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Book review: Bradford Martin's The Other Eighties

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The Other Eighties: A Secret History of America in the Age of Reagan by Bradford Martin (Hill & Wang, 272 pages, $26).

Who knew that when we listened to the Replacements and Sonic Youth in the 1980s we were creating a secret history of that decade? I sure didn't and I don't remember any of my music-loving friends saying anything about it, either. But here we are in 2011, and author Bradford Martin, of Bryant University in Rhode Island, says that's exactly what we were doing. Following and enjoying the rise of post-punk rock, or alternative rock, or whatever other names it was called at the time, was certainly a highlight of the 80s — and no, that certainly wasn't an activity shared by a national majority — but "secret history"? Wellll, actually, Martin makes a very good case in his razor-sharp, captivating book, The Other Eighties: A Secret History of America in the Age of Reagan.

What Martin proposes is that current mainstream accounts of the 1980s are far too "reaganocentric." Left out of that view, says Martin, are the millions of Americans who countered the dominant GOP narrative of the decade by pushing back against the Reagan agenda, offering a kind of counter-reality to the era's tide of glitz, money-worship and conservatism's culture wars. With the Reagan administration taking the country farther to the right than it had been in 50 years, and with a weak Democratic Party running toward the center, many, including yours truly, were only able to resist the Reagan juggernaut outside of the usual arena of electoral politics.

Martin is an excellent, highly readable social historian, and he covers a lot of ground here, very evenhandedly. He explores the decade's various grassroots movements to promote a nuclear freeze, fight against South African apartheid and U.S. interference in Central America, and battle for gay rights, abortion rights, and more federal funding of AIDS research. And, yes, rocking out to alternative rock music, which, Martin accurately notes, "enabled communities of fans to explore identities in opposition to mainstream social political mores." He's particularly strong when writing about the success earned by the group Act Up in drawing attention to the AIDS epidemic, as well as students' efforts against apartheid, including the building of shantytowns on campuses. He also paints a lively picture of how the arts served as a counterbalance to the Reagan era's cultural conservatism.

Martin's challenge to the shallow, mainstream view of the 80s as an embrace of "Morning in America" clichés, complete with Rambo, big hair and MTV, is long overdue and finally brings a welcome look under the surface of the decade's pleasant corporate fantasies.

One of today's biggest, most widespread fantasies about the 80s is Reagan's supposed immense popularity during his two terms in office. That view ignores the fact that Reagan's favorable poll numbers hit a low of 35 percent just one year into his first term, and his two-term average was only around 53 percent. The truth is that, like Franklin Roosevelt before him, Reagan was intensely admired by many, but was also despised and mocked by nearly as many others. Those who were appalled by Reagan's policies were largely people inclined to take action, and thus the Nuclear Freeze movement, et al. were born.

The Reagan myths are certainly long-lasting, too. For instance, it's hard to find a conservative today who doesn't think that Reagan was a rough-tough, government-slashing, fiscal deficit hawk. In actuality, the number of federal employees grew from 2.8 million to 3 million under Reagan (it was Clinton who cut federal employee rolls back to 2.7 million). And unless you enjoy seeing conservatives sputter and turn red in the face, don't mention to them that during Reagan's presidency, the federal debt ballooned from around $700 billion to nearly $3 trillion. And whatever you do, don't risk having to deal with a heart attack patient by telling conservative acquaintances that the largest peacetime tax increase up to that point in U.S. history was spearheaded by Reagan in 1982.

It's bad enough that Reagan's own record has been so distorted by the mainstream media. It's much worse, in terms of being, you know, accurate and honest and all that, for an entire decade to be so shoddily reported. Bradford Martin has taken a fine first step toward setting the cultural and political record straight.

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