TAKE heart: the Long Snore is almost done. Only 309 days until the end of the Me Decade, the age of narcissism, the time of retrenchment. Yes, the '70s are almost over -- that swamp of despair, of ennui, of a vast and eerie silence broken only by the faint slap of jogging shoes, the distant echo of psycho-babble, the discordant strains of disco music from a muffled radio.
Among those who pride themselves on knowing these things, it is generally agreed that the '70s have been a big bore, a waste of time and altogether inferior to the '60s, when life was fun, society was changing and there was hope in the world. "A decade of reaction," sniffs The New Republic. "A Pinto of a decade," says New West. "The best thing you can say about the '70s is that they didn't happen," writes Abby Hoffman in Viva.
Well, I for one just can't buy it. Don't get me wrong: I'm a child of the '60s, raised on rock and revolution. The ideas I learned back then -- a belief in racial and sexual equality, a dislike of class privilege and economic hierarchy, and the hope that America would turn away from military empire into a more peaceful world role -- still seem to me compelling and true. I don't jog, can't disco, don't own a Qiana shirt, wouldn't know a mantra from Man-Tan. But I do like to think I can tell half a loaf from an empty breadbox.
I can see much to dislike about the decade we live in. Prolonged unemployment is breaking the hearts of people who ought to be working. International order seems fragile at best. There is a pervasive sense of worry in the land -- an uneasiness about what the future holds for our country and the world. But during the last 10 years I have also seen so much that is good, so much that is hopeful, that I can't believe no one else has noticed.
The notion of the dull, depressing '70s has become a staple myth of many who pontificate for a living. I'm tired of hearing about it, and I'd like to look at the other side of the coin for once.
The public nostalgia for the '60s strikes me as deeply perverse, one more example of the cruel tricks memory can play. We see the same type of thinking in older Americans who wistfully recall World War II as a marvelous era when the whole nation worked together against a common foe. And we see it in adults, usually in early middle age, who speak fondly of the joys of adolescence, its freedom, its innocence, its physical vigor.
In fact, history shows that World War II was a hard, grubby sweat, when the fate of freedom and our country hung very much in the balance, tens of millions of people died, and many American families lived in aching fear of a telegram from the War Deparment.And most people under 30 remember adolescence as a horrid ordeal, its innocence a burden we were eager to lose, its physical vigor a precious gift we knew we would misuse, its freedom a deep awkward uncertainty about the world and our place in it.
What makes these painful times seem good in retrospect is that we came through them. Hitler did not march down Broadway; we dropped the atomic bomb on Japan, not viceversa; we marched home again. Or, again, adolescence ended; our pimples dried up, we got married and became grownups. Now we remember the intensity, the feeling of danger and opportunity, and we forget that the danger was real, and that we were lucky to come out of it alive.
So also for the '60s. Try for a minute to remember what they were really like.Bronze caskets and riderless horses; young men in rubber bags; wiretaps and police spies; machine guns around the Capitol. And always, everywhere, fear, hatred and paranoia. I remember running from the police in Boston, yelling "Press! Press! Press!" in hopes they would not mistake me for a demonstrator and club me, and seeing a construction worker walk off his worksite, pick up a two-by-four and beat a young girl bloody and unconscious. The police charged again; I ran away. I don't know what happened to her, and I never will. But it was not, as I recall, an unusual moment on the streets of a major city. Many Americans -- old and young, black and white, rich and poor -- walked through the last years of that tortured time wondering when the two-by-four would blindside them, when the lights would go out once and for all.
There is some dispute about when "the '60s" really began.Morris Dickstein, author of The Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties , dates the moment at a poetry reading by Allen Ginsberg at Columbia University in 1959. Leonard Michaels, in his story "In the Fifties," says it was the "Operation Abolition" demonstrations against the House Un-American Activities Committee in San Francisco in 1960. But for most Americans, I suspect, the long national binge got underway during John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address in January 1961. "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty," he said.
The '50s had been the decade of the garrison state, when crew-cut young men were expected to sweat the draft, as farmers endure hard winters, without asking why a nation at legal peace needed a mass-con-scription system. With Kennedy's call to arms, the draft was extended to everyone; all Americans -- women, babies, and the old alike -- were soldiers in an ill-defined army, ready to wage war against poverty, against hunger, against Castro, against Ho Chi Minh. The essence of the '60s was that feeling of boundless idealism -- the sense that the whole nation was caught up in a dangerous, ill-defined and thrilling common enterprise. We divided the world and the nation and our neighborhoods into warring camps, friends and enemies. Warfare and organized violence dominated the decade, from the Bay of Pigs to Santo Domingo to Watts to Washington to Saigon. It was a violent time, and most people felt violently alive, veins humming with adrenaline, curious about what would happen next and whether they would survive it.
Many did not. The passions of those times cost us one president, one Nobel Peace Prize winner, one promising national leader. They cost us four students at Kent State, two at Jackson State and scores of people killed in urban rioting.They cost us 50,000 soldiers in Vietnam and thousands more in VA hospitals and rehab clinics -- and thousands of other young people who were casualties too, victims of too many drugs, too much hope, too much fear.
The oscillation of expectation and disappointment, uprising and reaction, grew wilder and wilder during the last years of the '60s, until it seemed to sober, serious people that the Republic might dissolve in chaos and civil war. I don't claim to understand the mysterious process by which one age turns into another; but it seems that, after the student uprising over the invasion of Cambodia in 1970, the oscillation began to come under control. The first years of the new decade brought nasty shocks -- the shooting of George Wallace, the Arab oil embargo and the ensuing recession, the Watergate crisis, the fall of Saigon -- but the sense of imminent collapse began to recede. By 1975 our wars in Indochina were finally over, Nixon was a memory, and the economy was on the mend.
Now those who made it through are nostalgic. Most guilty of this perversity are those of us in the press. The '60s were great days for the news business. I think of myself, a college reporter with a motorcycle helmet marked PRESS, cruising the East Coast in search of tear gas. I think of the newsmagazine correspondents with their corporate hard hats and powder-blue gas masks. I think of the hard-core Vietnam reporters, with their flak jackets and captured AK-47s.
They don't make news assignments like that any more. There are occasional flash points -- Guyana, Iran. But most reporters now have to settle for budget deliberations, OPEC meetings, the "Law of the Sea" conference, or the General Services Administration. No wonder many of them hate the '70s; we live in a dull time.
"It's hard to imagine historians getting worked up about this decade," writes Abby Hoffman, and he's probably right. But he's also -- not for the first time -- missing the point. For if we study the pageant of human history -- the 8,000 or so years that people have been writing down what happened yesterday -- it is precisely the dull years, the blank spots, that were the good ones to live in. Famine, plague, war, disaster and revolution are the historian's inventory, and by those standards, the American '70s are a bad time. The U.S. Army isn't even fighting a small war; our cities are tentatively, painfully rising from the ashes; our social fabric is healing. Today, on the streets, the construction workers are likely to be the long-hairs; some of them are women; and the men are back to their immemorial pastime of whistling at passing coeds and calling out bawdy invitations.Odious as that may be, it beats getting hit with a two-by-four.
All this, by '60s standards, makes me an apologist for injustice and passivity. Obviously we do not live in the utopia, the Great Society, that seemed possible 15 years ago. Poverty and injustice persist; the arms race surges ahead, more dangerous than ever; the gap between rich and poor is as great or greater than when the War on Poverty was declared. But here's where the distinction between half-loaves and none becomes important. Astonishingly few people seem to notice that -- far from representing the repudiation of the '60s -- the political and social order of the '70s represents a triumph of '60s values that would have seemed impossible in 1969.
Antiwar protest did not produce a clean, rapid withdrawal from Indochina; but, nonetheless, the troops came home and the United States stood by as Saigon fell. Since then, this country has not come close to intervening elsewhere in the world, despite temptations in Angola, Somalia, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Iran. The American people don't want any more little wars; the antiwar movement won.
The civil rights struggle did not end the harsh poverty of the urban slums. But it did demolish legal segregation in the South -- a network of laws and customs that came as close as this country ever has to a home-grown to-talitarian system. Twenty years ago, that system seemed almost unshakable; today it is a distant memory, incomprehensible to children. That forgetfulness, along with new opportunities for blacks and other minorities in industry and government, is a measure of the real gains the civil rights movement won.
The environmental move-ment has not saved the whales or turned Lake Erie into a game fish reservoir, but it has slowed the slide toward environmental disaster and scored impressive legislative victories in the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Air Act. Ecological activists, only a few years ago viewed as extremists, now sit in administrative offices and help enforce these laws. The American people have shown their commitment to a livable environment; it has not swerved despite an energy crisis and a severe recession, and that is a measure of how much the environmental movement won.
The feminist movement has not succeded in passing the Equal Rights Amendment, or in righting scores of inequities throughout our society; but it has revolutionized the life of virtually every American family. Women today hold jobs -- from chief justice of California to sailor on Navy warships -- that 10 years ago seemed beyond possibility. Their legal position has improved vastly, and a new generation of young women takes these advantages for granted and will not surrender them without a bitter struggle. In their calm acceptance of their mothers' dreams, we can measure how much the women's movement has won.
But despite these real gains, the movements of the '60s are widely perceived as having failed. Even those who were involved in the struggles mentioned above tend to remain fixated on their failures to the exclusion of their successes. It is a problem of perception -- an inability to tell victory from defeat.
Sixties radicalism had its roots in American religion, with its vision of what theologians call the "messianic banquet" -- that great feast foretold by the Old Testament prophets when the sun will refuse to shine, the lion will lie down with the lamb, swords will become ploughshares, and humanity will cry hosanna to the sound of whirring wings. It is this banquet that is foreshadowed by the Christian eucharist. It's the same meal that Martin Luther King imagined when he said in 1964, "I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood." It's the great morning when we shall over-come, the hour, in Bob Dylan's song, "when the ship comes in."
Most of us in the '60s movements had a less defined vision than that of Dr. King. It's easy now to burlesque those naive fantasies: of a "revolution" that would be part love-in, part Long March; of a day when "we" would, as a friend of mine liked to say, "boogaloo up the steps of the Capitol and seize state power." But the important thing was that there would be some recognition that we had won, some banquet to honor our struggle.
That dinner engagement was never kept. Instead, the American people listened to what the protesters had to say and decided they hated the style but agreed with much of the substance. Politicians fell all over them-selves enacting it into boring laws, and the people went on about their business.
This brings us to the fabled quiescence of the '70s, to the self-absorption and privatism that undoubtedly characterize our time. All over the country, people have turned away from the promise of secular politics and mass activity toward "born-again" Christianity, orgasmic fulfillment, est, Silva Mind Control, Carlos Castaneda, jogging, liquid protein diets, sensory deprivation, gestalt therapy, CB radio, cocaine, hot tubs, Hare Krishna and home video games. It's hard to turn out a crowd to hear Herbert Marcuse any more; college kids are throwing toga parties.
Peter Marin surveyed the self-indulgence scene at middecade in a memorable essay in Harper's called "The New Narcissism." He concluded that most Americans just want to survive as they are, and that this selfish desire has led us into a moral desert. "There is little doubt that most of us will survive as we are," he wrote, "for we are clearly prepared to accept whatever is necessary to do so: the deaths of millions of others, wars waged in our name, a police state at home. Like the Germans who accepted the Fascists, or the French citizens who collaborated with the Germans, we, too, will be able to carry on 'business as usual' just as we do now."
It's hard to imagine a more eloquent summary of the wrong view of recent history. In the process of surviving, the American people stopped the war, dismantled the police state apparatus and drove a potential dictator from office in disgrace. After that binge of social change, why should a bunch of journalists call them names if they want to run a few laps, check out their psychological state and get their lives on an even keel again?
The last few years have not been the messianic banquet, by a long shot. But for many Americans, black and white, male and female, they have represented another recurring human dream -- a time without war, when there is enough to eat and enough leisure to do ridiculous, quirky, individual things, when, as Micah foretold, "they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid." And it shouldn't be so surprising that nobody wants to join a movement, chant slogans and be carted off to jail.
Mass movements quickly generate a frenzy that builds on itself, but they have their beginnings in the quiet yearnings of the heart, the desire for ordinary and peaceful lives. Rosa Parks didn't want to start a bus boycott; she wanted to sit down on the way home from work. Peace demonstrators didn't want to carry candles and sing; they wanted the war to end.Ecologists didn't want to hold hundreds of Earth Days; they wanted a new environmental policy and a chance to help implement it. Women didn't want to spend years in consciousness-raising groups; they wanted to live and work without being squashed by a sexist system. And, to an amazing extent, they got these things. People have adjusted by taking advantage of the new opportunities they created, and by turning inward to come to terms with these changes. There's nothing wrong with that.
No sane person wants to spend his life storming barricades; even the Chinese have decided to give it a rest. They've rusticated their Red Guards and sent out for Cokes. Chairman Mao, the apostle of "uninterrupted revolution," has taken a few lumps lately; but one of his sayings should never be forgotten. "The people, and the people alone," Mao once wrote, "are the motive force in the making of world history." Few periods illustrate that principle better than the American '60s. The American people, in frightening, untidy, confusing fashion, did the impossible. Their efforts renovated our society and created new freedoms for everyone. Now they're taking a rest.
They need it; for if history teaches us anything, it is that we will sooner or later have to do the impossible again. Like a line of boxcars, the '80s are racing down the line toward us, clanking ominously and throwing smoke. At some point -- nobody knows when or why -- things will liven up again. Our economy may collapse; great leaders may arise and herd us off to fight the Russians or Chinese; illegal immigration may spark a new round of racial conflict; we may run out of food or ozone. Even more likely is some new trouble that one can foresee today.
There will be another good era for reporters and historians again. When it comes, these scribes should forgive the ordinary American -- producer of the raw material they bottle as history -- if he sadly remembers the '70s as a good period, when there was time to jog and soak, read a little Eric Berne and be a total bore. CAPTION: Illustration, Rah rah Sis, boom, bah to the war, riots and assassinations of the So-Called sizzling '60s-give two Cheers for the Settled '70s! by Garrett Epps, The cover design is by Terry Dale; Picture 1, 2, Playing off the turmoil of the '60s, President Richard Nixon, Attorney General John Mitchell and FBI D/irector J. Edgar Hoover, shown here at the signing of a tough "anticrime" bill, seemed to be forging the apparatus of a police state. But the people wouldn't have it. Nixon resigned, Mitchell went to prison, and Hoover's reputation suffered a posthumous collapse. Meanwhile, the American people turned to other pastimes.; Picture 3, 4, Marilyn monroe became the symbol of women's oppression for feminists in the '60s, as a nation watched her fall apart while she struggled to do something meaningful with her talents. The women's movement opened the way for women who did not define themselves as helpmates or sex bombs. In the '70s a new generation of actresses like Jill Clayburgh began to get a chance to play subtle roles in films, representing some of the real dilemmas of a character in search of herself.; Picture 5, 6, The Rev. Andrew Young was the spokesman at the hospital emergency room after the King assassination. Some feared thedeath of that leader would spell the end of the civil rights movement. Today, as Ambassador to the U.N., Young plays a controversial but important role in planning American strategy in Southern Africa, which has moved from supporting white-minority governments to encouraging a transition to black majority rule in Namibia and Rhodesia.; Picture 7, 8, Antiwar protesters wrecked a selective service office in Silver Spring in 1969. But by 1975's end, no American soldiers were fighting anywhere in the world. The new volunteer army includes a place for women on Navy warships and Army jump school, where Joyce Kutch, front row left, and Rita Johnson, front row right, began training in 1973 to become the first female paratroopers.; Picture 9, 10, In 1961 the Central Intelligence Agency trained Cuban exiles at secret Caribbean bases to invade their homeland. But by 1975 even Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), left, displayed distaste as he inspected a CIA dart gun designed for covert activities.; Picture 11, 12, Armed troops with M-16s stood guard over Washington's streets during the rioting and looting that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968. But during the '70s, our social fabric has begun to mend and much-discussed racial polarization of America has been eased by the emergence of a growing black middle class. D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement who gained a reputation as a SNCC militant during the '60s and as founder of the self-help organization Pride, Inc., drew broad support from whites and blacks, wealthy and poor, in his mayoral campaign last year.; Picture 13, 14, Hatred and paranoia hit a new peak in 1970 when helmeted construction workers in New York attacked antiwar protesters. President Nixon later accepted an "honorary hard-hat." Violence on the city streets -- between blacks and whites, police and protesters, hardhats and longhairs -- was a staple item of '60s culture. Today, construction workers -- like society at large -- are more relaxed about the world they find around them.
Richard Nixon -- Frank Johnston, The Washington Post
Baseball -- AP
Jill Clayburgh -- Poul Schumach
Marilyn Monroe -- UPI
Selective Service -- Charles DelVecchio, The Washington Post
Andrew Young -- AP
Volunteer Army -- UPI
Cuban exiles -- UPI
Marion Barry -- Ken Feil, The Washington Post
Hardhat riot -- UPI