Book Review: Something Happened when Shots Were Heard

Title: Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of the Seventies
Author: Edward D. Berkowitz
Publisher: Columbia University Press (2006), ISBN 0-231-12494-5, 283 pages, $29.50

In the introduction of his new book, author Edward Berkowitz says, “The intended audience is people for whom the seventies represents the distant past. The hope is that having lived in the seventies is not a prerequisite for understanding themâÂ?¦” Doing the math, this puts the target audience in the 25 years and younger range. The only conceivable reason for Berkowitz to narrowcast his consumers so severely is that he is wishing “Something Happened” will sell as a textbook. Well, think bigger, Mr. Berkowitz.

This isn’t just another title to add to the required reading syllabus of another Sociology 101 class. It is an attack on the conventional belief that nothing happened in America during the 1970s. It is a demonstration that we survived more than just disco and leisure suits. It is a declaration that the apparent stasis of the 1970s was the restorative reaction to the flailing frenzy of the 1960s. This may be a history book for those born after “Rocky III,” but it is also an essential refresher course for those who toughed out the Me Decade.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

The first third of Berkowitz’ book is an overview of the run-up to the 1970s. Three world events shaped the decade under scrutiny and Berkowitz carefully describes the tools of the sculpting: 1) The last Americans fled Vietnam mere steps ahead of an advancing enemy; 2) Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace and the depth of President Nixon’s criminal involvement in Watergate became publicly known; 3) OPEC raised oil prices by 70% and withheld exports to the U.S. in one flip of the switch. All this cataclysm took place in 1973. The resulting social effect was that our post-World War II self-confidence was yanked out from under our feet. A new type of swaggering confidence was pedaled to the nation when Ronald Reagan took office in 1981. Berkowitz convincingly utilizes these bookends to define the era from 1973 to 1981 as the Seventies.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

A spectrum of historians, economists and sociologists have labeled the 1970s as a time of apathy, narcissism, diminishing expectations, zero-sum and even laziness. Berkowitz does not drink that Kool Aid. He believes it was the era than ended postwar consensus in America and was the time when the country got “made over.” Changes took place to cultural assumptions, political ideology, social arrangements and economic orders that explain how we got where we are today.
Berkowitz is talented in taking big scale social ideas such as affirmative action, tax revolt and bilingual education and placing them in context with an event like the 1974 Battle of Boston which distilled the frustrations in total. One of his strongest chapters explains how the Seventies, the ostensible heir to Sixties liberalism, were actually the incubator of religious conservatism. Many of the political observations in “Something Happened” ring with distinctive irony today, such as the fact that President Jimmy Carter treated the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan “as a serious breach of the world peace.” Seventies pop culture was not all “Charley’s Angels” and Berkowitz praises “The Godfather,” “Chinatown” and “Manhattan.” He writes wistfully, “The seventies was indeed the last era in which people sat together in the dark and watched some of the best movies ever made.”Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

In one glaring omission, Berkowitz has overlooked a huge symbol of the 1970s by failing to discuss the Patty Hearst kidnapping. It is difficult to conceive how the decade can be analyzed without addressing that extended running performance of crime-theatre for its aspects of radicalism, commercialism, kitsch, and excessiveness.�¯�¿�½

Berkowitz writes, “The unique thing about the seventies was that it marked the end of the conventional postwar wisdom, which was never put together in quite the same way again.” In “Something Happened” he has provided an essential map for what is perhaps the most misunderstood decade of the twentieth century.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

Title: Shots: An American Photographer’s Journal 1967 – 1972
Author: David Fenton
Publisher: Earth Aware Editions (2005), ISBN 1-932771-50-6, 164 pages, $29.95�¯�¿�½

Photographer David Fenton comments, “As the saying goes, if you can remember the 60s, you weren’t there.” For those with the smoke-clouded memories, as well as those for whom the 1960s are ancient history, Fenton’s photos of the tumultuous era are collected in the book titled “Shots.” This valuable retrospective includes original images of Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, Muhammad Ali, Huey Newton, John and Yoko, Janice Joplin, B.B. King, Mick Jagger and many seminal rallies, marches and protests throughout the country. Fenton says, “My standard equipment, besides two Leicas and a Nikon, included a helmet, gas mask and my lawyer’s phone number written on my hand in case of arrest.”Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

“Shots” also includes a commentary by Norman Mailer titled “A Look Back at 1968” as well as an introduction written by former California State Senator Tom Hayden, who was a founding member of the influential radical group Students for a Democratic Society. Hayden was also one of the Chicago 7 charged with conspiracy to incite riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. He points out how rare photographs were in the early days of the radical movement. “No one carried cameras to their protests.” What a contrast to today, “an era in which the video camera is a ubiquitous eyewitness to everything that goes down.” Hayden points out that Fenton came of age at a time when “the camera was becoming more natural than the manifesto and more powerful than the machine gun.”Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

The all black and white format is subject to some ribbing from Al Franken who comments on the back cover, “These photographs recall the 60s vividly, but I vaguely remember there being a little color.” Fenton was taking photos for publication in underground and counterculture newspapers, therefore black and white film stock would have been the standard tool of the trade. The starkness of the format also lends an archival setting to the photos, rendering the Sixties remote yet alive at the same time.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

If you are needing a memory jolt or a history lesson, “Shots” is a rich place to start.

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