As I was a teenager during the 1970s, I have a fondness for the decade irrelevant of its actual merits. After finishing Southern Discomfort back in January, I reread one book on the decade and read a new one. They present such different perspectives they make a useful reminder that decades are not easily summed up. Black, white, rich, poor, gay, straight, right-wing, left-wing, they all shape our perspective. Richard Linklatter’s acclaimed Dazed and Confused was set in 1976 when I was in high school, but its Texas students might as well have been Martians for all I connected with them.
The reread was Thomas Hine’s THE GREAT FUNK: Falling Apart and Coming Together (On a Shag Rug) In the Seventies. Hine’s view of the decade is that the repeated blows of stagflation (stagnant wages + inflation), Vietnam, Watergate and the oil crisis left America uncertain about where it was going. But for a lot of people that was an opening: if the old ways weren’t working, why not try something new instead? New styles (“The seventies weren’t about bad taste, they were about rejecting taste as yet another form of authority.”), women’s liberation, sex manuals, mysticism and interest in the paranormal (one of the decade elements I played with in Southern Discomfort), consciousness raising, fashion revolution (when the big names in fashion declared the miniskirt was dead, nobody listened), Our Bodies, Ourselves (“The book’s message is that the system has failed us, so we must come together to fix things, and our feelings while doing this are as important as the hard facts.”) and being open to people whose new direction wasn’t the same as yours. Even allowing for nostalgic bias, Hine captures a lot of what I like about the decade.
By contrast, Ron Perlstein’s THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (one of a trilogy looking at conservatives from Goldwater to Reagan) points out that faced with a chance to try new ways of doing things, a big chunk of America insisted they weren’t going to, and the hippies couldn’t make them. They wanted to believe America could and should be like the 1950s and hated being reminded otherwise, and they didn’t want to deal with the implications of Vietnam, Watergate or the Congressional investigations that showed the CIA and FBI had spied on American citizens in defiance of the law.
Enter Ronald Reagan. As Perlstein sees it, Reagan’s genius was that he divined what voters wanted to hear and gave it to them (while Perlstein was writing pre-2016, it’s hard not to see a parallel with Trump). Yes, America was the greatest country on Earth. Yes, we could be proud of what we’d done in Vietnam. No, Nixon was not a bad man (in an eerie echo of 2019, Reagan even compared impeachment to “lynching.”) No, the FBI and CIA were great American institutions, it’s the people questioning them who are bad. Never mind that his stories were often lies and also made no sense (if unelected goverment bureaucrats are bad, why are the unelected bureaucrats running the FBI and the CIA so wonderful?), they reassured people they were right not to doubt, right to think there was no need to change and try new things.
Reagan got a considerable boost from a new political funding mechanism called PACs, and from more sophisticated operations for polling and staying in touch with voters (it seems Sen. Jesse Helms was cutting edge with this back in the day). As a result, when Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford for the nomination in 1976, it came right down to the wire at the convention before Ford won, only to lose to Jimmy Carter (whom Perlstein sees as offering a similar feel-good snake oil to Reagan, though with a Southern flavor). At 800 pages, the book is a densely detailed read — the blow-by-blow of Republican infighting was more detailed than I really needed to know, though as I’ve said before, that’s a matter of taste, not a flaw in the book. One detail that might be a flaw is that while Perlstein portrays right-wing opposition to Roe v. Wade, more recent articles show there was a lot of acceptance and support for legalized abortion on the right; I dont know how the two reconcile.
What is a flaw in both books is the effort to shape pop culture to their themes. Hine argues that Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist both reflect the baby boom’s ambivalence about settling down and having kids. Perlstein sees The Exorcist as putting the modern woman in her place (a single mom needs the help of traditional Catholic ritual to save her child from Satan!) and sees cynicism (The Parallax View0 and nostalgia (American Graffiti) in the movies as a product of their time; new therapeutic approaches such as EST, Scientology and Primal Scream Therapy likewise show a desperate search for a way to deal with what’s gone wrong in the country
I don’t buy it (even though I’ve also described Parallax View as a product of its time). There were child-centered horrors before the 1970s and cynicism wasn’t new either; the entire noir subgenre of the 1940s and 1950s shows a corrupt world that can’t be completely purified. Scientology started in the 1950s and while EST and primal screams might be newer and look flakier than psychoanalysis, it’s not like going into analysis was a more sensible, realistic approach to self-healing (Robert Bloch’s fiction frequently equated it to the lowest of superstition). Not everything fits neatly into a worldview or an interpretation.
Reading both books make me very glad I didn’t try to make Southern Discomfort any sort of statement about the era because that would be way beyond my abilities. Decades are big and complicated … but in a way, that’s liberating. All we have to do is carve off one small slice and make that real, not the entire thing; Dazed and Confused may not have worked for me, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true to its era. Hopefully my book (allowing for the elves and the magic) is too.
#SFWApro. Cover photos by Neal Barr and National Archives, all rights to image remain with current holder.