Another long one... Don’t read this if you are a pod person.
In the 80s I was in high school and it remains my favorite decade. Times were good: The US had finally pulled out of the recessive economy of the 70s and seemed to have once and for all said sayonara to oversized collars, mustard-cum-avocado kitchens and no-country-for-old-men hair. People were happy. Of course, it’s pretty hard to feel down when everyone's wearing bright, baggy clothes, enormous shoulder pads, ankle boots and outrageously upswept hair while listening to Duran Duran. It can be done but you have to really want it.
Anyway, from my perspective the overall tone of the US was positive in the 80s. Life was good and we were the good guys, at least to some people. The only somber note that impinged on my myopic teen awareness was Woody Allen, who stopped making quirky Diane Keaton movies in order to tackle more boring and serious subject matter with Mia Farrow.
The 90s got a bit more serious, fashion got edgier, music offered a more biting undertone and the overall mood in the US seemed to become more conservative and severe. Nonetheless, it was a pretty good decade and even Woody perked up a bit and made a musical although he still had his dark moments. But although times were still good, the stage was being set for future difficulties on the economic, political and environmental fronts.
And sure enough, in the new millennium the US saw the some real setbacks. We saw the American presidential electoral system stumble with a suspect vote count in Florida – and who was governor there again? Following this we saw the judicial branch of our government deliver a questionable ruling about this, and may I point out as a former student of political science that quasi-currupt judicial rulings are never a good sign. We saw hideous terrorist attacks on US territory. We saw the US sell the farm to go to war - against the advice of the international community - on the basis of scanty evidence around who we should be attacking, which later turned out to be false. We saw the US withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol that was signed in 1997 – in fact, we saw the US pull away from the international community on every topic from environment to human rights and erode its good standing as both a global citizen and leader. We saw the systematic erosion of laws that are in place to protect American civil liberties. We saw young soldiers begin to come home and overwhelm the available care facilities.
Other political highlights included dying forests and habitats, gloom and doom predictions from increasingly respected scientific sources, a lagging school system, a growing pettiness and intolerance of personal choice, an imploding health care system, freedom fries, an explosion of national debt (I mean, some increase of national debt is normal when a Republican takes office but this was well beyond the norm), and a meltdown of the greedy financial sector that isn’t over yet.
Wow. Tough decade. On the bright side, Woody Allen teamed up with Scarlett Johansson and started making comedies again.
Which brings me to my next point: the importance of humor in difficult times. All of these things were terrible (and too many of them still are) but for me what really stood out during this decade was when late night comedians stopped making fun of the White House. Needless to say, late night comedy wasn't nearly as funny without the political jokes, since politics were the funniest thing going on during those tense months. But what really wasn’t funny was the erosion of freedom of speech in the US for several years, which manifested in entertainment, business interactions and even personal relationships. It was a time of not saying what you thought because you didn’t know how the other person would react to politically sensitive topics.
So instead of demanding solutions - which would have required speaking out and might have come across as unpatriotic in this humorless political climate - people sought refuge in consumption, buying SUVs, bottled water, imported toys and gadgets, hedge funds and Support Our Troops stickers. Ironic, isn’t it?
Can we blame this on the President? Oh, I’d like to. He certainly played a role in setting the national tone and was a staunch friend to big oil and the folks who want to cut down our forests. But mostly we did it to ourselves. Mind you, it could have been much, much worse but for a while there it wasn’t the US I thought I grew up in because the Americans seemed like different people.
Tina Fey’s hilarious portrayal of Sarah Palin was comedic gold but for me it was more than that. It was as if Tina Fey ushered in a new era that made it OK to laugh again about real topics. She wasn’t the first to bring comedy back to politics (we should also acknowledge the contributions of John Stewart and others to this important work) but she's the one that stands out for me as a tipping point. And what a difference it makes when it's OK to laugh again! I don’t think we’ll be in a position to recapture the happy mood of the 80s for some time but people do seem more at ease with each other, less defensive, more open, than they did a few years ago. And most importantly, more willing to talk about what’s wrong and how to fix it, not just sweep it under the carpet with disapproving, humorless silence. We’ll need this to work together on the tasks ahead.
Don’t get me wrong, laughing is no substitute for taking action. But it helps create an environment of tolerance where taking action can be seen as patriotic rather than unpatriotic.
So, thank you, Tina Fey, for putting the 'mock' back in Democracy!
Oh, and speaking of political action, I nearly choked laughing when I watched the 30 Rock where Tina Fey dresses up as Princess Leia to get out of jury duty.
I wonder if Carrie Fischer could get away with that. . .