That Seventies Show
But none of these syntheses, Kalman's included, deliver that instant of aha crucial to all great historical argumentation, that disturbed state of fresh apperception that turns confusion into unexpected new patterns of clarity and cliché into refreshing new doubt. These kinds of breakthroughs are usually the product of ferment at the scholarly version of the grassroots: young scholars asking new questions and tilling fresh furrows through archival sources. Any historian who sees further than most stands on the shoulders of graduate students. So it is appropriate that the first glimmerings of a transformative historical literature on the 1970s appeared a few years ago in the sort of anthologies in which young scholars in the stage of turning dissertations into books first present their research to the wider public.
In Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s, edited by Schulman and Julian Zelizer, the most eye-opening chapter, by Suleiman Osman, an assistant professor at George Washington University, focuses of all things on the young rehabbers of urban brownstones in neighborhoods like Park Slope in Brooklyn. At a time when seven out of ten New Yorkers said they were afraid to walk a block from their homes, the rehabbers pioneered a hip kind of neither-left-nor-right urban capitalism that feels utterly familiar to us but has never quite been effectively named before. Osman tells a paradigmatic story about the institutionalization and domestication of 1960s insurgent energies. In America in the Seventies, edited by Beth Bailey and David Farber, the standout essay is "'It Makes You Want to Believe': Celebrating the Bicentennial in an Age of Limits," by Christopher Capozzola, an associate professor at MIT. He juxtaposes two quotes that signal the ideological direction toward which Middle America would soon tend. A leading spokesman for the left described the celebration thus: "Corporate America has conceived a bicentennial plan to manipulate the mass psychology of an entire nation back into conformity with its vision of what American life should be." The Birmingham News, on the other hand, said this: "America turned the corner Sunday on a self-induced illness of the spirit and stretched its psyche in a burst of national joy and celebration." Which sounded more attractive? Ask anyone who voted for Reagan in 1980.
The young scholars of the 1970s frequently discern in the decade a new structure of feeling marked by a palpable longing for innocence. In No Direction Home: The American Family and the Fear of National Decline, 1968–1980, Natasha Zaretsky inventively untangles a skein of cultural imagery that depicted the nation in terms of a family in peril—a crisis of literal and symbolic fatherlessness—and materialized in such disparate realms as the panic over dependency on Arab oil, the debate over Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism and emotions associated with the return of America's prisoners of war from Vietnam. Michael Allen's Until the Last Man Comes Home works out the politics of the POWs in staggering depth, first as they were exploited by the Nixon administration as sentimental heroes for a war without heroes, then as the unreasonable hysteria over veterans supposedly still "missing in action" became the perverse symbolic stand-in by which a traumatized nation negotiated its own sense of betrayal at the hands of an elite who dragged us into the war in the first place. In Roots Too, Matthew Jacobson shows how the ABC miniseries based on Alex Haley's slavery chronicle stirred white America to an unprecedented engagement with the American past: it made every American a historian—of themselves. It kicked off, instead of an honest and critical national reckoning with America's traumatic racial past, a booming trade in sentimental white ethnic nostalgia.
These are writers who grew up in the '70s, who seek to make sense, sometimes self-consciously, of the signs and wonders that shaped their adult selves. They suggest that the most salient changes in the '70s were cultural. For Judith Stein, a distinguished historian of American industry and the author of Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies, this is a problem. She lumps much existing '70s historiography with a goofy popular literature that insists on seeing the decade in terms of pet rocks, shag carpeting, transcendental meditation and disco. She is especially put out by scholarly analyses of pop culture. "Some written accounts of the decade descend to kitsch," she says. She's talking about the history professors' books, too.
Stein also sets herself against "Whiggish stories of rising conservatism [that] do not intersect with any political or economic event," criticizing journalist Thomas Byrne Edsall's classic accounts of the '70s and '80s backlash against liberalism, The New Politics of Inequality (1984) and Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics (1991). This is unfair. The political and economic event Edsall's books intersected with was the period during which they were researched and written. Back then, the idea that the '70s had produced an ongoing conservative hegemony was by no means universally apparent. Edsall was the writer most responsible, in real time, for making the notion of a '70s antiliberal ascendancy universally apparent.
Stein also roundly excoriates historians' tendencies to "psychologize the decade's conflicts." She ascribes this trait to two recent books I find in no way deserve her condescension—Andreas Killen's 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America and Philip Jenkins's Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America, both richly fascinating accounts of the world-making cultural traumas that were precisely what made the period feel so distinct. (She also arraigns a third volume, Nixonland, for the same psychologizing sin, a judgment upon which the present reviewer shall remain neutral.) Stein is a historian of thunderous judgments. Against all these armchair shrinks, conservo-Whigs and scholarly bell-bottom-ologists, she presents herself as a stark alternative: "I start with different assumptions. I began this book after I learned that the 1970s was the only decade other than the 1930s wherein Americans ended up poorer than they began."
It's not really a news flash. Charles Maier, the historian who helped guide the graduate students behind the 2008 conference "The Global 1970s," writes in the first chapter of the volume that issued from it, The Shock of the Global, that the turmoil of the 1970s was among the great economic crises of the twentieth century; the chapters that follow almost entirely ignore disco. But Stein's thunder, if not always fair, is not un-useful. Her rage fuels her. The first half of her book provides a highly original illumination of how the American Century collapsed.
The focus is on the idiosyncrasies of the postwar hegemony that preceded it. Stein doesn't quote Henry Luce's famous 1941 "American Century" essay (too cultural, perhaps), but she might have. Luce imagined America as "the dynamic center of ever-widening spheres of enterprise, America as the training center of the skillful servants of mankind, America as the Good Samaritan, really believing again that it is more blessed to give than to receive"; he concluded that "out of these elements surely can be fashioned a vision of the 20th Century to which we can and will devote ourselves in joy and gladness and vigor and enthusiasm." By Stein's judgment such bushwa was not driven by some neoimperial will to power. Just the opposite. By her reading, the "Great Compression" of 1947 through 1972 was an Eden in which productivity skyrocketed, unemployment and inflation plummeted, America bestrode the economic universe like a colossus and prosperity was broadly shared as it never had been before—and all of it was squandered by elites whose will to national power was not nearly strong enough.