The Rural Purge: 5 Ways The '70s Changed Everything Forever
If someone asked you to name the most pivotal decade in United States history, what would you say? I'm sure the 1960s would get plenty of votes, and for good reason. I suppose I'd understand if someone made a case for the 1940s as well, when we managed to not only kill Hitler (or at least send him fleeing to South America) but also control the spin on the story in the ensuing years to such an extent that your racist grandparents are still sometimes called "The Greatest Generation." To each their own, but if you ask me, when it comes to events the shaped the world into what it is today, nothing comes close to the 1970s. We talk about it on this week's Unpopular Opinion podcast ...
... where I'm joined by comic Jeff May and musician Danger Van Gorder. It's also what I'm talking about in this column here today. Let's get it!
It's When We Truly Fell In Love With Guns
You know there are a lot of guns in this country, but do you know when that started? Well, in the most technical sense, I'm sure it started forever ago. I imagine there haven't been too many years of our existence as a nation when we weren't on the cutting edge of finding available free space to store our mountains of firearms.
That said, the percentage of households which reported owning at least one gun actually peaked in the mid-to-late-70s, when it rose above 50 percent.
So no more Flower Power, then?
The reason that happened isn't hard to pinpoint at all. It's because, from the very start of the decade, high-profile serial killers were making the news on the regular, and at least part of the reason for that was that they so often proved to be extremely hard to catch. In fact, the first killer to terrorize the '70s was never caught at all. He called himself the Zodiac. Speaking of guns, his weapon of choice was a .44 Magnum.
You know who this looks like? White dudes.
He was just the first in a long line of notorious killers to make headlines throughout that decade. Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, the Hillside Strangler (which was actually a pair of cousins) ... if there was ever an ideal time to be a serial murderer, it was definitely the '70s. Just that so many of these stories surfaced at the same general time probably would have led to a spike in gun sales on its own, but it didn't help that some of the biggest names of all used guns to commit their crimes. Along with the aforementioned Zodiac Killer, the infamous "Son of Sam," who practically held NYC hostage with fear for more than a year, also relied exclusively on firearms.
And the advice of his neighbor's (apparently very naughty) dog.
It wasn't just those headline-grabbing crimes that made citizens of the '70s such avid consumers of weapons. All over the country, crime of all sorts became more common over the course of the decade. It's hard to say why for sure, except no it's not. As I've mentioned before, starting around the early '70s, de-institutionalization became all the rage. The number of available hospitals and beds for people suffering from mental illness in this country dropped dramatically. Huge numbers of mental patients were suddenly on the streets. What kind of impact did this have on crime numbers? Let's go to the charts!
This is a chart. As you can see, it displays things.
The solid line is the number of people institutionalized per 100,000 people in the United States over the years. The other line is homicides per 100,000 people in the United States. So, as a not at all unreasonable response to the dramatic uptick in crime in the '70s, the number of households that reported owning at least one gun skyrocketed. The percentage has gone down since, but not by a lot. If that doesn't strike you as an important turning point in the history of this country, you should watch the news more. On that note, let's talk about terrorism!
We Learned How To Deal With Terrorism
You know what was the shit in the 1970s? Terrorism. Seriously, everybody seemed to be doing it. As much as we talk and worry about terrorism these days, you'd think we're dealing with bombs going off in federal buildings and shopping centers on a regular basis. We aren't, but we damn sure were in the 1970s.
I don't recall it being a thing we learned a whole lot about in school, but during the disco decade, bombings and hijackings were insanely common in the United States. Peter Bergen, a national security analyst at CNN, refers to the period as the "Golden Age of Terrorism." There were 40 acts of terrorism carried out in New York City over the course of the decade by just one Puerto Rican separatist group. The Jewish Defense League was blamed for another 27 attacks. And a whole host of others were up to the same kind of shenanigans.
I admit that "shenanigans" might be too lighthearted of a way to say "bombing the Pentagon."
It wasn't a phenomenon that was isolated to big cities like New York and Los Angeles. There were bombings in places like Madison, WI and Pittsburgh, PA. Someone blew up the Liberty Bell replica at the City Hall building in Portland, OR. Hell, even the Statue of Liberty got bombed at one point, albeit not until 1980.
One of the most active terrorist organization working on U.S. soil in the '70s was the Weather Underground. This was a group that legit declared war on the government and subsequently started blowing shit up in the name of carrying out that war. They kept this up for a long damn time in modern terms. Like, an entire decade. Imagine that happening now. We'd be furious if the government couldn't get a handle on that shit.
The reason we'd be furious is that, clearly, at some point they did get a handle on that shit. Bombings of this type are extremely rare now. Same thing with hijacked airplanes. We had a bit of an outbreak of that in the '70s as well. It shouldn't be too hard to wrap your head around how we cut down on the hijacking.
With lines. That's how.
We started screening bags and passengers. I know it sounds crazy, but we didn't always do that, so people sometimes brought bombs and weapons on board and acted up.
How we stopped angry fringe groups from blowing up buildings and infrastructure and such is a little less clear. We did it, obviously, or else you'd still see daily stories about angry radical groups setting off explosives in public to prove a point. Your relatives who were of reading age in the '70s definitely saw those stories on the regular. Again, I have no idea how we stopped it. Maybe if someone at the NSA is reading along as I write this, they'll consider hopping in after I log off to add an explanatory paragraph or two. Fingers crossed!
Network Television Briefly Became A Revolution
Believe it or not, there was a time when CBS was the fucking coolest. Like, cutting-edge, scare the government, change everything trendsetters. I know it's hard to think that way about the network which today won't stop bringing you The Big Bang Theory each week, but it's true. Just like how T.G.I. Friday's used to be NYC's go-to spot for alcohol-fueled debauchery, so was CBS once the epicenter of revolutionary television programming.
Of course, they didn't start out that way. By the end of the '60s, the bulk of their most-watched programming consisted of "country"-type shows like Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies. They were massively popular, but also completely irrelevant to the lives of almost everyone in the country at the time.
Why did they need to move to California? It makes no sense, logistically.
Gil Scott-Heron called them out in 1970's The Revolution Will Not Be Televised -- which is kind of ironic, because what happened to those shows next actually was kind of revolutionary, and everyone who owned a television got to see it. To put it simply, CBS cancelled all of their highly-rated hillbilly shows in one fell swoop and replaced them with shows that were more of a reflection of what life in America was like at that time. Quite awesomely, we've come to know this moment in television history as the Rural Purge.
It wasn't just that the shows were more realistic. They also tackled issues that shows in previous decades wouldn't have even considered mentioning. The main character of All In The Family, Archie Bunker, was a vehement racist whose absurd opinions and views were regularly challenged by his far more liberal children. It was a massive success, most likely because it was an unfortunately accurate depiction of a lot of households at the time.
The man behind the show was named Norman Lear. Over the next few years, he'd spin off shows like the world had never seen from the success of All In The Family. After Bea Arthur made an appearance on the show, she was given her own series called Maude. It would eventually become the first major network show to feature a character who chose to get an abortion.
In case you've ever wondered what Dorothy was up to prior to The Golden Girls.
Another spinoff, Good Times, was one of the first sitcoms about a black family. According to an interview with Lear in the recent CNN series The Seventies, a meeting with Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton led to another spinoff. While a show about a black family was a step in the right direction, Newton asked why there couldn't be a successful black family on television. With that question, The Jeffersons became the next in a long line of classic shows that would eventually be released throughout the decade.
The 1970s represented such a drastic change to the usual state of American television that the government eventually tried to intervene by imposing a Family Viewing Hour standard on the major networks. It required them to air "family-friendly programming" in the first hour of the prime-time slot. The networks took the matter to court and eventually won. The Family Viewing Hour went away in 1977.
There were certainly other important television developments over the years. Saturday Night Live and HBO are two fine examples. But none of them did as much to change the medium as what CBS accomplished with the Rural Purge. Even better, it kind of relates to the next point. Hooray for segues!
It Was a Great-ish Time For Women's Rights
The first hit series to emerge from the Rural Purge (I will never get tired of that phrase) was The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Talk about challenging the status quo: This was a show about a single woman with a job. I know that emphasis seems weird now, but only because it's 2016 and at least some things have gotten a little better. At the start of the '70s, that shit was unheard of on television.
That the show debuted when it did is no coincidence. Just like All In The Family shined a light on the fact that some people were still super-duper racist, The Mary Tyler Moore Show made America reckon with the fact that women weren't going to be chained to the idea that their sole purpose was to deliver babies and cook food while their husbands worked jobs by day and got violently drunk by night.
The right to get blackout after a shitty day at the office transcends gender.
For the better part of the decade, a huge battle raged over the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment -- which, as the name implies, is an amendment to the Constitution which guarantees equal rights for women. It actually passed both houses of Congress. That part was great, but it died when it reached the states to ratified. Enough held out that it never actually became the law. Harsh!
Still, some progress was made. Title IX, which prohibited institutions that received federal funds from discriminating against women in education programs or activities, became the law of the land in 1972. How's this for a wide range of benefits? Not only did Title IX clear the way for women to play college sports, but it also provided a means for women to force their respective schools to acknowledge and deal with reports of campus sexual assaults appropriately.
Oh, and let's not forget that 1973 was the year tennis legend Billie Jean King took down sexist legend / tennis player Bobby Riggs in a "Battle of the Sexes" match on live television.
Riggs was sponsored by Sugar Daddy. How subtle!
There are some among us who would have you believe that King's win wasn't really that impressive, because Riggs's playing days were mostly behind him and he was old and slow and she was at the top of her game. What that argument ignores is that earlier in the year, Riggs beat Margaret Court, who was the top-ranked women's tennis player in the world at the time. That King would win was far from a sure thing, but she did win. It seems minor now, but to a country in the midst of a polarizing and sometimes ugly debate about women's rights, it was a huge deal.
We Won the Right To Not Be Lied To By The President
As far as White House scandals go, Watergate remains the standard by which all others must be judged. There are way too many twists and turns to fit into the space of this entry, but you should know most of them by now anyway. If not, I'd invite you to consult one of the countless books, movies, and televisions shows that have addressed the matter.
Anyway, one of the most incriminating pieces of evidence in the Watergate scandal was a series of taped conversations between Nixon and his various aides and accomplices in the days after news of what his administration might have been up to reached the public. Who recorded these conversations? Why, Nixon did, of course. He secretly recorded all of his conversations, mostly because he was a big fan of paranoia. This practice came back to haunt him when Watergate investigators learned that tapes of him admitting wrongdoing may exist.
Available for the first time together in one great collection!
What happened next marked a fairly important point in the public's relationship with their Commander in Chief. Nixon could have said the tapes had been destroyed. It would have looked suspicious, but not as suspicious as a tape that features audio of you admitting you broke the law. Not by a long shot. However, he didn't destroy those tapes, because Nixon, for all intents and purposes, felt he had the absolute right to lie. He believed his executive privilege granted him the authority to keep those recordings a secret, and he was willing to take that silly argument to court.
I mean, the only reason I say it's silly is that he lost. By a lot. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ordered him to hand over the tapes. A win for Nixon would have set an ugly precedent for this country -- namely, that the powers of the Executive Branch know no boundaries. Granted, every president since forever has managed to find new and exciting ways to get around those boundaries, but Nixon's stubbornness in the '70s guaranteed it would at least be a little more difficult going forward.
What a hero!
Even better, not long after Nixon left office, Congress overrode President Ford's veto by a wide margin and gave us the Freedom of Information Act as we know it today. It sucked that we had to have a criminal for a president to make it happen, but still, it's a good thing to have. Especially if it means the government has to tell us the truth about aliens someday.
Zoroastrianism used to be one of the biggest religions in the world, but their idea of heaven had a slight twist on it: To get there, you'd have to cross a bridge -- sometimes rickety, sometimes wide and sturdy. If you fell off, you'd go to the House of Lies for eternity. Fun! Not terrifying at all! This month, Jack, Dan, and Michael, along with comedians Casey Jane Ellison and Ramin Nazer, discuss their favorite afterlife scenarios from movies, sci-fi, and lesser-known religions. Get your tickets here, and we'll see you on the other side of the bridge!