Every New Year, the memory comes back to me as if it happened yesterday. Craig turned to me in homeroom and said, “Can you believe the 70s are nearly over?” 31 years on it seems more like a ghost than a question. But the 70s, as a decade, were a lot more than really bad hair, clothes, and dancing. A lot of interesting things crystallized at this time that define the world we live in now.
The leadership in the USofA veered away from Nixon to Ford and Carter – two of the most open and compassionate men to ever be President, and both of whom were quickly hated in large part because of their openness. That experience has defined our leadership since that time, emphasizing control of the message over accessibility and heart. The poison that Nixon brought to the White House didn’t hurt us as much as the antidote.
I mention this development first because it’s the one way that the experience of the 70s centralized power and control. In nearly every other way the experience of that decade was marked by growing chaos while 1968, as one event, reverberated through the culture. Particular episodes such as the Fall of Saigon or the Iran Hostage Crisis aren’t worth recounting here as much as the patterns of thought that crystallized around them.
For example, most of what we think of as the 60s took place in the early 70s. The film “Woodstock” wasn’t shown until that time, which is when the Hippie Movement became more mainstream and acceptable throughout the nation. As powerful as this was, it was only one assault on the old order.
Fractal imagery and theory was first developed in the 1970s, as was Game Theory. Both of these more or less through out the relentless determinism that defined the world before them – basically, if you knew everything that went into a system you could understand everything about that system. These new theories showed that complex systems could be chaotic, but bounded, and respond to forces that were impossible to control completely.
James Burke released his Connections series in 1978, an epic work that questioned our ability to understand anything at all in our world. This opened with a question about how “appliance users” can ever fully take part in a Democracy and ended by wondering where the ever-expanding web of technology would take us. It was not anywhere near as cheery as his glib style delivered.
Lastly, in film, we had the end of the auteur style of movies that made their way to larger audiences. From the 70s on films were either big studio productions or they had to make their way through an indie world that required constant demands for attention.
What does all of this add up to? The 1970s were the time when the pieces that made up the great American Empire started to fall apart. They have not been put back together since. We have consistently run massive trade deficits since 1980 in large part because our manufacturing base has been constantly eroding.
It may not seem relevant to think of one decade as an event in itself, but there is a very consistent theme throughout the 1970s – there is a limit to nearly everything, and we do not have the control over our world that we desire. That’s what drove the hatred of Jimmy Carter and his candor about how we approach the limits of our desire. Our politics has, since this time, been largely defined by how we feel about the limits of control, wealth, and understanding in the world.
As always, I’m posting this to ask you for your thoughts. Granted, most of you who have an opinion of the 70s will be at least 40 years old. But if you didn’t live through that decade you may have heard stories or legends about what happened – I’m interested in those as well!