This essay is adapted from The Devil’s Triangle: Mark Judge vs. the New American Stasi, by Mark Judge (Bombardier Books, 224 pages, $18)

The 1980s on Trial

During the hurricane that was the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, it wasn’t just my high school friends and I who were on trial—it was an entire decade. That decade was the 1980s.

To understand the ’80s, and how our generation, Generation X, was formed, it helps to start with the 1970s. Specifically, with the movie “The Bad News Bears.” “The Bad News Bears” is one of the most hilarious and politically incorrect films ever made. It came out in 1976—when America was a more freewheeling place, for better and worse—and was a huge hit. It portrayed kids realistically. The Little League “Bears” cussed, used stereotypes, thought their alcoholic manager Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) was useless, and got into fights. They were real kids. That includes the girl pitcher Amanda Whurlitzer, brilliantly played by Tatum O’Neal. Amanda fired right back when the boys razzed her, and mowed them down with her fastball. She was tough, smart, and independent.

Those real 1970s kids became the teenagers of the 1980s. They—we—often continued to be rowdy, independent, and rambunctious. I was born in 1964, which means I was 12 when “Bears” came out and then a teenager in the early 1980s when I was a student at Georgetown Prep. Things were a lot looser back then. You learned to fend for yourself (not everyone got a trophy), even as you tried to navigate the total wave of drugs and alcohol that were available. The hippie culture ruined a lot of lives.

Many of the girls from that time were party animals, as well as warriors—and not the social justice kind. At one point in 1983 there was a toilet papering war between Prep and an all-girls school I’ll call Holy Name. It had escalated to eggs and firecrackers. Then one morning one of my buddies, a guy I’ll call “Fletch,” woke up to find a Washington Metrobus pole, complete with sign, had been uprooted and perfectly replanted in his front yard. Fletch actually admired the leader of their crew, a girl I’ll call “Joan” after Joan of Arc, another queen of battle.

My high school years became the focus of a massive media assault in 2018, when my friend Brett Kavanaugh was nominated for the Supreme Court. The oppo research goons used our old high school yearbook to fuel the charge that Brett sexually assaulted a girl then named Christine Blasey when we were all in high school. They tried to bully and extort me into testifying against my friend, who was innocent. Part of the strategy of the Left was to infantilize Ford. Testifying before the judiciary committee, Ford spoke in a baby voice and appeared on the verge of tears several times—while never actually producing tears or mucus. Ford’s handlers also suppressed her social media and high school past, including her high school yearbook from Holton-Arms, the private school she attended. This was unfortunate, as it was a strategy that played into what the Left usually considers archaic stereotypes about women. Liberals seemed to champion the idea that women are babies who have no agency and are unable to talk back to the boys.

At one point during the height of the lunacy, I actually found myself defending Ford. I was being bombarded with stories, many from people I didn’t even know, about Ford’s partying ways in the 1980s at Holton. She was promiscuous, they said. She could put dudes under the table playing drinking games. She was a wild child. They quoted The Scribe, the Holton-Arms yearbook from the time, which featured pictures of girls drinking heavily with beer cans stacked up and liquor celebrated. The Scribe celebrated “boys, beer and the ‘Zoo’ atmosphere” of the time. “One cannot fail to mention the climax of the junior social scene, the party,” one passage reads. “Striving to extend our educational experience beyond the confines of the classroom, we played such intellectually stimulating games as Quarters, Mexican Dice and everyone’s favorite, Pass-Out, which usually resulted from the aforementioned two.” 

In 1984, the year Ford graduated, the yearbook offers this: “Beach week culminated the year for those of us lucky enough to go. With school and our minds in temporary recess, we were able to release all those troubling inhibitions of the past year. While dancing in the middle of coastal Highway, Ann and friends picked up some men who passed out in their apartment.” 

To which I said: So what? Those passages didn’t have any bearing on sexual assault. To claim they do would be like saying that because she had a smart mouth, Amanda in “The Bad News Bears” deserved to get beaned with a pitch. Ford’s partying had no relation to assault any more than the partying my buddies and I did in high school made us rapists.

And there’s the heart of the matter. Had the Left not tried to whitewash Ford’s past and present her as Shirley Temple, her story ironically would have been more believable. Just as most fair-minded people could believe that as 1970s kids who became teens in the hard-partying 1980s, we threw a few parties, and that this did not make us rapists, they could believe that a socially active girl like Ford could have, at some time or place, been the victim of an assault, even if it was not at the hands of Brett Kavanaugh. Americans can hold two thoughts in their heads at the same time.

No, the truth wasn’t good enough. The Left had to try and move the needle. Their level of cynicism was such that many of them didn’t even care about guilt or innocence. A ridiculous Vanity Fair hit piece offered this astonishing passage: “To many Americans, Kavanaugh didn’t seem like a sexual predator—but that wasn’t the point. The point was that he couldn’t give an inch of possible culpability. He couldn’t say, ‘I’m sorry for what I might have done.’” Ana Marie Cox, once a respected journalist, tweeted this: “We need to judge Brett Kavanaugh, not just by what he may or may not have done, but how he treats a woman’s pain. Will he take her pain seriously? Do the people interrogating her take her pain seriously?” 

In other words, the truth doesn’t matter.

The Shadows of Young People

Before political correctness and the #MeToo movement, before iPhones and the internet and Twitter and outrage culture, there was an understanding that beneath the veneer of civilization was something wild, dangerous, and joyful—a soul electric with sex and slapstick. 

Compared to previous generations, kids today are less likely to have sex, drive, work, drink alcohol, date, or go out without their parents. A lot of this has to do with the advent of smartphones and social media. Kids these days are terrified that if they do something bold—or stupid—it will wind up on Facebook, YouTube, or Snapchat. In 2015, pop singer Ariana Grande, then 22, licked a doughnut—and it wound up on “The Today Show.

In the 1980s, we didn’t live in fear of our every action being caught on a cell phone or security camera and then posted on social media. You could go out on a Saturday night, drink beer, see a band, take a long walk by yourself, hit on a girl, toilet-paper a neighbor’s house, and speed on the way home. You could do all these things while remaining almost completely anonymous. By 2002 that became more difficult, and, by 2012, it was damn near impossible. 

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, there was room for the shadows of young people. I have a vivid memory of a night where a group of us were in a bar drinking—the legal age back then was 18—and around midnight we decided to make the three-hour drive to the Eastern Shore. We all quietly went back to our parents’ houses to pack. I still remember quietly stuffing shorts into a bag while my mother slept and my father snored just yards away. 

In high school, and later in college, my friends and I would start the journey as soon as we finished our classes or punched out of our part-time jobs on Friday. We never thought to ask permission or to wonder if our parents might be worried. Showering, getting dressed in our coolest clothes, listening to departure music—there was a real sense of adventure and the unknown, of leaving the bland world behind, like Huck Finn and Jim drifting down the Mississippi on a raft. In a time before cell phones, going out to the beach was a long ride uninterrupted by texts or calls. The experience formed a kind of deep meditation. The professional world was not just lost for an hour of yoga or Pilates but completely abandoned for a lengthy, restorative journey. Often it changed you.

The point of all this risk and danger, ultimately, was to develop genuine happiness, tolerance, and virtue. Knowing your dark side helps one move more fully into the light—to accumulate the values of perseverance, humility, and unselfish love that lead to good choices, which lead to moral freedom, which ultimately matures into the expression of a well-integrated human being. Truly free people get to say “yes” because they’ve learned to say “no” to hundreds of bad choices.

When we’re young and our lust leads us to make a pass at a woman and we are rebuffed, or we get into a fight and are beaten, or we injure ourselves after a foolhardy daredevil move, the physical pain and feeling of humiliation more empathetically connect us with others and allow us to accept our natural limits. These experiences help us grow up and accept ourselves as flawed human beings—as sinners, if you will.

In his bestselling book Iron John, which I read when it came out in 1990, the poet and men’s movement activist Robert Bly describes a point when a boy has to steal the key to his liberation from under his mother’s pillow. In fact, both boys and girls need, at a certain point, to assert their independence and embrace the dangers and risks of the real world. Kids locked away in their rooms, under the sheets, eyes glued to their iPhones, will never get near Bly’s key.

Paul Harris/Getty Images

For the Articles

Today’s porn- and outrage-saturated media, and our inability as a culture to deal with the ambiguities of male sexuality, lay at the heart of the Kavanaugh imbroglio. My videos and writings were interpreted to indicate hostility toward women when they, in fact, express love, healthy masculine desire, and a deep appreciation for their mystery, power, and beauty. You’re not really allowed to be in awe of women anymore. It’s all interpreted as hate.

But it wasn’t just Brett and me who were on trial. It was the entire era in which we grew up. An era of robust cultural confidence when men and women were equally celebrated, the 1980s have now, in the rearview mirror, become fodder for our modern media scolds.

For instance, several journalists noted during the hearings that I had written in praise of Hugh Hefner, who is now considered a symbol of toxic masculinity. This was taken as evidence of my retrograde sexual attitudes and projected onto Brett as proof of his being unfit for a seat on the nation’s highest court. What a crock of bullshit. The farther away I get from it, the angrier I feel.

For the record, my view of Hefner is equivocal. Hefner helped usher in the age of pornography, which is now a serious global problem that warps healthy and romantic sexual interaction. His grandiose claims about being a revolutionary are often hyperbolic, even silly. He’s also a terrible dancer.

And yet an honest man cannot completely dismiss him. Hefner, in fact, made the case for a type of man who is increasingly rare these days, who may indeed be disappearing in the era of #MeToo and weaponized sexual politics. Playboy, whose first issue was published in December 1953, defended the man who is urbane, intelligent, interested in art, literature, music, and architecture—and who loves women. Indeed, I would argue that Hefner didn’t always strictly treat women as sex objects. The Playboy man was educated, employed, and well-dressed, and he could entertain a young lady at his modern bachelor pad for an evening of conversation about Nietzsche, Picasso, and jazz, culminating in mutually satisfying sex. 

Hefner’s magazine rejected the rugged outdoorsman type celebrated in most men’s magazines of the 1950s. He also criticized some of the counterculture of the time, rejecting the “noise” of rock ’n’ roll in favor of sophisticated jazz. The “Playboy Man” loved capitalism and disposable income, and Playmates from the early issues were photographed in tasteful ways, with their personalities and accomplishments frequently celebrated. 

Yes, it was an exploitative nudie magazine. But it was also a long way from the charmless, ruthless porn of today. Old issues of Playboy, which published some of the best writers of the time, from Gore Vidal to Norman Mailer, read like Shakespeare compared to the Maxim mouth breathers that now represent a huge swath of the male population.

Hefner was also countercultural. As the entire country was getting married and moving to the suburbs, he defended spending a couple extra years in the city, driving a cool car, going to museums, reading great books, and buying the latest Dizzy Gillespie records. He created the kind of cool, urban bachelor who has all but disappeared in today’s world of niche personalities and interests. Men today are either frat bros, comic nerds, yuppie suits, IT geeks, or sulky, epicene hipsters. Nobody covers as much ground as Hefner anymore. 

Hefner could have settled down with one woman and still stayed the man he created. Yet he was tripped up by sex, the very thing that made him rich and famous. Instead of making male sexuality something to be indulged with aplomb but not recklessness, Hefner made it a lifestyle, walking around all day in his trademark silk pajamas and red robe with a blonde on either arm. And that’s why he eventually became a joke. The journalistic quality of Playboy started dropping in the 1980s, and today it reads like a slightly more appealing issue of Details. The Playboy Mansion, Shangri-La in the 1970s, seemed gauche and tacky by the time Hefner died in 2017.

Warner Brothers/Getty Images

Essentially Conservative

In the Kavanaugh battle, the movies of the 1980s also came under particular scrutiny and criticism. In films like “The Wild Life,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and “Risky Business,” teenagers have wild adventures that their parents don’t know about. From the perspective of today’s puritanical academic and media scolds, these rowdy and rambunctious movies appear licentious and libertine. In reality, they taught us important lessons about what it means to be adults. In short, they were essentially conservative.

“Risky Business,” a Tom Cruise classic, tells the story of Joel Goodsen, a Chicago teenager who gets in over his head when he foolishly hires a prostitute named Lana and rolls his dad’s Porsche into Lake Michigan. Joel then turns his parents’ home into a brothel to pay the bills. Liberated from the suffocating control of his parents—particularly his mother—Joel cuts loose and discovers his hidden talent for entrepreneurial risk. At the climax of the film, an interviewer from Princeton shows up and decides that the staid university could “really use a guy like Joel.”

No, this doesn’t seem like spiritually fortifying Christian entertainment. But there is much more to “Risky Business” than the press thought—then or now. In her essay “‘Risky Business’ and Brett Kavanaugh, 35 Years Later,” published right after Brett testified, New York Times writer Ginia Bellafante offers the liberal view: 

In the film, Tom Cruise’s character is admitted to Princeton despite an entirely middling academic record when he impresses his interviewer by turning his parents’ nicely appointed suburban colonial into a brothel while they are away. More clearly than any other film of its period, Risky Business hinges the privileging of male mediocrity on the exploitation of female disadvantage.

In other words, Joel is an exemplar of white male privilege.

In one sense, Bellafante is exactly right: In the beginning of “Risky Business,” Joel is mediocre. His father is a passive figure who wants his son to get into Princeton but has no animus—a Jungian term for male energy. Joel’s reckless friend Miles does have it. Miles’ animus, however, is not honed and directed as with members of the military or a strong preacher but is unformed and volatile. He tells Joel, “Every once in a while you have to say, ‘What the fuck?’” Joel then hires Lana, and after an exhilarating week of partying, his life begins to unravel. 

But in the original script, Joel doesn’t get the girl, doesn’t get into Princeton, and breaks a crystal egg that is his mother’s most prized possession. In short, writer and director Paul Brickman saw Joel’s story as a tragedy. Brickman described himself as a fan of J. D. Salinger, whose Catcher in the Rye explored a young prep school kid having a mental breakdown.

Hollywood executives weren’t having it. They wanted Joel to get the girl, fix the house, and go to Princeton. Producers wanted the film to close out with a happy dialogue between Joel and Lana as they walk through the park hand in hand. “Time of your life, huh, kid?” she says. Brickman was appalled: “I felt the whole film was compromised by this cheesy happy ending. I came very close to walking off the film.” Brickman was so bitter that he did not direct another film until 1990. It’s amazing that Hollywood producers, who excuse all kinds of sex, violence, and bloodshed in the name of realism, hide from the reality that spiritual devastation can result from sin.

Still, there is a scene just before the sunny ending that bears Brickman’s mark. Joel and Lana are on the top floor of a tony Chicago restaurant. Joel asks Lana whether her sleeping with him, and all the rest, was really just a set-up. She says no, but it is not convincing. 

The idea of a privileged white teen from suburban Chicago getting set up and played by a prostitute doesn’t fit into the imagination of Bellafante and the rest of the liberal media. Joel’s being a victim is just not possible. 

Another emblematic film that was evoked by the Kavanaugh drama is “Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Known mainly for Sean Penn’s hilarious portrayal of a wasted stoner who has pizza delivered during class, the film became a huge hit and a cultural touchstone when it was released. In the audio commentary of the 2021 Criterion Collection reissue, director Amy Heckerling observes that the teens in the movie were, like teens at the time, “little adults.” She noted that while the kids struggle with issues like sex, abortion, and drugs, most of them also have jobs. It seems like about half the scenes in the film take place with the characters at work, and the closing credits show the places where they all have jobs shutting down for the night. 

What gives “Fast Times” its energy, even decades later, is that the characters are young but negotiating a grown-up world. “It’s about sex when you don’t know what you’re doing yet, and work when you don’t know what you’re doing yet,” Heckerling says. The characters are uneasy adolescents, wanting but failing to sound like experts about everything. The cast is outstanding, and many went on to become huge stars: Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Forest Whitaker, Phoebe Cates, and Nicolas Cage. One big surprise: Leigh, who plays the innocent Stacy Hamilton, pushed harder than anyone for the film to contain explicit sex and earn an X rating.

But while “Fast Times” is remembered today for its edgy themes—not to mention a nymph-like adolescent Phoebe Cates coming out of a pool in a bikini—viewed today the lessons of the film seem conservative, even heartwarming. While it does deal with sex and drugs, it doesn’t have the cynicism of “Risky Business” or the nihilism of a film like “River’s Edge.” Especially in light of today’s strangling woke guidelines, “Fast Times” represents a genuinely free vision—and also, ultimately, a decent one. 

Leigh’s character wants to lose her virginity and picks the wrong guy to do it with, but in the end, she chooses the nice guy who wouldn’t sleep with her but who genuinely loves her.  

These movies, like many others of that time, explored the creative, sexual, and dangerous side of the adolescent psyche. People once knew that to suppress the shadow would be to deny a part of our humanity. (There was a way to go too far, but it was reserved for truly horrible things—like Norman Mailer stabbing his wife at a party.) This was particularly understood about actors, athletes, and entertainers, who have to tap into extreme emotional places for their craft. We looked the other way when they stumbled out of nightclubs or got caught with prostitutes.

George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Let Riggins be Riggins

Back in 1985, Washington Redskins running back John Riggins got tanked at a black-tie dinner and drunkenly approached Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, telling her to “loosen up.” Reading the play-by-play of this incident from our limp and arid safe space of 2022 is like viewing glamorous pictures of a sexy, colorful Cuba before the Communist revolution. From USA Today:

I had been with a good friend, had a few beers, didn’t bother to eat, went down to the hotel where the party was, walked in and, God I don’t know why, because I hardly ever drink it, I had a double scotch. And I had another.” —John Riggins 

Riggins approached his table, where he was seated with governors, magazine editors and, of course, a Supreme Court justice. Riggins saw Virginia Governor Chuck Robb. “Gooo-be-na-tooor!” he said, according to Robb. “I understand that we’re going to be seated at the same table tonight!” The dinner began . . .  

I continued to drink my dinner.” —Riggins, who refused food.

There were two bottles of red wine and John, in a very expressive mood, managed to mow both of them down. So they brought two more bottles of red wine, also within John’s reach, and [he] somehow managed to knock them over. So, at this point, the table is covered with red wine.” —Robb

. . .

O’Connor was about to leave because she had an early commitment the next morning. Riggins approached O’Connor’s seat, put his arm around her husband, looked over at the first female justice in history and uttered the famous line, “Come on, loosen up, Sandy baby, you’re too tight.” . . .

Then he squatted and was staring off into space. He was really out of it. Then he dropped to one elbow, then he was flat on the floor. I knew he was under my chair when his cowboy boots hit my shoes.” —Jill Cohen, guest at nearby table

He just went back without a sound.” — Robb . . . “They left him there through the whole speech [by Vice President George H.W. Bush.]” . . . 

People checked Riggins a couple of times during the show to make sure he was breathing.” —Guest Marin Allen

The Redskins star slept for 45 minutes. Then he got up and went home.

No cops. No lectures. No rehab. No #MeToo moral panic. No hand-wringing on ESPN, invasions from TMZ, or buzzkill symposium on “Patriarchy and Privilege: The John Riggins Problem.” Everyone, including Justice O’Connor herself, laughed it off. The Washington Post came up with one of its greatest headlines ever: “John Riggins’ Big Sleep: He Came, He Jawed, He Conked Out.”

I was in college in D.C. at the time, and I remember the main thrust of the city’s reaction: let Riggins be Riggins. One cannot imagine such an incident being allowed to pass today. 

Fryderyk Gabowicz/Getty Images

A Lot More Going On

Along with the fun, there was a lot of brilliant art and culture that came out of the Regan era. The decade began on May 21, 1980, with the release of the great film “The Empire Strikes Back.” It ended on September 16, 1991, when the band Talk Talk issued their final masterpiece, “Laughing Stock.” In between those two events was a lot of brilliant art, literature, and music. A lot of it is in danger of being forgotten in the manic rush to repurpose everything from the Reagan years as kitsch, nostalgia, and second-rate video games.

I worked in a movie theater in the ’80s, then in a record store for a few years, then at the offices of National Geographic in Washington, D.C. I knew what was going on culturally. Yes, there were a lot of parties in the 1980s, there were too many drugs, and there was too much promiscuity. But there was also a lot more going on. There was art—thrilling, important, and even timeless art. Not only Basquait but Warhol and Barbara Kruger, George Baselitz, Ernst Ludwig Kirshner, and Annie Leibovitz. 

There were novels and short stories that were more literature than pulp fiction—The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Lonesome Dove, Love in the Time of Cholera, Neuromancer, the stories of Ann Beattie. There were films like “Wings of Desire,” “Cinema Paradiso,” “A Room with a View,” “Babette’s Feast,” and “Round Midnight.” Better known but no less intoxicating was the music: New Order, the Replacements, the Pixies, Public Enemy, the Smiths, U2, Suede, Talking Heads. Talk Talk began the decade as a synth-pop group and ended it with two art rock masterpieces, 1988’s “Spirit of Eden” and 1991’s “Laughing Stock.”

In his book Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, Simon Reynolds notes that to be alive and young and culturally aware in those years was to have a bracing antipathy to nostalgia. We didn’t care about the hippies of the 1960s. The 1970s were there to make jokes about bad clothes and tacky disco. The idea of going back 20 or even 30 years to ape the styles of earlier generations would have been considered demented and embarrassing. We had our own thing. When director Spike Lee was about to release a film or the Blue Nile a new record, nobody had any interest in the big pot cloud that had hovered over Woodstock.

Bands that we loved at the record store had gained that love by developing their talent spending years touring the country, sleeping on floors, and playing dives. I still remember seeing them arrive to do in-store signings, exhausted from driving all day and then trudging off to play live that night. For me, “Laughing Stock,” released just a few months before Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” which ushered in the grunge era, was the final elegy for the 1980s. People were getting married, having kids, staying in on Saturday night. (The drug and alcohol indulgence also landed several of them in rehab.) The party was over. Talk Talk’s sacred, sorrowful music reflected that change.

More than 30 years later, the internet has changed everything, perhaps with an assist from helicopter parenting and smartphones, which help kids avoid the kind of risks and hard work that was once required of artists. Anyone with a computer can write a song, anyone with a smartphone is a photographer, and anyone with a blog is a journalist. The slightest criticism offered to a young writer, musician, or journalist on Twitter is met with a napalm strafing of invective and resistance. 

The internet is wonderful in that it allows talent to be exposed to the masses, but it has also made people lazy and self-righteous. Thanks to YouTube, pop star Justin Bieber was famous from the time he was a young child. But the worldwide attention has made it impossible for him to experience the traumas and struggles that so often make great art necessary. Bieber no doubt has many more hits in him, but he will never produce a record like “Laughing Stock.

A couple of years ago, Joan, the fearless girl who won the toilet paper war by transplanting a bus sign, passed away. She was loved by friends and respected by former opponents, including Fletch. When a Georgetown Prep friend heard the news of her passing, a look of respect and admiration for those take-no-prisoners girls, the Bad News Bears we knew and feared.

“Damn,” he said in a tone of quiet honor, “that Joan threw a mean punch.” 

This essay is adapted from The Devil’s Triangle: Mark Judge vs. the New American Stasi. Click the link to purchase.

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