The 70’s are calling…
The old gag used to run: “Dad, the 90’s are calling, they want their phone back.” The gag had legs because there were people (talking about this guy I know) who thought that cell phones were good for calling people and talking to them. Therefore the Nokia “candy bar” phone was still just fine. Children can be brutal…especially when they are right.
This week, we get a call from a distant era. It’s an era that we thought we had left behind. And why wouldn’t we think that? The video images from that era, captured in 525 lines of glorious CRT color, feel small, fuzzy, distant and historical, even to someone who saw them live as a teenager.
The 70’s were not a great time for America. It seemed, to my teenage eyes, that we couldn’t get much of anything right. Lines snaked around empty gas stations to fill the huge, ugly, often unsafe cars that Detroit stuck us with. Nixon was a crook. Terrorism was on the rise (Munich Olympics, Red Brigade, IRA, PLO). Our race battles of the 60’s were still reverberating (Boston bus riots ‘74–’76 as just one example). New York City (where I lived) was a dump, broke and told to “Drop Dead” by President Ford, who was busy distributing his famous WIN buttons (“whip inflation now”). It seemed that we lost the Vietnam war twice, on TV. Jimmy Carter scolded us about driving over 55 and using energy to heat or cool our houses. Interest rates rose towards the 20% mark (despite the WIN buttons). The Iranians grabbed our embassy and took the staff hostage for more than a year. And, when we tried to rescue them, disaster struck because…of course it would.
This is not an exhaustive list of all the bad things about the 70’s. Many crimes against fashion were committed in broad daylight but that would take a book. The important point was that Americans doubted themselves. And, since America is simply the combined political expression of its citizens, it is fair to say that Americans doubted themselves to the core. There was a deep and corrosive pessimism in the air.
The myth that we tell ourselves is that a B-movie actor announced it was “morning in America” and a cigar chomping Fed Chairman choked the life out of stagflation and then all was well in the 80’s and beyond.
Ronald Reagan and Paul Volker did happen…and they worked hard to change the mood. But the recovery of America did not happen right away and there were no straight lines of progression from 1980 to where we stood right before the 9/11 attacks. There were plenty of crashes, panics, disasters and assorted reversals along the way. America, or more correctly the citizens of America, decided to invest and work and learn and fail and hire and reinvest to build our society.
And it worked so well that I became a big fat liar, a teller of tall tales. When I took my children to Times Square, they could see with their own eyes that Dad had made up a massive whopper of a lie about hookers, pimps, drug dealers, fake ID/head shops and peep shows on every dark corner. There are no dark corners in the Times Square area. In fact, one should probably be concerned about how bright the billboards are in terms of skin damage, even at night time.
As a society, we have been coasting down the road since the dawn of the new century. And that has been largely OK because we were already at “highway speeds”. Communism was defeated by its own internal conflicts because the central premise, a lack of respect for the property rights which underpin human rights, was flawed. Fundamental Islam is and was a threat but not an existential one. And, as soon as we figured out how to achieve energy independence, our interest in the Middle East (and the local irritation we caused as a result of our interest) waned. We have been involved in two messy wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) but the proportion of the American population serving in the military has dropped dramatically. Their sharp, professional execution of the job has meant that most Americans don’t have to think about it too much. And when we do, there is deep respect for “our people” doing a tough job, well.
But now we find ourselves at a decision point. Stretching the highway metaphor, we are tempted to take the next exit. A few roadsigns have flashed by enticing us to explore this new and exciting shortcut. After all, have we solved prejudice? Well, no, not completely. Have we fixed the environment? Certainly there is more that we can do. Have we eliminated disease? Apparently not. What about fairness and injustice? Um…well.
What awaits us at the exit? Government solutions to address these problems that we feel are important. And since the Government is simply the consensus of the American people, it is really us who are thinking about taking this collective shortcut. It’s been so long since the last time we turned off and got lost and disappointed. We are smarter now and therefore we imagine this time it will be different. If we can all just accept a little imposition on our freedoms, those human rights that flow from property rights, perhaps this time we can finally fix those pesky problems that have bedeviled us, once and for all. Perhaps those poor souls clutching to the landing gears of the C-17 are a sign that the choice to take the exit is somehow foretold.
I can already feel the car slowing down and moving for the exit. And as the sleepy passengers in the back seat start to stir because of the change in the momentum, an old rock anthem from 1979 comes on the radio, “Catch Me Now I’m Falling” by the Kinks. It was a song that summed up the feeling of the country for me when it came out. I remembered is as a haunting, soulful cri de coeur. It imagined a once great nation that had hit rock bottom and was hoping for a helping hand to get back on track. An aging cowboy hoping to ride in one last rodeo…pick your hokey metaphor.
As I listen to that song that once meant so much to me now, on Spotify, on my smartphone, through Bluetooth speakers that can also tell me anything I want to know, I realize two things:
It’s not really that great a song.
The ‘70’s are calling…and they want their ideas back.