A Decade of Downfall



A look at Western decline in the 1970s and its artistic portrayal.

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The usual artistic language of downfall and ruin is an almost archetypal form: fire and brimstone rain down upon the sinful and overindulgent people, their cities and economies and lives dashed to ruin by vengeful gods or plagues and whatnot. Examples of such an idea are as numerous as they are repetitive, from the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah to the historical Roman Empire to the science-fictional Galactic Empire of Star Wars fame. Outstanding among these many gathered exemplars of collapse, however, is a single decade in the 20th century, a decade now fondly associated (by our generation who did not experience it) more with aching disco falsettos and ill-advised fashion choices than economic malaise and decline: the 1970s. The ‘70s certainly posed a great challenge to the established nations of yore: by the end of the decade, Western democracies were left reeling from ten unrelenting years of oil shocks and geopolitical nightmares. The established popular culture — music, movies, and television — for the most part attempted to hide this internal malaise behind the banalities and shadows of flashy music and flashier art. But some artists of the period, and indeed many artists and journalists of today, certainly took notice, and their movies and documentaries of and about the period reflected that same world view.

In between landing a man on the moon and the continual increase of living standards, the Western world was seemingly riding high on a formidable list of government-derived scientific and economic achievements as it emerged out of the 1960s. Nowhere was that better exemplified than in Great Britain, where the Labour government had presided over a new Britain forged in what then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1963 had called the “white heat” of a new technocratic government bound not by class distinctions. By 1970, however, this white heat had fizzled out amidst spiraling spending, and the once-adored Wilson saw himself and his former cabinet booted out of office and left at the mercy of television journalists and directors. The result was the 1971 BBC documentary Yesterday’s Men, a scathing look at the lives of ex-government politicians that showed exactly none of the pre-1960s deference to the establishment that journalists had once shown. Everything was open for inspection: the money troubles of former cabinet ministers, party struggles for the leadership, and indeed the general world-weariness of ex-government politicians. Even a hippy-dippy rock song was commissioned for the title theme, and psychedelic caricatures jabbed at Wilson’s hawking of his memoirs to make up the shortfall in his salary from losing the premiership.

State-side, life in the early 1970s was not much better for the American people and leaders. Economically, America’s increasingly precarious inflationary economic situation boiled over the top by the early 1970s, with government price controls and food shortages hitting American supermarket shelves for the first time since the Second World War. The 1973 oil crisis did nothing to help: as the OPEC nations made their vice grip on international oil supplies ever tighter, further strangulating the American economy. The result of all of this was a noticeable shift in popular television: the pleasant wholesomeness of both late-night TV such as “The Johnny Cash Show” and pleasant sitcoms such as “The Beverly Hillbillies” were out in a move deemed the “rural purge”, a nod to their target demographic. Their replacements, almost by cultural necessity, took a harder look at modern and specifically urban issues of race, social inequality, and economic trouble: the wholesome-sounding sitcom “All in the Family” featured a working-class bigot who broached then-no-go issues such as homosexuality and racism. But even as Richard Pryor riffed on the Watts race riots and Johnny Carson joked up the airwaves about supposed toilet-paper shortages, a national nightmare of incalculable proportions was coming into the light: Watergate.

Richard Nixon had succeeded a discredited and exhausted Lyndon B. Johnson as President of the United States in 1969, and indeed had steered a fairly even course for American government at home and abroad. For all the consumer frustration Nixon’s aforementioned price controls and oil policy caused, they did bring some measure of stability to an economically-ravaged America. Nixon’s relative popularity, bolstered by more successful Moon missions and rapprochement with China, was accordingly rewarded by a landslide election victory in 1972. But the whole edifice came crashing astonishingly down by 1974, with a now-also-discredited and exhausted Richard Nixon resigning from the presidency altogether over the Watergate scandal. Watergate as an event had — and still has — all the classic hallmarks of tragedy writ large: the flawed hero with a secret, the confidence misplaced, the innocence of a nation lost. And tragedy did it make, for the arts did seize on this moment, with documentarians and moviemakers alike rushing to perform just such an interpretation. From the 1977 Frost/Nixon interview to the 2006 Frost/Nixon play by Peter Morgan to the 2008 movie adaptation by Ron Howard, history and America have attempted to reconcile the Watergate moment through artistic expression. Even Nixon himself tried it, publishing his memoirs in 1978, and authored nine more books on various geopolitical subjects as a sort of literary atonement for his political sins.

No amount of political atonement, however, could save the Western world from the crises of the second half of the 1970s. Watergate, though still a formative moment for American democracy, could at least be put to rest by Gerald Ford’s pardons. The same could not be said for the economic woes of the nations, which after a brief respite came back in full force in the late 1970s. Another oil shock in 1979, combined with a near-meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, precipitated a major energy crisis that simultaneously jumpstarted American environmentalism and helped direct American foreign policy for years to come. Indeed, the images from that era are now-characteristic: long lines of cars at emptied gas stations protected by police and the National Guard are the common currency of documentaries and movies portraying that era. A Great Britain stifled by trade union strikes saw even worse turmoil, with another Labour government there brought down spectacularly in a no-confidence motion following a winter of strikes that became known as the “Winter of Discontent.” The general election that followed produced some of the most influential political propaganda ever, with Thatcher’s Conservatives employing advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi. The results were devastating: the posters depicting snaking queues of unemployed and video party political skewered the economic and social decline of the Western democracy.

Here the 1970s swung to a close, and indeed for most people, the 1970s were not a decade to be missed. The high-tech, high-strung 1980s, with its Reaganite free-hand economic boom, presented an altogether more optimistic view of the Western world resurgent again. Historical events proved that as well: Britain’s successful defense of the Falkland Islands ushered in the beginning of a Thatcherite economic boom, and the fall of the Soviet Union represented the ultimate triumph of the Western democratic model. But the lessons of the 1970s, the budding willingness to confront politicians and big issues alike, are still ideas to be espoused and admired. Indeed, the similarities between the malaise of the 1970s and the issues of today are all too apparent: the United States stands on precarious economic ground, entangled in a mess of geopolitical commitments in the Middle East while fending off a resurgent Russia and emergent China. Great Britain faces similar issues, and with the extremely close result of the recent referendum on Scottish independence, the very future of the United Kingdom hangs in the balance. And in confronting these issues — issues which we at Harvard all do face — we and our leaders would do well to remember that decade of decline some 40 years ago.

Andrew Lin ’17 (andrewlin@college) heartily endorses the return of the mullet from the graveyard of the ‘70s as a force for fashion.