DITA BEARD, Larry Flynt, Anita Bryant, Evel Knievel, skyjackers, streakers, snail darters, abortions, quotas, indictments, here's pie in your face: the good old 1970s, they're not exactly a decade you'd get sentimental about. Not that we know everything, of course, or maybe even anything about them. For presumably, even as we speak, someone somewhere is writing a manifesto or entertaining an abstract thought that will change the face of life and end up defining the age.Our aim is only the relatively modest and wholly self-absorbed one of puzzling out the contemporary floor plan, of trying to get the locator-arrow in the right place, the one that says - usually incomprehensibly - You are here.
Where? I begin with the observation that the probable sources of any nostaglia we are going to feel, like those baleful people and matters cited above, are nothing to write home about.But it occurs to me at once that that is not what is so distinctive about the prospective recollections of the age. What is distinctive is that - baleful or not - some element of nostalgia and distance is already present. So much has happened so fast and it has been of such a cataclysmic nature that the early 1970s actually already seem part of some political and cultural brontosaurus age, another time entirely.
That gives us at least one valuable clue to understanding the decade in which we live. It suggests that many of the most stirring and memorable events of the Seventies don't really belong to the Seventies at all. There were some pretty Wagnerian political last acts that came to an end in the early and middle years of this decade; but whether it was the fall of Richard Nixon or the fall of Saigon, these tended to be the last acts of some other age's drama. I don't just mean that they are spillovers from the 1960s, either. Rather, a number of prolonged postwar tendecies and trends - some reaching back a quarter of a century - seem to me to have reached their gruesome conclusion in the spectacular events which marked the beginning of this decade.
In fact, the more you think about it, the more probable it seems that the 1970s are going to be like the 1940s in this one respect: they will not acquire the special remembered character of a decade, because the first part of them will be properly viewed as the culmination of events that came before, and the rest will be absorbed into the new and different era they foreshadow. I would put the dividing line, roughly, around the time of our national bicentennial year celebrations.
I am not saying that there is nothing special about the years in which we now live, only that they are the first years is something new. Maybe the text for the Sixties would be the Tonkin Gulf resolution, for the Fifties Khrushchey's haunting, it misquoted, "We will bury you," and so on back through the postwar years. But for the 1970s it would be nothing to global - or predictable or normal. As my own offering for the key to the age I would give you a simple two-deck headline of unobtrusive type size which appeared in the Metro Section of this paper a couple of weeks ago: "D.C. Policeman Plans Sex Change Surgery; Department Considers How to Deal With Uprecedented Situation."
Simple, beautiful, it says it all. We are beyond shock. The only question is how we are going to deal with an "unprecedented situation," especially since we seem to be running out of them. We have already devalued the dollar (unheard of) and had a President tell us "I am not a crook" and awakened to news that the girl friend of an august House committee chairman had jumped into the Reflecting Pool off the Mall in a bit of drunken razzmatazz. Meditating on the ho-hum, "doesn't everyone?" quality of the policeman's sex-change story, I found myself thinking it was too bad I couldn't wait a year or so to make my appraisal of the Seventies, until (can there be any doubt of it?) Betty Furness comes to us on network television with consumerist warnings about what to look out for in sex-change surgery. No kidding, we will say. Or, if we are really being emotional about it: Oh really?
It is amazing, this low-key, no-affect, near-malarial response we make to information that not very long ago would have been regarded as either earthshaking or (at least) abberrant, but surely not . . . well . . . just one of those things. But it is also, when you think about it, understandable - and central to the spirit of our times. Think how we have aged in the brief seven years of this decade, a generation of Americans to whom it never occurred that an American war could be lost or an American President pushed out of office. Our national life sometimes seems to have become one long series of improbable graffiti. Which of these, as the test-givers say of the real and unreal, does not belong in the series: Agnew is on the Take, Begin Loves Sadat, Orange Juice Cures Schizophrenia, America is Running out of Gas . . .
There have been trends, of course, what you might call normal, conventional developments in our political culture and thought. And some of these at least deserve to be mentioned:
The 1970s in this country and in certain places abroad have been a time of greatly enlarged interest in feminism and of notable achievements on the part of women seeking to define and fulfill their interests as a group.
Similarly, in the U.S. and in other (mostly industrialized) countries there has been a sharp increase in concern over the degradation of the environment and an upsurge of activity attempting to halt it.
In the U.S. a hungover post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-Uncle-Sugar-Knows-Best society has embarked on a new reformist regimen that promises its own excesses of sanctimony and zeal.
In the U.S. also there have been two critical new perceptions, one more fully accepted than the other. The perception we are having some trouble accomodating is that (a) there is not an abundance, let alone a surfeit, of everything we need and like available to us, from centrally heated comfort to cheap coffee, and (b) a convenient means of changing this circumstance is not readily available to us either.
The perception we are having less trouble accepting (though we are hardly of one mind on what to do about it) is that the federal government has gone insane - in that low-key, methodical, orderly, quiet, sane-seeming way that some individuals go round the bend when they go. The pathology has something to do with a fit of literal-mindedness and a willingness to entertain and act on premises that are, simply stated, bonkers. But the procedure is decorous, non-violent and unexceptionable. With all the requisite politeness and after all the prolonged and necessary checking, your friend United States government will tell you: yes, it is true that it is forbidden for your school to hold a father-son banquet . . . yes, the impact statement will cost more than the project itself and take longer to complete . . . yes, you must put the old people out of the nursing home while you raise money to correct some marginal and not very dangerous violation of some government safety standard or other. Insane, but still walking around.
For many of us, these last two thoughts were, in their dawning, almost revolutionary. There would be cheap coffee and cheap fuel and a great old world out there to waste (in every sense) as long as there would be - what? - a U.S. government whose restraint and wisdom you could fairly assume. But these, in our brief decade, have gone the way of so many other assumptions including, most notably the assumption that inflation and unemployment were alternatives, not cousins, and that either could be made singly to yield to the ministrations of the economists who knew what to do.
I think that the resultant mindset is, on the whole, a good thing. No kidding, oh, really . . . it is a time so bent with shock that it is almost beyond shock now, a decade in which every sacred thought is open to challenge and every decision up for grabs. What shall we do about genetic engineering? How much money should we spend on inspecting Mars? Maybe the whole giant apparatus of big government needs to be broken down into its parts like a Gasoline Alley Model T. What shall we do about cops and champion tennis players who have a sex change? What shall we do about anything? What are we strong enough to do?
A lot of people think we are experiencing a "swing to the right." But what they see, in my judgment, is merely a predictable (and probably useful) swing back from certain leftward political excesses of the recent past. Take the superficial, platform-type political content away and what you observe is really interesting: people who are capable of questioning practically everything, of being surprised by nothing and - yet - remarkably free of cynicism. It is, if you will pardon the expression, a time of genuine radicalism. Not radicalism as it is misleadingly applied to any intellectual camp-follower or lazy-minded thug who throws a bomb, but radicalism in the sense of openness to perceptions and ideas and possibilities that can truly overturn a social or political order. The Seventies are quiet, according to the fashionable complaint. That's because they're thinking.