Blame It All on the '70s?

If the left and right agree on almost nothing else, we agree at least on this: America's in terrible shape. Such shocking shape that -- how did we come to this? -- it might not actually survive.

And there our dialogue dissolves. The things about America you diagnose as lethal are the very things your megachurch-belonging cousin with the rifle rack in his truck prays might save its life. And vice-versa. Gay rights. Abortion rights. Prayer in the schools. Environmentalism. Corporations. Porn. There the shouting, and possibly shooting, begins.

How did we come to this? It's the '70s' fault, writes Thomas Hine in The Great Funk: Falling Apart and Coming Together (on a Shag Rug) in the Seventies (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007), a richly if incriminatingly illustrated book about a traumatic "slum of a decade" in which "the country was running out of promise."

Well, the '60s were a hard act to follow.

"Only a decade before," Hine muses, "as the nation anticipated the conquest of space, the defeat of poverty, an end to racism and a society where people moved faster and felt better than they ever had before, it seemed that there was nothing America couldn't do." Flash-forward through Watergate, gas crises, helicopters escaping Saigon -- and "to live in the seventies was to live in a fallen world, one of promises broken and trust betrayed." Hine ticks off that decade's insults to heart, mind and eye: "The politicians were awful. The economy was awful. The insipid harvest gold and avocado kitchens were awful." Ditto gas lines, AMC Pacers, and pantsuits.

Nearly everyone who lived through those years would nod, flinching.

An eternal question about any era during which one was young is: Was the whole world embarrassing, or was it just me? As regards the '70s: It wasn't just you. A longtime design critic -- thus more sensitive than most to beanbag chairs and Bicentennial-patterned carpeting -- Hine painstakingly skewers pyramid power and Virginia Slims in chapters whose pop-culture-referencing titles evoke the chronic inferiority complex of those disappointed times: "Running on Empty," for instance, and "It's Too Late," and "Not Ready for Prime Time?"

Yet his skewering has an obligatory quality, a must-mock-Midler delliberateness. It's a setup. Because this book's real point is to burrow deep into the shag rugs and chest hair and extract wisdom. Yes, your dad lost his job. And disco sucked. But from an era that is all too easy to dismiss as silly, trivial and grim sprang most of the essential issues inflaming our discourse today. Grounds for celebration or destruction or for civil war, depending on whom you ask, were cultivated in that decade, in a petrie dish that smelled of Diet Pepsi, amyl nitrate, apple-spice air freshener and, well, funk.

Ecology. Diversity. Ethnic and sexual identity. Individuality. Alternative sources of energy. Feminism. Fundamentalist spirituality. Retrace our steps (in Earth shoes and a crocheted vest and Dacron flares, of course) through Jimmy Swaggart and solar-heated geodesic domes and blaxploitation films and the Village People and you will find it there, albeit all innocent and earnest and embryonic. And not just the topics themselves but the ways in which we face them now: our wary citizen-journalist vigilance, questioning authority, scoping out conspiracies, pursuing truthiness. The '60s tend to get all the credit -- for rebellion, for consciousness-raising, for everything. And those who were young in the '70s faced a deafening chorus roaring: You missed the boat and are, indeed, too late.

The era they'd missed had been imbued with a wild easy-rider-come-together optimism. "Even the protestors of the sixties," notes Hine, who is old enough to have been one of them, "objected that America was using its immense wealth and power to do the wrong things, not that it did things wrong. Yet during the seventies it seemed that the United States couldn't do anything right." And it was precisely that shattering of optimism, the serial humiliations of Nixon and Vietnam and ugly urban sprawl and the wracking poverty spawned by inflation and massive layoffs, that spawned a strange new kind of solidarity. A desperate bottom-of-the-barrel creativity. The sneaky kind of freedom that breaks chains and opens doors when -- to paraphrase Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" -- you've got nothing to lose. And that, of course, was the last song Janis Joplin recorded before she died in 1970. Among baby boomers, Hine writes, "the song's refrain ... was heard as a kind of epitaph." Her death was itself a loss, thus one less thing to lose. As was Jimi's, one month before, and Jim Morrison's, one year hence. As was the Beatles' slow-motion collapse: mere markings on a timeline now and, to most, funny ancient history: Yoko smiling and smug, Linda singing off-key into a switched-off mic, flashing past in the neat anodyne black-and-white of documentaries. But to a generation raised to be the center of attention, the first wave to worship rock-'n'-roll, these losses wrought a shocking loss of innocence. The long and winding road was cracked.

But hey. "When the center cannot hold, well, that's good for those out on the edge," Hine reasons. "When the forces of order are revealed to be a malign conspiracy, it's a good time for a party."

And in that spreading uncertainty, "when the system weakened, the oddballs and malcontents found an opening. It became possible to try out identities and find solidarity with other rare birds like yourself." Failures, deaths and disasters had proven space-age optimism and patriotism illusory. Yet as darkness fell without, light swelled within: "Awareness of a world with limits allowed people to impose fewer limits on themselves and to explore frontiers within themselves." Struggling up out of the ruins of shared midcentury assumptions, Americans dusted themselves off and decided that their ripped jeans required patches -- but which to choose? Smiley faces, pot leaves, praying hands? In that scramble, Americans discovered a new icon:

Me.

Not me, who sits here writing this, but "me" as an idea. An ideology. A literature, a style. An endless source of fascination. "Finding your identity was extremely important," Hine writes of an era when "each family member dressed to express" -- with enormous clashing checks and plaids, with star-studded lace-up boots and "fun fur" skirts and factory-embroidered faux batiks, sudsing with a shampoo only the '70s could spawn: It was called Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific. It was an era when, tellingly, Life magazine folded and People began.

Yes, this arguably turned us into narcissists. But Hine strives to show how all that mirror-gazing also brought self-awareness, direction and long-overdue self-acceptance to countless Americans, even if some of the gazing occurred over the tops of cocaine straws. And sometimes me morphed into an empowering we.

"The history of the seventies is dominated by the rise of like-minded but hitherto marginal individuals asserting the validity of their ways of seeing and doing things. Not all these ways of thinking were ultimately liberating. Nevertheless, finding that there were others who thought and felt as you did was liberating itself." The resounding popularity of the 1977 miniseries Roots, for example, "reached far beyond the African-American community" and, "as its title suggested ... spoke to a wider desire by all sorts of people to know about the circumstances and experiences of their forebears and to connect with their traditions. Roots, by telling such a rich story about slaves, for which the historical and genealogical record was presumed to be sparse, encouraged others whose ancestors didn't arrive on the Mayflower to look for evidence of these humbler lives."

Other corporate products, however cynically motivated, served as touchstones for what are today's identity politics. The 1973 film Jesus Christ Superstar, along with Jimmy Carter's born-againism and Hal Lindsey's 1970 megabestseller The Late Great Planet Earth -- which prophesied the end of the world and the Second Coming and sold 28 million copies -- alternately seduced and scared legions of Americans into "a Christian consciousness," Hine writes, "that was very different from the liberal Christianity that had become the consensus during the post-World War II era."

Disco sowed the seeds of technomusic. Funk sowed the seeds of hip-hop. Compact cars -- despite the Pinto's tendency to explode when rear-ended -- sowed the seeds for Priuses. Shattered ideals sowed the seeds of dissent.

The scrutiny was nonstop. "One of the fundamental approaches" of the groundbreaking 1973 women's-health manual Our Bodies, Our Selves "was self-examination," Hine reminds us, "and some passages were written to be read while holding a mirror, so that readers could discover previously unexplored parts of their own bodies. It was easier, however, to learn by looking at someone else's body. Many women recall consciousness-raising sessions at which, speculum in hand, they examined the vaginas of their fellow participants in order to understand what was inside themselves." During those same years, he points out, Hustler magazine revolutionized over-the-counter porn by printing "pink shots" -- interior photos, as it were. Ironically, if for different reasons, "feminists were engaged in much the same exploration."

Apocalyptic and disco fantasies mixed giddily in those years with a yen for authenticity -- by which yogurt and animal-rights activism and vibrators became mainstream, and by which manufacturers got rich churning out decor in feculent "earth tones." And this is what marks the '70s: this urgency, this dazed, tender, ever-so-public awakening on the cusp between Strawberry Fields and multinationals. It was the decade when a hundred pride movements bloomed. So much pride, so little embarrassment.

And that's what makes the '70s, arguably more than any other decade, so embarrassing.

But hey. They wore that Dacron so you wouldn't have to.

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