Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of the Seventies.
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Subject:||Books (Book reviews)|
|Publication:||Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529|
|Issue:||Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 1|
|Topic:||NamedWork: Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of the Seventies (Nonfiction work)|
|Persons:||Reviewee: Berkowitz, Edward D.|
Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of the
Seventies. By Edward D. Berkowitz (New York: Columbia University Press,
2006. 283 pp.).
At the end of the 1970s, a chorus of journalists and pundits cheered the decade's end. Nothing had happened, they wrote, and these words turned into conventional wisdom. Some of us scratched our heads and wondered whether these critics had spent the decade soaking in hot tubs, high on drugs.
How could they dismiss Watergate, Vietnam, the oil embargo, and the emergence of the New Right? And what about the newly energized movements for greater rights for women, gays and lesbians, the disabled, as well as protection of the environment, that helped transform--and polarize--the nation's popular and political culture?
Ever since 1979, historians have grappled with the "conventional wisdom" epitaph inscribed by journalists. In 1982, Peter Carroll published It Seemed Like Nothing Happened: The Tragedy and Promise of America in the 1970s, a challenging interpretative work that revealed the depths of cultural and social change that had transformed the United States during this very complicated decade. At the same time, he reminded us that these years offered "alternative" possibilities in which the country might proceed during succeeding decades.
More recently, the conservative writer David Frum, with the hindsight of decades and a strong ideological perspective, published How We Got Here: The 70's (2000), which argued that the seventies, and not the sixties, had changed American political life. In terms of politics, he had a strong argument. Despite its right-wing bias, it helped readers understand how the growing religious and secular right-wing coalition of the 70s literally "got us" to the politicized religious political culture of the Bush years.
One year later, Bruce Schulman published The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics. Challenging the conventional wisdom that the seventies was simply an era of bad clothes, bad hair and bad music, Schulman judiciously and successfully analyzed the social and cultural shifts that had altered the nation during that decade.
Now comes Edward D. Berkowitz's Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of the Seventies, which I hoped would offer an a fresh and original interpretation of this important decade. Alas, the book is a great disappointment. Berkowitz says he wrote it for scholars and the general reader who didn't live through these years, which is a worthy goal. Lacking a strong interpretation or thematic structure, however, the plodding chronology of Something Happened reads like a textbook, with short sections that inform the reader "and then this happened, and then this happened." None of my students would really understand the meaning of the seventies after reading this book.
At his best, Berkowitz does a good job of explaining the causes and impact of the economic transformation that took place during the seventies. He also covers mainstream political history in a satisfactory, descriptive, if perfunctory, manner.
What's missing in this "overview," however, is the larger picture. In various sections, for example, he mentions the importance of the women's movement, the rise of the two-income family and women's growing numbers in the labor force. During what many have viewed as the preeminent "women's decade," however, Berkowitz ignores the feminist movement's intellectual excavation and reinterpretation of such new "crimes" as rape, sexual harassment, and domestic violence, all of which changed everyone's lives, both at work and at home. Most egregiously, he neglects the energetic feminist critiques of American culture that eventually challenged public policy, changed laws, and transformed our popular and political values. Instead, he summarizes Tom Wolfe's and Christopher Lasch's cultural criticisms of the "me" decade and its "narcissism," even though he disagrees with both of them.
Although he includes scattered sections on the "rights revolution," which includes women, gays and the disabled, Berkowitz ignores the growing impact of identity politics, as ethnic groups sought cultural recognition and political power. He writes, for example, two perfunctory paragraphs about the historic television series, "Roots." From his words, however, no reader born after this decade would ever understand how this series gripped the national consciousness and accelerated the search for one's origins in our very complex, multicultural and multiracial society. Nor does he address the fact that the seventies was when many Americans had just begun to realize how profoundly the 1965 immigration law had changed the complexion and culture of the nation.
Missing too is any discussion of the origins and development of the environmental movement, which had its roots during this momentous decade, even under Nixon's administration. The flight to the moon, as well as the oil embargo, created a new awareness of the limits of the earth's resources. Although he describes the energy crisis, he does not understand that the seventies simultaneously witnessed the birth of a widespread effort to protect the health of the planet.
In one of the final chapters, Berkowitz says he will address how cinema and television both shaped and mirrored the cultural changes of the decade. Instead, we get a canned history of changes that took place in the film industry, with nods to famous film makers, but no real cultural analysis of how film and television both challenged and reinforced American traditions. His analysis of "All in the Family," for example, doesn't even mention that most viewers thought that their own opinion was being affirmed. The many films that reflected new racial and gender relations and new ideas about feminism and family life, moreover, are ignored.
"The key triggers of the seventies," writes Berkowitz, "Watergate, the fall of Vietnam, and the oil shock and economic crisis left permanent marks on America. ... " He's quite right. But if this is a book written for those born after the seventies, his book must help readers understand the meaning of those "permanent marks" and how they ushered in irreversible changes in out political, economic, cultural and social lives. This, regrettably, his book does not do.
In short, Something Happened is not the book I would suggest to a general reader. For scholars, it does not any new evidence, interpretation or argument. And undergraduates, alas, would simply find themselves faced with a blizzard of facts and events, rather than understanding the meaning and impact of the seventies to the present.
Something did happen during the seventies. The tragedy is that Berkowitz is not the author who understands its significance.
University of California, Davis, Emerita
University of California, Berkeley
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