A neighbor of mine teaches American history at the college level and uses Bruce J. Schulman’s The Seventies as a text. He says it’s a neglected decade and that finding material about it is difficult. I can understand that, considering how celebrated the sixties are, how much sexier the nineties with their technological explosions and white house blow jobs. The seventies were in many ways a painful national time–Watergate and gas shortages and general national impotence–but not a catastrophic time in the sense of great wars and Katrina-force disasters. Too much hurting, not enough drama, perhaps, to draw the national attention.
Schulman’s history leaks beyond its title, oozing all the way to 1984–not because of Orwell, but because it was the end of Reagan’s first term. According to the author, the revolution Reagan wrought really began with his corrupt and disgraced predecessor, Tricky Dick. I hadn’t known about Richard M’s vision a new American majority that would transcend party lines and mobilize the alienated of the south and sunbelt against the ossified northeastern establishment. A decade or so and a couple of presidents later, a guy with a sunny smile and a shave that would last more than a couple of hours did just that, but I guess it started with the “I am not a crook” guy.
Nixon, of course, torpedoed his own ship with actions that were symptoms of his own hate and imperial impulses. I was so disgusted with both parties in the 1968 election that I threw away my vote on the Peace and Freedom Party. Hubert Humphrey lost by a hair, and how often I’ve thought what a difference it would have made in American history if we disaffected ones had cast our votes his way. To Schulman, Humphrey was the last gasp of a dying brand of big-government liberalism, so maybe he wouldn’t have gotten a lot done. My vote was based largely on the tepidness of his opposition to the Vietnam war, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have done the Parrot’s Beak deception. And there certainly would have been no Watergate.
And perhaps, just perhaps, there would not have been the profound disaffection with government that Watergate prompted. Or at least it might not have exploded so loudly. Schulman is certainly correct in saying that the seventies’ opposition to institutions and authority was an inevitable continuation of movements that emerged in the sixties, but maybe things didn’t have to move as fast, far, or in exactly the direction they did. However, nothing could be more moot, could it?
Schulman rightly points to 1968 as a pivotal year in “the movement” with the twin assassinations and the ugly Chicago democratic convention. The bloom was definitely off the roses in the flower children’s hair. However, the early seventies were actually an exciting and hopeful time for young, rebellious Berkeley educators like me. We still believed devoutly in integration and classroom innovation, felt we were on the cutting edge of everything.
I was at the center of a burgeoning federally funded experimental schools movement that sought to decentralize huge (3000 students) Berkeley High School into more tractable and human schools within the big school. The campus was right in the path of protest marchers streaming from Sproul Hall to Berkeley city hall, so classes were often disrupted by chants and screams. We still held on to the sixties sense that we were surfing waves that would land us on the beach of brighter and better future world.
The small schools movement collapsed with the ebbing of federal money, only to be recently revived by some young turks who had no sense they were reviving anything. Their rhetoric echoed our own of thirty years earlier, but they felt it was entirely their own. Just as we did, though we were echoes of earlier folks also. Are we all in a cave here, bouncing our voices and ideas around?
Our wave crashed not on a bright new shore, but on a rather distressing beach sometime after Watergate. Carter seemed like a nice man who would restore civility to Washington and even the world. I thought he might help turn things around. But all the while, I didn’t realize until Schulman put it in context, that he was part of the sun belt revolution that championed personal enlightenment and a reduced (or at least highly modified) role for government in national life. On our new beach we found higher-priced gas and profound national disunity. We wanted Carter’s moral stances to be victorious, but the intractability of inflation, etc. robbed him of all credibility and opened the white house door wide for a man who had made a career of acting with monkeys.
I remember a student in my history class during my student teaching days appearing with a Reagan For Governor bumper sticker on her textbook cover. How we smirked. How wrong we were.
It was interesting taking a trip with Schulman in a semi-scholarly way through the seventies. I say semi-scholarly because I thought he depended rather too heavily on pop culture music and movies for his conclusions. Undoubtedly many source documents for the period are still unavailable, so I don’t hold that against him. I do hold a couple of other things against him, however.
First is his shoulder-shrugging attitude about the effects of Proposition 13. He asserts that we all just adjusted to the resulting shrunken budgets and continued life as normal. In fact, California’s K-12 schools are still malnourished, and it’s in no small measure due to Proposition 13 that they’ve have fallen from the nation’s top tier to the lower 40’s by every measure.
I also wonder that he spent such little time on immigration. Especially Southeast Asian immigration. The seventies were the decade of the southeast Asian refugee, and very few events changed things in America more than that influx. Were there not wars on the gulf coast over the invasion of Vietnamese shrimpers? I know that my own little piece of California’s central valley was suddenly treated to an influx of Laotians who were not only illiterate but to whom the very notion of school was utterly foreign. These were not the Asians (few though they were) whom these rural folks were used to–the stereotypically well-behaved Chinese and Japanese who were entrepreneurial good students. Even in Louisville, KY from whence my wife hails, there appeared a community of southeast Asians. Thus, fairly isolated pockets of America were suddenly required to become multicultural in a big way. I think the whole phenomenon was an enriching thing for the country, and I think experiences and attitudes (not to mention restaurants) changed a great deal because of this wave. I wonder that Schulman didn’t give it at least half the space he gave to the concept of the “yuppie.”
All in all, The Seventies is a worthy start to what will undoubtedly be more and more publications about the decade as more material becomes available. Schulman’s prose is sharp and clear, and the book is nicely organized. My quarrels with it are the stuff that good conversations and debates are made of, and I’m glad for the chance to read it.