Thursday, May 28, 2015

What: Andreas Killen, 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America (Bloomsbury, 2006).

Why:  A review of the remarkable year when everything changed.

Just before the holiday weekend, the evening news ran a short story about the number of people expected to be traveling by car, despite a rise in the price of gas over the prior several weeks. This led me to reflect—as these things are wont to do—on a period in my life when you had to wait in long lines for gas, with no assurance that any would be left when you reached the pump.  Yes, I’m talking about 1973, the year I got my driver’s license, just in time for the Arab oil embargo and the resulting gas shortages. It was also the year of these songs, in case you were wondering. 

It turns out things were indeed as bad as I remember. And Andreas Killen, in his book 1973 Nervous Breakdown, reminds me that they were, in fact, much worse. As a child of the sixties, I have always had a vague feeling that sometime in the early seventies everything seemed to change. Killen designates 1973 as the year that happened. “By any standard,” he writes, “1973 marked a genuine low point in US history.”

In addition to the oil embargo, in 1973 the Vietnam War ended (much to my relief, as I was approaching draft age), coming to a grinding halt, not (as they say) with a bang but a whimper, becoming the first war popularly regarded as having been lost by the US. Add to that the beginnings of a “startling political crisis” arising out of the Watergate affair. On top of all that, the economy tanked, signaling “the end of the greatest prolonged boom in the history of capitalism.” The result?  “Any one of these events alone would have challenged America’s image of itself; together they shook the national psyche to its very core.”

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems that perhaps the greatest outcome of the resulting cultural reboot, arising from the loss of confidence in the government at the same time the economy stagnated, was a shift of faith to the private sector.  With this shift came renewed and reinvigorated entrepreneurial activity, which has blossomed ever since.

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