As you may have heard, anorexia Google Books has a free-to-browse archive containing every issue of LIFE Magazine‘s original run as a weekly periodical. It’s a handy and — irritating interface aside — very convenient way to browse a publication which was very much a part of the fabric of American culture for nearly four decades.
They also make for a handy time-killer for persons with an interest in 20th Century American history, and a good portion of my idle time during the past eighteen months has been spent perusing the run of issues spanning the beginning of 1966 through LIFE’s (first) demise at the end of 1972. My choice of start date was quasi-arbitrary, picked largely because the year marked a number of pop-cultural touchstones — Revolver, the Batman TV show, watershed moments in the both the British Invasion and soul scenes, and a host of spaghetti westerns, spy flicks, Hammer films, and examples of Elvis humiliating himself on celluoid.
The decision to stick it out and follow the thread to the end was less whimsical, and rooted in a desire to bear witness to the process by which sentiments of Space Age optimism and post-WW2 prosperity turned to the roots of an enduring socio-cultural-economic malaise. For all the positive accomplishments which emerged during that tumultuous stretch of time, it also laid bare a number of unwelcome and unpleasant problems which cut straight to the heart of the chimeric, consensual myth of the “American Dream.”
While it would be scholastically dodgy to load all one’s hypotheses in one basket of source material, LIFE and its preeminent status as the nation’s “#1 magazine” offer a particularly useful lens for viewing the past. Its deliberately cultivated role as a mainstream (read: “white, middle-class, and generally centrist”) publication ruled out much (though not as much as you’d think) in the way of fringe or outsider prespectives, but it did present an image of America as wished itself to be — a myth, but a myth tied to genuine aspirations and nagging concerns.
It would be impossible to summarize the fruits of my research in a single seven hundred word post, as it encompassed some three hundred and fifty issues and Providence knows how many articles/editorials/advertisments scrutinized for content and context. (It’s the type of project that would have made for a great dissertation proposal, if I still cared about that type of thing.) I’ll probably elaborate on my findings in a series of future posts, but I do want to discuss one recurring theme today.
America’s problems are not new problems. They are structural issues which have been been ignored for some time now.
I am not referring to the nation’s original sins of rascism or delusions of hard-driving individuality beholden to nothing and no one. While both certainly played huge roles during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the issues I am referring to are less doctrinal problems concerning the causes and limits of the post-war American economy and its distribution of wealth.
The economic collapse 2008 wasn’t some unforseeable fluke of circumstance. It was the culmination of policies designed to spackle over unpleasant truths which surfaced as the circumstances which created the truncated “American Century” began to irrevocably shift against the country’s favor. Post-war prosperity was predicated on tight labor, cheap oil, sane tax rates, a lack of any serious global competition, and massive investments in infrastructure and technology (floated in the name of national defense, but spinning off a multitude of consumer applications) — a lucky but impermament combination which had begun to fray by the late 1960s.
The expansion of public welfare programs and the costs associated with the Vietnam War didn’t help matters, but they only hastened the inevitable day of reckoning. The truth is that Americans became slaves to an economic myth and no one had the will or the wisdom to address the unpleasant realities before they reached critical mass. Concerns about pension funding and Social Security solvency, spiking medical costs and stagnant incomes were being voiced back in 1970. Instead of reaching a workable and equitable consensus for sustainability going forward, however, the folks who could (and can) have made a difference chose to kick the problem down the road with a series of short-term fixes with dire long-term consequences.
So Reganomics and supply-side wank have become enshrined as economic gospel, spurring short-lived bubbles of spurious wealth which flow ever upwards and out of reach for more and more Americans. Critical adjustments to infrastructure and social programs, the traditional springboards and safety nets of the economy , have been stripped bare and villified as entitlements in an zero sum ideology where anyone else’s (apart from the billionaires you simply know you are destined to join someday) gain has to come at your expense…especially if their pigmentation or sex organs or source of romantic attraction runs counter to enshrined “norms.”
There’s no crying over split milk, but it didn’t have to be this way. It doesn’t have to be this way, if only the sleepwalkers propping up the dysfunctional status quo would finally wake up and realize where they truly stand and quit pretending that being “American” offers a fast track to greatness or immunity against economic trends or that any conveniently demonized boogeyman represents a greater threat to one’s slice of the dream than the most obvious plutocratic culprits do.
It’s time to grow the fuck up, America, and take charge of your future…while you still have one.