Nostalgia is an odd thing. Our memory of a certain era tends to focus on pop-cultural trends such as the music or fashion of that time, while the details get blurred as time goes on. This might explain why revisionist histories created by television and films strike a chord with many people, either those looking back to their youth, or those who weren't around to experience that time period themselves. It's easy for young people to forget that (for example) the 1950s and '60s were a dark era for non-white Christians or folks with political views that veered from the mainstream. Did Happy Days' Arnold's Drive-In ever have a segregation policy? Just how much of a hoodlum was Fonzie anyway? The point being, we have a way of dispensing with unpleasant realities when looking back on an era of American life.
And so it is with the 1980s. Younger people I know seem to look at that decade as a time of "awesome" fashion (I'll stick to the opinion that fashion back then was mostly terrible) and music. As with all decades, there were lots of great things going on for anyone willing to find them, but it's also important to recognize that it was a deeply challenging time and mistakes made back then are worth remembering if we want to avoid them in the future.
3.The AIDS Crisis
The emergence of AIDS in the early '80s was a nightmare that our government and media were slow to respond to. By the time that word of the new and deadly disease began to make headlines, it had spread widely enough to become a much larger epidemic than it might have been if actions to thwart it had been taken earlier. AIDS was seen primarily as a gay disease, and because of societal homophobia and a newly empowered conservatism, it wasn't taken as seriously as it should have been. Stigmas concerning homosexuality, and sexually transmitted diseases in general, allowed too many people to dismiss AIDS as something that affected only people living immoral lifestyles. In 1987 Congress banned the use of federal funds for AIDS prevention and education campaigns that directly or indirectly encouraged or promoted homosexual activities.
This legislation was penned by senator Jesse Helms and signed by Ronald Reagan. Instead of focusing on effective ways to protect people from the disease, too much emphasis was put on less effective fearmongering campaigns. Unfortunately, that resulted in scaring people who were at much less risk than others, while reducing resources that could have been spent educating and protecting higher-risk individuals. Books have been written on the subject, but there are lots of lessons to be learned from the poor official response to AIDS in the '80s.
2. Music and Art Were In Danger
There was a deep undercurrent of conservatism throughout the 1980s, but conservatives weren't alone in trying to stamp out art they found troubling. Yes, there were ridiculous efforts by religious fanatics who wanted to keep people from playing Dungeons and Dragons, or from listening to hard rock or heavy metal (more on those shortly). But the '80s also saw a form of conservative governmental criticism of pornography that many liberals also embraced. The P.M.R.C. (or Parents Music Resource Center) was formed by four women who were the wives of politicians from both sides of the political spectrum, who essentially wanted to rid the world of music they found objectionable.
Most famously, Tipper Gore, the wife of senator and future vice president Al Gore, emerged as a voice for censorship during that crusade. I've had debates with younger friends who regard the P.M.R.C.'s efforts as harmless or even positive, as a way to warn parents of vile content on a record, and who think the "Tipper Sticker" warning label isn't a big deal. Unfortunately, that view disregards the full extent of what the P.M.R.C. was trying to push through, since the warning sticker was merely a compromise record labels agreed to. The P.M.R.C. would've preferred to see entire genres of music eliminated or marginalized to the point of extinction; they were a group advocating widespread censorship, and nothing less.
A good lesson from the '80s is that sometimes art is challenging or even harsh. Anytime a group of do-gooders tries to tell us art or music is "bad," it's time to question exactly what their motives are.
1. Real-Life Witch Hunts
I've written about the "Satanic Panic" several times previously, but it's a cautionary tale that needs never to be forgotten, because it ruined many innocent lives. From roughly the early '80s through the mid-'90s or so, the fantasies of religious fanatics were met with eager media and law-enforcement support, despite very little real evidence backing up their stories.
As noted earlier, the '80s were a deeply conservative time, with an emergent religious right pressing harder to change the nation's course after the expansion of non-traditional social and religious movements in the '60s and '70s. In the '80s their fear and resentment manifested as a literal witch hunt, trying to oust hidden satanic threats from their communities.
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It's a fascinating study in how a moral panic gains traction, and relied on weak evidence — "suppressed memories" from adults, and accounts from children describing impossibly awful (emphasis on "impossibly") stories of satanic ritual abuse. Fortunately, almost none of these cases had any real substance, but unfortunately, many of the people named by their accusers had their lives ruined.
A good rule of thumb is that when a person earnestly believes that the devil is not only real but can control people's minds through music or role-playing games, that person is not to be taken seriously. Anyone who thinks Ozzy Osbourne is a devil worshipper shouldn't be allowed to rope others into his or her lurid fantasies.