itself a sign of what is to come. One of the reasons that there appears to be little will to demystify is that there is so little from the Eighties that has retained even a shred of mystique, at least among liberals or leftists.

What instead may turn out to be the case is that my generation of scholars will inevitably push back against the general repulsion with which so many left-leaning scholars who lived through the decade regard the Eighties. That is not to say that the entities of the Eighties which originally produced that repulsion will be re-evaluated—Oliver North somehow rehabilitated by an archly contrarian leftist—but that the contours of the decade will be shaken up to raise new formations to prominence, formations which might hold some attraction, or at least sympathetic interest for my generation.

At the tail end of Perlstein’s essay, he quotes Gitlin as saying that the generation of 60s revisionists had a “parricidal impulse.” That seems dubious in hindsight, as the demystifiers have pretty thoroughly routed the participants, but parricide is not, at any rate, what stands on the other side of a generation gap straddling the Eighties.

Don’t trust any historian over 35? Pshaw… but don’t let her tell you all Eighties music was crap.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great post, Andy. (And even the crappy music of the 80s is fun to listen to.)

    On the one hand, maybe nobody has claimed ownership of the 80s narrative in quite the same way as the 60s because there just isn’t that much cachet in having “been there” for the 80s. (Great if you’re talking about “Star Wars,” not so great if you’re talking about “Xanadu.”)

    On the other hand, many of those with a proprietary interest in the story of the 60s — I’m thinking especially of Gitlin and Jon Wiener — saw that story still unfolding in the 80s and 90s, and wrote histories and cultural critiques of (then) contemporary or quite recent events within the framework of their understanding of the 60s. That understanding (not peculiarly w/ Gitlin and Wiener, but just generally) seems to need to draw sharp distinctions between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys along a Left/Right divide that has only deepened since the 60s, and that assumes the audience stands on the same side of the divide as the authors. (In fairness I should note that I’m using both Gitlin and Wiener as primary sources, and that Wiener, in writing for the Nation, was probably very safe in assuming that his audience shared his vantage point.)

    One 60s-minted historian who took on a project with the aim of working against or beyond this kind of history-as-polemic is Michael Kazin — but that was his book on William Jennings Bryan. His book on the Left was a book on the history of the good guys. But when he got to the 60s, he was very careful to write “history” and not “memoir” — no first-person recollections in the body of the text, and every claim footnoted to documentary evidence. I think that’s a helpful model for writing about any era in which you have a personal stake of some sort.

    • It all amounts to two sides screaming across a ditch at each other. Maybe they ought to pay attention to the type of effort Lester Grinspoon and James B. Bakalar began calling for in 1979 in their work Psychedelic Drugs Reconsidered:

      The underground magazines, newspapers, and broadsides must be searched for serious themes underlying the extravagant claims, pseudo revolutionary wrath, drugged platitudes, and gleeful or savage mockery of elders and betters. The lyrics, music, and public performances and poses of rock groups in the late 1960s must also be reinterpreted without wartime partisanship as the expression of a moment in culture. Biographies, memoirs, and recorded oral reminiscences will eventually give some sense of the texture of the time in the words of people who no longer feel obliged to attack or defend ideological phantoms.

      And we’ll agree to disagree on the music of the 80s.

  2. Great post, Andy!

    In response to your question:

    Correct answer: U2

    Alternative answer: Thomas Frank v. Bethany Moreton

  3. Andy,
    the contours of the decade will be shaken up to raise new formations to prominence, formations which might hold some attraction, or at least sympathetic interest for my generation.

    Putting pop music to one side, I’m curious what you think those formations might be. There were currents of opposition to Reagan and Reaganism, so I guess that might be one route (anti-apartheid mvt, Central America solidarity, Nuclear Freeze, defense of welfare rights etc.). There was the end of the Cold War, but a lot’s already been written on that. On the whole however the picture seems pretty bleak, though I guess that could be a partial view…

    I’m also not sure ‘the 80s’ form much of a coherent period in the way “the Sixties” (i.e., circa 1964-1973) are thought to do (and probably do). The coherent period, if there is one, is probably more like 1973/4 – 1990 (taking the Charter of Paris of the latter year as marking the formal end of the Cold War). Perhaps that is too int’l a framing, but thought I’d throw it out there…

    As for the culture wars of ‘the ’80s’, I’ll leave that to those here who know much, much more about the subject than I do. But any period that saw both Bloom’s ‘Closing of the American Mind’ and the movie ‘Top Gun’ is likely in need of some skillful historiographical defense lawyers.

  4. Mark: To Serve God and Walmart is an absolutely amazing book, and has inspired me more than just about any other monograph. I wish everyone would read it.

    LD: What I was trying to say (rather poorly, I think) here is that scholars who were old enough to be active–say, at least entering college or grad school–have taken ownership of the narrative of the 80s, but are not so intent on the exclusivity of their ownership as the participant-scholars of the 60s were. The form of ownership they have taken, in fact, looks like abandonment: “take the 80s… please!” But that in itself is a judgment on what the figure of “the 80s” meant and continues to mean: it’s not a real relinquishing of ownership, but a statement of their distaste, a way of owning it by hating “the 80s” in the right way.

    I guess my response to your comment is rather the same. We’ve just recently seen “the 70s” go from “the decade where nothing happened” to a consensus that it was the “pivotal decade.” And I think that’s largely the result of archival research: scholars encountering surprising things in the archive, facts or formations that don’t fit the received narrative about what a decade was like. I’m not going to play seer any more than that, but I’m pretty confident that archival research will turn into lots of scholarship that asks us to think about the 80s as being a lot more than just Allan Bloom and Top Gun.

    • Andy: No disagreement on your point about research probably resulting in challenges to the received narrative(s), and I take your pt about re-evaluation of ‘the 70s’. My remark re Bloom and Top Gun was intended to be a little flippant (this is a blog comment thread, after all). I would never dream of suggesting that that’s all “the 80s” amounted to. As I suggested, from the standpoint of int’l history, ‘the 80s’ are obviously important, for reasons I suggested and also some I didn’t (e.g. the beginning of the rejuvenation and transformation of UN peacekeeping and the UN generally as int’l actor). W/r/t the U.S. specifically, I think it’s hard to get away from the looming figure of Reagan, and if one was opposed to him it gives the whole period a v. sour taste. As one who lived through it, I can empathize with those historians whose ‘ownership’ of the era consists of, as you put it, hating it “in the right way.” No doubt they’ll be challenged and they’ll respond, even if the emotional overtones will be different than those surrounding the debates about the ’60s.

  5. I also wanted to say that I think the issue of ‘ownership’ raised by your post, and whether having living through an era gives one a privileged vantage point, is interesting. My answer to the latter question tends to be no: just having been alive doesn’t mean one necessarily has special access to something about ‘the 80s’ that a historian born, say, in 1990 doesn’t have. The ’60s, again, may be a special or different case, b.c people like Gitlin and Isserman (and quite a few others) who became writers and academics were direct (and, at least e.g. in Gitlin’s case, quite central) participants in events they later wrote about. Here one needs to distinguish (again an obvious point) between histories and memoirs (also see L.D.’s remarks, above).

    But in general I don’t think just having lived through a period matters a whole lot. Occasionally it may give a different perspective, e.g. about a particular presidential campaign or other big event (I don’t think, based on what I’ve gathered at second hand, that Perlstein’s take on the ’76 Dem. primary campaign is quite going to match up with my views as someone who had strong feelings about it at the time). But it’s not the mere fact of presence that matters — I don’t think, for example, the fact that I have a (somewhat hazy at this point) recollection of being present when Carter and some of the other candidates gave speeches at a university or elsewhere gives me some sort of ‘magic dust’ and means that I have privileged access to “the truth” about the 1976 campaign.

    • Louis,
      I understood that you were being flip about Bloom and Top Gun, and I’m sorry if my reply came off a little more sharply than I intended, but flipness about the 80s is more or less symptomatic of the kind of generational divide that I think may take shape, and so I wanted to respond to that. I completely agree with you that international or transnational history is going to have a great role in future scholarship on the 80s: most of my friends whose work runs through the decade at all assume that they can’t do the 80s other than transnationally.

      And thanks for the distinctions you draw in your second comment, and I should say that the “special angle” that the accounts–even in memoir form–from participants or contemporaries are, of course, invaluable. Just, you know, trust, but verify!

    • I agree that just living through a particular time doesn’t give special access, in a sort of mystical sort of sense, wherein you “just had to be there” to really understand what happened. (This may be the way some people talk about the 60s, but it’s also the way people talk about pentecostal revivals and music scenes.)

      However, there is a certain cultural competence one picks up just by being around, and, while others can gain it, it takes a lot of work. That being said, I do expect that “fresh” eyes on archival materials should be at least as good as–if not better than–histories filtered through memories. Nevertheless, I’m always very hesitant to speak about periods others remember and I don’t, for fear I’ve missed something that anyone at the time would have known.

      I say all this as the historian you mention above–born in, say, 1990.

  6. This was a great post Andy! My apologies for just responding, but following the comment thread has also been a treat.

    First off, I think it’s funny that we’ve done an “accidental” roundtable on Perlstein’s book! I have yet to finish it, but I think it deserves the attention we’re giving it because a) it’s a book that’s getting a lot of press (albeit much of it for the wrong reasons) and b) many of us dabble in American intellectual history set around the time that Perlstein’s writing about.

    Now on to your post about the 1980s: there’s so much left to be said about the decade–just to take an example, as Louis noted above, movements like the anti-Apartheid movement proved the existence of a Left capable of sustaining some movements in the 80s. Books like “The Other Eighties” by Bradford Martin, or portions of “Front Porch Politics” by Michael Foley, just as two examples, delve a bit into the diversity of grassroots movements arrayed against President Reagan in the 1980s.

    And I think Louis’ point about looking at the 80s from an international point of view is a great one. I know I’m going to sound like a broken record, but the relationship between conservatives in Britain and the U.S. would be one way to get at this–especially when it came to the debate over sanctions against South Africa in the late 1980s.

    Above all, though, it will be interesting to see what happens next with 80s historiography. I’m not quite sure where it will go next–my focus on the American South in my dissertation, I hope, will provide some food for thought to other historians trying to explore the interplay between liberals and moderates in the Democratic Party, just as one example of an important story from the decade that could use more attention.

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