The more things don't change, the easier it is to believe that they can't ever change. But even though the world of 1973 has a lot of uncanny similarities to our own, we can build more upon our storied past than we have.
The year is 1973. In January, Richard Nixon is sworn in for his second term as president, the US officially withdraws from its conflict in Vietnam, and an investigation into the Watergate break-ins expands from the burglars to the statesmen. In the coming months, Nixon will orchestrate a cover-up of a cover-up, trying to hold incrimination at bay until a late year “massacre” of firings and resignations yields calls for his impeachment. The scandal will also significantly sideline an issue of presidential tax evasion for both Nixon and Vice-President Spiro Agnew, amid another high-inflation year for the nation. Before the crisis reaches this peak, a brutal coup in Chile will see democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende either driven to suicide or murdered, as CIA-backed General Augusto Pinochet launches a military junta that will last seventeen years, killing thousands. In October, the Yom Kippur War will take place, and an oil crisis will emerge from the OPEC embargo of countries supporting Israel.
Has anything changed in the last fifty years?
On the surface, it’s a silly question. Time is a record of causal relationships, every new event building on the last, and our material world today reflects a wealth of cumulative transformations. Forget about computers, satellites, the internet, 3D printing, and surgical advances: in 1973 we didn’t even have modern mountain bikes (developed over the decade) or general sports bras (the “jockbra” of 1977). Mass fiber optics were just launching, and the first item with a UPC was scanned in 1974, when you could also start solving Rubik’s Cubes—though you’d still have to wait six years to jot down your process on a Post-It Note.
But behind such a silly question lies deeper ones about human nature: its cyclicality, its consistency, and the smallness of human lives when measured against the evolutionary time needed to effect much bigger changes in how we process the world. Our ancestors often went thousands of years without significant shifts in artistic mediums and implements of choice. They also sometimes underwent major cultural transformations much faster.
What kind of era are we in now? One of rapid change, or grinding repetition?
And what kind of era are we capable of bringing about for ourselves?
Time as a flat circle
In 2021, the US withdrew its troops from a ruinous war, which General Mark Milley identified as a loss for the nation (and for everyone in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, too). Last year, the world found itself in another war, this time in Europe, where there is no easy path to victory. Middle Eastern violence and oil crises continue to ensnare the world, the latter in part because we’ve done a poor job of decoupling GDP from extraction processes destroying whole ecosystems favorable to human life. We haven’t had a recent coup in the Americas (though dictatorial regimes abide), but on January 6, 2021 the US came close, after another president’s election conspiracies were aided and abetted by mainstream media. And tax scandals among sitting or recent US officials remain status quo, while inflation is yet again a pressing issue amid US recession.
Fifty years ago, Marvin Gaye had moved from What’s Going On to Let’s Get It On, but it’s the lyrics to those earlier songs, like talk in “Inner City Blues” (1971) of “trigger happy policing” and inflation, that could be set seamlessly in the world today. What’s really changed since then? Are there no more grand space missions amid stark rich-poor divides?
Rockets, moon shots Spend it on the have nots Money, we make it 'Fore we see it you take it Oh, make me want to holler The way they do my life
Three years on from 1973, we’ll also get Network, a biting satire of the era’s rising outrage-based TV. Granted, the film’s sets might need a little upgrading to suit the world today—after all, the film came out just a year before Exxon started producing internal research predicting the climate nightmare it would help bring about. But content-wise, Network gives us another world “mad as hell” with the rat race for the average citizen, and shows us how corporations can always work with “mad as hell” to spin a profit. What changes in coming decades? Amid the rise of Fox News in 1996? All the pundit-based talk shows of the 2000s? Social media’s special brand of tempest-in-a-teapot infotainment in the 2010s?
When certain events echo over the generations, it’s easy to mistake what is with the sum total of what could be. Just because we go through routine cycles of violence, repeatedly backslide on human rights, and struggle under similar economic disparities, doesn’t mean that war and socioeconomic injustice are intrinsic to us. There is always the possibility that we’ve simply been habituated to regard both as inevitable states of being.
There’s a trauma component in such habituation, too. A common trauma response is the replication of harmful behaviors, which is why patterns of domestic and sexual violence can make future perpetrators out of today’s victims, and why people who lived under hard public policies often defend the same. If they suffered, why should others get to suffer less?
But if our current context is the product of habituated response, what can that knowledge do for us? Can the reminder of other possible arrangements ever truly empower us to acclimate future populations into different ways of structuring society? Is there anything we can do today to bring about, say, a more equitable and peaceful 2073?
For an answer, we might look to one other abiding factor in past decades: the existence of people, always, in the struggle to reform their worlds. Successfully? Not really. But the ways in which they gained and lost their victories are telling, too. They point, at least, to the bigger problems that need to be resolved for any more sustainable changes in us to take hold.
Progress, to a point
1973 was the last year before US women were legally protected from housing discrimination and denial of credit applications based on sex, and from being forcibly put on leave due to pregnancy. Marital rape was also still legally permitted in all states until 1974, when Michigan and Delaware would launch partial bans, after which more states moved toward full bans. (It wouldn’t be prohibited nationwide until 1993, though, and even then, legal strife continues with respect to the judicial gravity lent to those charges.)
Of course, it’s dangerous to measure progress by legality alone. In Canada, corporal punishment in schools wasn’t banned until 2004, eight years after the closure of the last federally funded residential school, with all the cruelty such places visited upon Indigenous communities. But the legal fight against the practice began in 1971, with the Toronto District School Board. Is it a mark of progress when such a longstanding fight finally yields to a more humane resolution? Or one of shame, for how much time was required at all?
And what about when legislation takes far longer to be set right? In the US last week, nine Michigan Republicans voted against overturning a 1931 law that criminalizes cohabitation between men and women before marriage, and carries with it a “rarely enforced” prison term and fine. Senate Bill 56 still passed its first hurdle, but is this a sign of sustainable progress, when the vote revealed a clear split in the Republican Party with respect to government jurisdiction over private lives? In a country filled with legislation often going in the opposite direction with respect to religious encroachment in secular spheres?
In 1974, an equality bill for gays and lesbians didn’t make it out of committee, but its mere drafting empowered more gay politicians, like David Mixner and Harvey Milk, to pursue public office and fight discrimination. Milk was famously assassinated ten months into his first term in office as city supervisor in San Francisco, after sponsoring a bill to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. His assassin, a fellow municipal politician, was described by The New York Times as someone who saw himself as a “defender of the home, the family and religious life against homosexuals, pot smokers and cynics”.
The last federal equality amendment to include protections against LGBTQ+ discrimination passed the House in 2021, then died in Senate. President Joe Biden called for similar legislation in his 2022 State of the Union address, and again on the Trans Day of Visibility. It remains to be seen, with the next presidential election campaigns now launching and so much in the way of bodily autonomy and democratic process on the line, when (if ever) a more equitable foundation will emerge in the US on these accords, too.
Would Milk see a world greatly improved, if he were alive today? Would any human rights advocate from 1973, back when the 1969 Stonewall Riots were still fresh in mind, and Native American activists had gone from a two-year protest at Alcatraz to a full-on occupation in 1973 of Wounded Knee? Such major, galvanizing incidents did bring about change of sorts, for a spell. But mainstream activism has also consistently preferred the narrative polish of “respectability politics”, an approach to defending human rights that unfortunately seeks to smooth out many of history’s messy wrinkles in its pursuit of dignity for all.
“Unfortunately”, that is, because sometimes it’s the consistent messiness of history that we need to foreground to avoid setback today. The Stonewall Riots, for instance, were a very messy business, which included as prominent participants Black trans drag queen Marsha P. Johnson, Latinx trans drag queen Sylvia Rivera, biracial butch lesbian Stormé DeLarverie, and Black trans woman Miss Major Griffin-Gracy. These people carried histories of homelessness, incarceration, and sex work (often beginning as sexual assault, in childhoods of intersectional discrimination) into their activism and experiences of state violence.
Imagine what our push for equality would have looked like today if more pluralist movements had been able to hold the center throughout the past few decades. Not reacting to, but rather proactively setting the terms of political discourse. Imagine what our public policy debates might have been about by now instead, if not for years wasted on reinventing the wheel by relitigating everyone’s right to be part of the conversation at all.
Instead, on the back of decades of racialized police brutality, amid state-driven stigma during the AIDS crisis, barely out of one period of segregation and into another, we somehow arrived at an approach to advocacy that favors those pursuing more middle-class inclusions (e.g., access to traditional marriage, with all the tax, health, and inheritance rights that come with it in a society informed by Christianity), and sidelining the rest.
Not universally, of course. Many throughout those fraught eras were always struggled for more inclusive societal arrangements from the ground up. But amid the rise of expressly neoliberal policies in the 1980s, under Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK, then again in the 1990s, with Democrats echoing similar socioeconomic rhetoric, the struggle for human dignity found itself staged time and again around a more conservative, corporate, and right-wing-religious political “center”. Then came 9/11, a war economy, and a recession, all of which favored more conservative forms of activism, and stigmatized the rise of activist collectives like Idle No More, Black Lives Matter, and Antifa for being, oh, just as messy as their 1970s forebears.
Is it any surprise, then, that Western countries like the US continue to grapple with the same crises of another era? More unjust police and carceral states? More religiously informed approaches to bodily autonomy and related state and individual rights? More corrupt governance and attacks on the societal pluralism necessary for a thriving democracy?
Suffice it to say, we lose our path to more humane futures whenever the past is forgotten.
But with its reclamation, maybe those futures can be regained.
From here to the next fifty years
This past week, we saw a sensational “changing of the guard” at Fox News, among other firings and retirings in the wake of a significant financial hit: a $787.5-billion-dollar settlement that could still be leveraged to reform whole media systems that have been destabilizing democratic discourse for years.
At the same time, Twitter reached a new low with a failed payment gambit that spells further financial trouble. A replacement digital “town hall” has yet to emerge, but the veneer of respectability has at least fallen from a service that once held outsized power in shaping electoral, state, and foreign politics.
READ: Jonathan MS Pearce’s “The Blue Check debacle rears its ugly head. Again”
What comes next?
That depends on how much we’re ready to open the vaults of our messy histories and learn from their generational echoes. “Respectability politics” are a losing move in the pursuit of full equality, especially when facing political forces that will always look for more dirt so long as we’re afraid to have a little mud on our faces. Rather, what bends the arc of history toward justice is a willingness to show up for the struggle as we are—however that may be.
Because that’s what we’re fighting for as humanists, isn’t it?
The right to be fully, complexly human, and to more equitably inhabit the world together.
If we’re not afraid to accept that advocacy for a more inclusive world cannot come solely from the most impeccable among us, what might we accomplish in the next fifty years of progressive politics? How might we break the cycles of violence, corruption, and state injustice present all throughout our last fifty? Do we have it in us to shake off failed economic and media systems that were fairly recent inventions to begin with?
If so, what could we establish in their place, to provide greater dignity to all?
The challenges in our current world are myriad—but they are not new. Oil and migration crises, domestic corruption scandals, human rights battles, global conflicts in cold and hot stages alike… So much has not significantly changed in these past fifty years.
Which means the greatest challenge of all might be allowing ourselves to believe that familiarity isn’t destiny. To believe that we can make different choices, and to refuse to play the game the way that one treatment of history suggests it has to be played.
And then somehow getting enough fellow humans to believe the same, too.