Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The 70s

At the New Yorker, George Packer reviews Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge, a chronicle of America in the mid 70s, focusing on the rise of Reagan and the new right. Perlstein wants the 70s to be a dramatic time of conflict and chaos, “a world gone mad.” Packer remembers differently:
Anyone old enough to have lived through the nineteen-seventies knew them as a long and often embarrassing anticlimax—a shapeless, burned-out interregnum between the high dramas of the sixties and the bright, hard edges of the Reagan era. Unlike the decades that preceded and followed, the seventies seemed to have no plot: a mishmash of musical styles and fads, a blur of failed Presidents, a series of international fiascoes, a mood of cynicism and farce. Preparing for a thoroughly ironic fin de decade party, Zonker Harris, of “Doonesbury,” raised his mug: “To a kidney stone of a decade!” “Try to retrieve the seventies and memories crumble in one’s hand,” the critic Irving Howe wrote in his autobiography. “The decade itself lacks a distinctive historical flavor. It’s as if the years had simply dropped out of one’s life and all that remains are bits and pieces of recollection.” In my memory, the seventies began in an atmosphere of antic nihilism—Mad, “ratfucking,” Richard Pryor—and ended on the downer of “malaise” and the hostage crisis. I mainly remember longing to be somewhere else—it didn’t matter whether it was the future or the past. (Admittedly, I was a teen-ager.) If there was any theme to that decade, it was the lack of a theme, of any higher meaning to events.
I'm with Packer. The 70s were a dismal decade, not a dramatic one. I remember stagflation, the Rust Belt, urban decay, the sense that the economy was sinking into a morass of bureaucracy and complacency while the Japanese ran circles around us and the nation's only notable achievements were escapist movies and slickly commercial music. If the 70s were not as bad as Perlstein wants them to have been, it becomes harder to make Reagan the inevitable answer to a national crisis. I think Reagan only won the election because Carter became part of the same “malaise” he famously diagnosed; with different men or small differences in the rates of inflation and unemployment the election could easily have gone the other way. As Packer says, history always looks a lot more inevitable from 50 years on than it did at the time.

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