Monday, March 13, 2017

Book summary: America in the Seventies

Beth Bailey and David R. Farber. America in the Seventies (Culture America series). University Press of Kansas, 2004.

The premise of this book, as with similar books of observations of the American 70s by other writers, could be summed up as "the 70s is when the 60s were implemented." While the seeds of civil rights, gender equality, labor solidarity, etc. may have been sown in the 60s, the actual policies that put these ideas in practice happened during the 70s. At the same time, the US confronted a series of setbacks: Vietnam was not only a military embarrassment with enormous human costs, but a war that polarized the nation on moral grounds, with none of the moral clarity or national purpose of WW II; expanded government programs and higher-paid labor to meet the social demands of the 60s, combined with the replacement of American heavy industry with imported goods and the movement of labor-intensive production overseas, resulted in "stagflation" (inflation combined with economic stagnation); the Arab oil shocks painfully emphasized America's utter dependence on the whim of a small group of nations whose culture in some ways could not be further from our own. Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal made the public cynical that the government was not only incapable of resolving these economic woes, but lacked integrity and was not invested in the well being of the middle class. Social structures were challenged by movements involving gender roles, racial identity, and sexual identity, destabilizing social norms that were perceived to have anchored the country for decades and leaving many people casting about for their personal identity and purpose as well as confidence in their country. This toxic combination led to a nationwide anomie and alienation as expressed in gritty (and now-iconic) 70s movies like Taxi Driver, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Midnight Cowboy, and Saturday Night Fever.

One very significant result of this existential crisis was the emergence of the New Right with the Reagan election of 1980. By latching on to the common denominators of dissatisfaction with government incompetence and corruption and the alienation bred by changing social roles, the New Right assembled a constituency of anti-tax activists, critics of "big government", and the religious right. Reagan and his successors used this mandate to gut the government altogether, following an existing conservative agenda that just needed dusting off after losing its social luster during the 60s.

The book is a collection of well chosen independent essays, each treating one of these social or economic upheavals in detail. As an academic myself, I approached it with some trepidation since academic writing can be ponderous and needlessly self-indulgent, but these are vigorously written and eminently readable by a non-expert like me. I commend the editors on their choices, though I would have enjoyed some connective material to introduce each essay or place it in the context of the larger themes, as is common in "edited by" collections. Notwithstanding, this is a highly readable and informative account of how the "me decade" of the 70s, in trying to in implement the social reforms of the 60s, ironically enabled the rise of the New Right and "greed is good" in the 80s.

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