This is the season when columnists and other touts spread the past year before them like a military map, point out the ups and downs, and sometimes, if they're feeling heady, make predictions about the year to be. The assessments and predictions are based on events arranged in an intelligible order so as to develop patterns. The patterns show the directions taken by individual aspects of culture and the general direction of history itself. History, it is assumed, is made up of events.
According to this method, then, 1977 was made up of: the Carter family's inaugural stroll in Pennsylvania Avenue; the terrorism of the Hanafi Muslims and South Moluccans; Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee; the deaths of Bing, Elvis and Groucho; the rampage of the Son of Sam; the ordeal of Bert Lance and the trial of Marvin Mandel; the Yankees taking the Series, "Star Wars," Billy Beer and a thousand other things of which we'll be reminded this week before the tooting in of the persistently hopeful New York - the first in a long time, it will be much noted, without Guy Lombardo, whose death was yet another event in an eventful year.
To a large extent, this year or any year, for that matter, was made up of such events. God knows, there were enough of them.
Yet it's a little easy and convenient to size up a period of time (12 months being a convenience itself) solely by the things that happen in it. For one thing, events are repetitive. One disaster, one coronation more or less (Bokassa's not included) and all years begin to look like Agnew's slumps.
For another, events are infinitely arrangeable. There isn't a journalist worth a nickel who cannot make a singel event seem the necessary consequence of the events that preceded it.
But the bigger problem with characterizing a year by events is that it places the burden of history on headlines, as if the meaning of the past, and of the present becoming the past, were up front continually, announced by town criers. History is more than what we do; it's what we think.
In the minds of many the move toward a Middle East peace was the very best thing to occur in the year 1977. Technically this was - is - an "event," attended by the trappings of an event: motorcades, diplomats embracing, speeches, flags, cheering crowds in the streets. Yet the real "event" of peace in the Middle East was an act of mind, or the acts of a couple of minds, which decided in the privacy of their separate contemplations that the unthinkable was not only thinkalble but possible, too. The leap from the prospect of war to the prospect of peace was accomplished by nothing more (or less) wrenching than a change of mind.
Tolstoy, who knew something of war and peace, said, "the "the presence of the problem of man's free will, though unexpressed, is felt at every step of history." George Will, in his year-end roundup in Newsweek, suggests that same thing. Not that thinking and free will always lead to something good and happy, or that they necessarily lead to anything at all. But they are part, and the only reason we journalists don't often say so is that it can't be proved.
The odd thing about events, though, is that they really can't be proved either. Oh, we can prove that Carter strolled and the Queen jubilated; but we have no way of knowing - except by insisting on it - that these events are to be given the name of history. This is how history has gotten such a low reputation from some very high people. Napoleon called it "a set of lies agreed upon." Henry Ford's one memorable phrase was: "History is bunk."
What Ford meant by "bunk," one presumes, was inaccuracy and distortion. Most journalists don't willfully deal in inaccuracy and distortion, but we do cling like koala bears to those sacred events, because for the most part we are (I tremble to say) intellectual conservatives. We will not discuss history in terms of ideas because ideas are loose and shifty and can get out of hand. Events, on the other hand, can be made neat as a pin - or a story, or a column.
So now we tell you that 1977, that glorious and crucial year, consisted of the airplane antics of Idi Amin; the waterbed conversion of Larry Flynt; OPEC, the PLO and Califano's cook - trusting that you know better. Whatever 1977 consisted of, events were a small fraction. The big part was people, grand and not so grand, trying to make sense of events and themselves.