Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Running on Empty: Back to the Seventies

Randall Stephens

At least since Bruce Schulman published his The Seventies: The Great Shift In American Culture, Society, and Politics in 2002, historians have been reflecting on that pivotal decade and how it altered the course of recent American history. Maybe it's a sign of the historiographical times that Jefferson R. Cowie's Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class won the prestigious Parkman Prize in 2011.

Historians like Daniel T. Rodgers (Age of Fracture) and Judith Stein (Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies) also weighed in on the era in 2011. And new explorations of religion and politics in the postwar years are changing what we think about the "recent" rise of the Religious Right (see Dan Williams' God's Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right and Darren Dochuk's From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism).

Is this the scholarly analogue of what The Onion hilariously described back in 1997?: "U.S. Dept. Of Retro Warns: 'We May Be Running Out Of Past'". Unlikely. But, still, the past keeps catching up with us. The seventies--with all it's tragic pathos, decline, hirsute decadence, and acres of polyester--just pulls us in. The decade is certainly a draw for those observes who like to emphasize the heartbreaking, grim side of life. Maybe in these desperate economic times we also see ourselves reflected back in that bleak era.

Josh Rothman makes that point in the Boston Globe this Sunday. He also cites out very own Journal of the Historical Society.

When we talk about today's economic crisis, we tend to think about the 1930s and the Great Depression. Increasingly, though, economic historians are focusing on another decade -- the 1970s. It was during the seventies, conventionally dismissed as an aesthetically challenged interegnum between the revolutionary sixties and the Reaganite eighties, that the seeds of our current crisis were planted. The argument was advanced last year, primarily in Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies, by Judith Stein, a historian at CUNY. Now it's gaining momentum, with a roundtable of historians and economists responding to the book in this month's issue of The Journal of the Historical Society. As the historian Daniel Rodgers puts it, "In the economic history of the first half of the twentieth century, the crucial decade was the 1930s. For the second half of the twentieth century," there is a "growing consensus" that "the pivotal decade was the 1970s."

I couldn't agree more. In a modern US course several years ago my students and I explored the cultural and political dimensions of the seventies hangover by reading
Andreas Killen's captivating, yet underappreciated 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America. (I take special pride in being born in such an awful year.)

John Lennon, not long before his death at the hands of a deranged man, told an interviewer: "Wasn't the 70s a drag, you know? Here we are. Well, let's try and make the 80s good, you know?" Yet the Me Decade would linger on and on. So writes Killen in his intro paragraph:

Will the seventies never end? The question asked recently by a pundit in the New York Times is a valid one. The sevenries are, indeed, the decade that refuses to end--despite the fact that, for a long time, they barely counred as a decade, so completely were they obscured by the long shadows cast by both the sixties and the eighties and by the noisy clamor of their respective partisans. While the former were claimed by the Left and the latter by the Right, the seventies remained the foundling of recent American history, claimed by no one. Despite the current wave of seventies nostalgia and revisionism, these years still need to be liberated from the two decades that bracket them. More than simply the aftermath to the one and the prelude to the other, this decade should be considered on its own terms, as a distinct cultural moment, a moment of rupture and discontinuity in American history but also of tremendous creativity.

1 comment:

the History Reporter said...

Nicely done. I enjoyed reading this article about a truly underrated decade.