Monday, September 06, 2010

The Seventies (A Book Review)

Bruce J. Schulman, The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics (New York: The Free Press, 2001), 257 pages of text plus 77 pages of notes and an index and 8 pages of photos.

I have a confession to make. I’ve been enlightened and now need to do some serious penance. Back in the 70s, I was a chauvinistic, misogynistic, homophobic racist. I must repent of my sins. I just thought I hated disco and liked good rock and roll music, but now, thanks to Mr. Shulman, I see the errors of my ways. Shulman points out how those who shunned disco were guilty of a host of society’s evils. (73-75) Or maybe I’ll just revert to my redneck and anti-elite ways and ask, “what do you expect from a professor in tweed at from the northeast?” Of course, in this way, I’m sounding a lot like Richard Nixon who hated the Northeastern elite! (24) Bruce Shulman teaches at Boston University.

Now, despite what you might think by my opening comments, I mostly enjoyed this book. Although I disagree with some of his comments on disco, and also felt that he looked disdainfully on the South, Shulman provides a good cultural and political history to that decade in which I came of age (I became a teenager just a few days into the decade and had a bachelor’s degree slapped on my wall by its end).

The 70s is often seen as a lost decade, squeezed between the optimistic 60s and the opportunitistic 80s. Interestingly, as Shulman recalls, the 60s which had begin with the Kennedy Camelot ended with the widowed queen of Camelot (Jackie) marrying a rich Greek tycoon, twice her age. (4) Shulman strives to interpret several wide cultural shifts that occured between the 1969 and 1984. In this work, he explores music, books, television and movies, economics and politics. Several things are happening. America loses a broad cultural consensus as the era of special interest groups begin to rise. Many of these are explored such as ethnic groups which not only included an interest in African-Americans (black power movements to the mini-series “Roots”), but also Hispanics, Italians, Irish, etc. In addition, the 70s saw women’s issues rise to the forefront (remember the Rigby/King tennis match and the ERA), age groups (America began graying in the 70s and the elderly became a major political force in which Tip O’Neil referred to as the third-rail in American politics: Touch it and die!” [86]), and the gay rights movement. In addition, there were shifts in region. Shulman refers to the decade as the “Southernization of America.” (256) There were also religious shifts. Although religion became more important, it also became more personal and less able to lift up a common vision for society. There were also great changes in the American economy. The era gave rise to the “rustbelt” as factories in the northern parts of the country closed. The inflation of the late 70s caused Americans to begin to use credit (why put off buying when it will cost more tomorrow). Also, due to regulation changes, Americans began to look at saving differently and investing became more important than savings (which were being eaten up by inflation). And finally, the era saw the end of the old liberalism in American politics which saw the government as a force for the good with certain obligations to help those unable to help themselves to a new era that bemoaned any government involvement. Shulman discusses the tie between government involvement and civil rights in the 60s and how it took the decade for a new conservative coalition to arise out of the old conservative coalition. Racial prejudices slid into the background as the new conservatives found other issues to excite their cause.

Although I took offense at Shulman’s defense of disco, I must say that I think there is a lot to ponder in his view of the roles region, religion and race played in the shifts in American politics during this era. However, the nature of this book requires that it be very subjective and one could draw other conclusions (like I did with my opposition to disco). I do recommend this book for anyone interested in a trip down memory lane.

For another view of the 70s, see my review of Edward D. Berkowitz's, Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of the Seventies


  1. Your love of long hair on women shows that your misogynistic side is still alive and well. I still have hope that I will enlighten you on that. ;-)

  2. A teenager at the end of the decade, most of those milestones went unnoticed by me except for disco...and the movie Grease.
    I like your statement on credit cards, why post pomne buying when it will cost more tomorrow!

  3. i was born in the 70s so i remember little...i do know some disco though...smiles. might check this one out

  4. A give you credit for picking up this one and giving it a mull over. A decade older than you, I started the 70s already with a PhD and my first job.

    IMO the 70s were a collective hangover from the excesses of the 60s. The 60s were a hellaciously traumatizing period in this country that had people polarized and reeling by its end. The cultural shifts that happened in the 70s were part of a retreat into what-the-hell indifference - which came along with the widespread use of drugs. That's what disco was all about.

  5. Wow. The 70', you seriously think that it's made you re-visit your views on your life, or is it more of a light read, focusing on one author's memories and opinion? I mean, it WAS 10 years of our lives...that's no small potatoes.

    I still don't care for disco. I wonder if that means anything...

  6. I remember when KISS went disco. I feel old. I don't get the Southernization of America remark and I get the impression if you explain I'll be upset. I don't think I'll read it.

  7. Murf, is that all it takes, to like long hair? Then I'm still guilty.

    Just Because, it was a time of inflation and at the time it made some sense... but it changed our attitude and no longer makes sense!

    Brian, I was born in the 50s and maybe I need to read a book on that decade!

    Ron, good summary of the decade!

    Kathyrn, it means that you too are guilty! :) This is the second book I've read on the decade and am trying to understand more of my background.

    Jen, The Southernization (and in a sense the entire Sunbelt--as California replaces NY as the most powerful state) is based on the shift in politics that occured as well as the increase interest in religion and a more conservative tone of politics... Interestingly, he suggests that the reason football took over baseball as the American sport had to do with this--MLB was so tied to the NE, where as the NFL had teams in the south earlier...

  8. I remember the 70's and disco. I can't believe I thought it was cool though. LOL

    I was a teenager in the 70's and feel really old now. :-) I wonder if my sons know what disco is/was? I will have to ask them.

    Thanks for bring back some crazy memories! :-)

  9. I was a young adult in the 70's and can't say that I remember that decade fondly - although much happened to me that was good. A good review, Sage.

  10. There was a shift to the Republicans of people that were traditionally Democrat. But I don't think it was the 70's but the election that carried Regan to the WH.
    Certain positions like the one on Roe v Wade really stuck in the craw of many many traditional Democrats. Further there was a general feeling of helplessness which allowed a criminal anarchist section to replace the crime families and turn major cities into places more dangerous for police/fire or ambulance than tour in Vietnam.
    And for all the polyester, the insane psychedelic wallpaper and loose painted sunflowers on every surface, grey is the predominant colour I hold for those few years.

  11. School years, and not much to say other than I have some pictures with big lapels and funny looking pants... so much change.