Friday, March 30, 2012

The 1970s: A New Global History from Civil Rights to Economic Inequality

The Book: The 1970s: A New Global History from Civil Rights to Economic Inequality, by Thomas Borstelmann (Princeton University Press, 2011).

Why You Should Care: The effects of a major shift toward the free market that occurred during this “kidney stone of a decade” are still with us in both positive forms (entrepreneurial drive) and negative forms (increased socio-economic polarization).
At the risk of waxing nostalgic, I have to admit that it is a moment of cultural awareness that leaps out of my memory, an event in the same category as the Kennedy assassination a decade earlier, though why that should be I’m at a loss to explain. I’m speaking, of course, of the day in 1975 when, as a freshman at a small Midwestern liberal arts college, while browsing in the college bookstore, I spied Bruce Springsteen on the covers of both Time and Newsweek.
Now that I’m well into my middle years, whenever I’ve thought of this, I’ve been puzzled.  Although I later became an unapologetic fan of The Boss, I didn’t know him from Adam at that moment. With all that happened in that decade, why does this stand out?
Now, at last, Professor Thomas Borstelmann has come to my rescue with a rational—if hindsight- oriented—explanation. It seems Springsteen’s lyrics capture the middle-class angst of the decade and, in retrospect, they remind us that this was a time when “military, political, economic and environmental crises unfolded rapidly on top of each other, leaving many citizens uncertain of which to address first and how to do so.”
And here I thought it was all about the wicked guitar riffs.
Seriously, Professor Borstelmann does have a point; one that may interest all of us 99-percenters. And that point is this: it was during the 1970s that “the loss of confidence in public authority laid the foundation for deregulation and a turn toward the free market, a path that led to growing disparities between rich and poor.” This is, as he later notes, “a transformation of American society that has gone largely unnoticed, even though its reverberations are still being felt decades later.”
Think about it. It was during the 1970s that some of today’s major blue chip corporations started up in garages. Could it be that the same social shift that set the stage for an explosion in entrepreneurial activity is also responsible for greater economic stratification? 
Unlike disco, this issue might be with us for some time to come.

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