An amazing thing I am learning more and more about the 1980s, with every passing scandal — starting with Roy Moore, then passing to Brett Kavanaugh and now to Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and state Attorney General Mark Herring — is that they were actually much longer ago than we have been led to believe. The thing we have to understand about them, indeed the primary thing, is that they were A Much Different Time. This is an enormous breakthrough, as far as the study of the 1980s goes.
You may, naively, think you were alive in the 1980s, may even in moments of weakness claim to remember things that happened during this decade, may even feel that, really, it was not that different from being alive today, but that cannot possibly be correct. The ’80s are getting farther and farther into the past with every new headline, like the Weeping Angels in “Doctor Who,” but in reverse.
Did you know that the period of time known today as the 1980s was actually at least — we cannot identify the number precisely, but archaeologists are helping us — anywhere from 100 to 200 years ago? Possibly as many as 300. With every newly discovered artifact, each yearbook, signed or otherwise, the ’80s move back another dozen years. Soon they will be somewhere in the Late Cretaceous.
We know that newspaper writers at least as far back as Frederick Douglass in the 1840s were calling blackface wrong, but word had not reached those who were alive in the ’80s, a fact that is helping us to date this era more precisely. That, and carbon extracted from numerous skeletons recently unearthed in Virginia closets.
For many years, scientists and scholars labored under the expensive misapprehension that the ’80s occurred as recently as 30 years ago and that people alive then shared many of our values, cultural touchstones and comforts. Indeed, it was thought that some people alive then are still alive now and that many of them are not that old. It was commonly believed that the Civil War had ended 120 years before the ’80s, but this just shows you not to jump to hasty conclusions. It is, indeed, possible that the Civil War was still going, just judging from the number of combatant flags still visible, a conclusion some archaeologists have drawn about our own era.
We cannot hope to know what went through the mind of anyone living in those days; we can judge them only by the artifacts and tools they left behind. Archaeological evidence shows they had invented a form of shoulder padding whose function (decoration? protection?) remains unclear. They had just barely developed the ability to moonwalk. Each discovery offers a clue to the people of these long-ago days, buried beneath the sands of centuries. It is impossible to judge them by the standards of today, when we have running water and blow dryers and the music of U2 comes unbidden to our phones without any effort on our part.
Once we begin to decode contemporary documents from the original cuneiform and determine the function of some artifacts — Walkmen, mobile telephones, a gendered Pac-Man? — we may get some sense of those people who lived then. Old cassettes of “the Oldies” meant to induce perspiration should, in particular, provide a rare cache of insights once cracked.
But for now, we have no idea how in those days they might have read documents or communicated, or what their cultural standards could have been. We can only gaze at those ancient ancestors across the inescapably vast gap of time and wonder what they were thinking. What were they thinking, those people? Were they thinking? It is impossible to say; we can only look at what they left behind, and guess: No.
Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter @petridishes.