I become depressed when people get recent history wrong. I'm not young, and I want those who are
young to understand the years I witnessed. I want them to understand not just the major events, but the subtleties, the things that resist easy description. What it was like
This interview with Rick Perlstein
gets it right.
Perlstein has the ability to describe how an entire society transforms itself. They say people don't change, but they do. So do nations. Sometimes they seem to change overnight.
But the baseline is this moment in 1973 when the Vietnam War ends, and that spring, Watergate breaks wide open, after basically disappearing from the political scene for a while. You have this remarkable thing, where Sam Ervin puts these hearings on television. And day after day the public hears White House officials sounding like Mafia figures. That same spring, you get the energy crisis, and you hear officials say that we’re running out of energy when heretofore, nobody knew you could run out. That’s a blindsiding blow to the American psyche. And then there’s the oil embargo, suddenly a bunch of Arab oil sheiks decide to hold America hostage, and succeed. So the way I characterize that is that we had this idea of America as existing outside of the rules of history, as a country that can’t do any wrong. Suddenly we begin to think of ourselves as just another country, not God’s chosen nation. I have a quote in the preface to the book by Immanuel Kant, who defined the Enlightenment as “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity,” basically the process of leaving childhood and becoming a grown-up. And that’s what we’re seeing in America in the 1970s.
This is a remarkable juncture, and you could see it in popular culture. Like “M*A*S*H,” and how it takes on militarism. People were insistently following the Watergate hearings, which were enormously complex. And America is really beginning to take on big problems, thinking about what it would mean to conserve energy, to create energy independence. Then everything takes a turn, Reagan is introduced, and he says don’t worry about this stuff. America is that shining city on a hill. A quote which he mischaracterized, by the way. But people wanted to believe him.
To me, Reagan’s brand of leadership was what I call “a liturgy of absolution.” He absolved Americans almost in a priestly role to contend with sin. Who wouldn’t want that? But the consequences of that absolution are all around us today. The inability to contend with climate change. The inability to call elites to account who wrecked the economy in 2008. The inability to reckon with the times when we fall short.
Perlstein understands something that is difficult for liberals to grasp: It is possible to tell too much truth too rapidly.
What fascinated you most about this period that you didn’t know going in?
How deeply in the pop culture people were willing to question American power and beliefs. How everyday political culture had almost become radical for this brief moment. You see it in letters to Time magazine, people talking about bomber pilots committing war crimes. You would expect maybe Noam Chomsky to say that, but that was present not just in letters but inside Time itself.
It was too much. When article after article told the American public "Your nation has done wrong
," individual Americans took it as a personal indictment: You
have done wrong. And on a psychic level, they could not live with that.
And so they gravitated toward those who told them what they wanted to hear: The Bible is literally true, America is uniquely virtuous, the CIA did not kill Kennedy, we overthrew governments to stave off the communist threat, Moscow is truly the locus of all evil, Vietnam was a noble cause, the environment will heal itself. All of it.
In the late 1960s and throughout much of the 1970s, the left spoke out of passion -- and without a full understanding of human psychology. The left told average, hard-working Americans "You are shit." And then the left seemed genuinely flabbergasted when average, hard-working Americans decided that they didn't want to be called shit any more.