They say that if you can remember Woodstock, you weren’t actually there. It is therefore with some trepidation that I invite readers to cast their minds back to America, circa 1970.
No point in waxing Pollyannish about it. Vietnam was still raging, along with Cambodia and Laos. The Cold War was in full swing. Blacks and whites were newly made equal, but only in law. Women and men, not even that much. Some of the best Americans were being assassinated, including at Kent State.
Fair enough. But to get the bigger picture, consider how much had changed over the previous decade. Culturally and politically the difference between America in 1960 and America in 1970 was like the difference between smoke signals and smartphones. It was a whole ‘nuther country, and it was a lot better one.
Given all that, what might one have imagined the country’s trajectory to be over the next half-century? More Vietnams, just when the country was growing increasingly disgusted at the original version? The destruction of the middle class, just when it had been created in the first place over the previous decades? Mass incarceration of African Americans just when the civil rights movement had scored astonishing legal victories in eliminating Jim Crow? A vicious war on drugs just when everyone and his brother was getting high? Existential-scale planetary destruction just when the environmental movement was rising?
Maybe. But, unless you were especially prescient, I doubt you would have expected such a turn. Rather, I think the natural inclination would have been to predict a continuation of the then current direction, albeit – the laws of physical exhaustion being immutable – perhaps at a somewhat less frenzied velocity.
In other words, now that we’d made great strides in guaranteeing civil rights for blacks, surely others would follow in their wake. There would be equal pay laws and even an equal rights constitutional amendment for women. Now that the labor movement had helped to create a new middle class, it would be expanded, and new economic security and dignity would be secured for more Americans, especially people of color working the fields and busing the tables. Now that there had been a Catholic president without the sky falling, religion would become less of a factor in our politics. Now that we’d learned a moral lesson – not to mention a pragmatic one – in Vietnam, no more would we invade weaker countries to establish the regimes of our preference. Now that we’d seen the perils of rampant industrialism, we would become more vigilant than ever about protecting the environment. And after Watergate, surely we’d work more and more assiduously to drive the influence of money out of politics. Well, it – ahem – didn’t exactly go down that way. Not to say that there hasn’t been significant progress in some respects over these decades. But, for the most part, it has been a time of reversal. We’re still invading and occupying other countries, and still doing a piss-poor job of it. We’ve created the biggest environmental crisis in all of human history and we’re not only not addressing it in any remotely seriously way, but we’re still pretending to argue over whether or not it’s even real. Women have flooded the workplace but have no constitutionally guaranteed equality, and still aren’t paid the same for doing identical work as men. Religious monsters (or monsters pretending to be religious) became vastly more influential in American politics than they were previously, instead of less so. Money has flooded American politics – including even judicial races – in ways that dwarf anything in our experience since the time of robber barons and their paper bags stuffed with cash. And so on…