This One Picture of Telly Savalas Refutes All Fears That Progress Has Ended

Don’t believe the naysayers: Our country is doing better than ever, and this People magazine cover proves it.

10.30.14 9:50 AM ET

I started receiving People magazine recently, and as I was leafing through its ho-hum 40th anniversary issue, I stumbled across this 1974 cover featuring Telly Savalas, the man who mainstreamed baldness into everyday life (screw you, Yul Brynner!) and portrayed Kojak, one of the most memorable small-screen detectives up to that point in TV history. This cover, I submit, is as sharp a rebuke to the “progress is over!” crowd as Samuel Johnson’s stone-kicking hissy fit was to Bishop Berkeley.

There is, of course, a lot of talk in the air these days about the end of progress large and small. We’re in The Great Stagnation, don’t you know, and technological and economic momentum has conked out like the engine on a 1977 Chevy Vega. What we really “need is more Apollo-like projects” but we’re too chicken-shit and beat-down to think BIG anymore. Or maybe we just need one of those bogus “alien invasions” that Paul Krugman is always flapping his gums about.

The middle class can’t afford nothing no more, Amazon’s warehouse workers are “today’s coal miners,” and even bomb-crazy and jihad-suffering Middle Easterners are more optimistic about the future than Americans and Europeans. The Experts (with a capital E!) have spoken: We’ve reached The End of Progress.

So back to Savalas, and bear with me here. Cue up Telly’s incomparable semi-parlando rendering of If. Get lost in the Aegean-deep pools of Telly’s eyes and marvel at his gold-chain-and-bracelet set. As you contemplate a naked celebrity torso apparently unfamiliar with any form of exercise, let’s count the ways in which the world has not just gotten a little bit better but a whole fucking lot better since Kojak was on the case.

First off is all the obvious economic stuff. Despite the increasingly pitched discussions about rising income inequality and household-debt levels, there’s no question that across virtually all possible measures of material resources, the typical American is far better off than they were 40 years ago.

Medicine is better and more generally available. People live longer. They own more…stuff. Even low-income Americans have more access to more food, clothing, and shelter. This is all true even as the distance between standards of living in the United States and other developed countries has shrunk. Educational attainment proceeds apace and, as the Manhattan Institute’s Scott Winship has demonstrated, not only is income inequality routinely exaggerated, the ability of younger Americans to rise above their parents’ station is not in question.

“Fully 84 percent of today’s forty-somethings have higher size-adjusted family incomes than their parents did at the same age,” Winship writes. Yes, we can and should have even more mobility and opportunity. But that’s very different from what doomsayers are arguing.

How about what we might consider softer definitions of progress? On the technology front, there’s simply no way to recapture the primitive world that was 1974. This was a world without not simply the Internet and personal computers and widespread cable TV. It was a world without second TV sets and second telephones in the house and calculators in your pocket. Forget VCRs and binge-watching shows on your schedule. One of the reasons why Kojak and other broadcast shows pulled huge ratings was because there was nothing else to watch and nowhere else to watch it.

In terms of options, the cultural world of 1974 was vastly better than that of 1954. But it was a dead planet compared to the one we could take for granted by 1994 much less today. Let’s stipulate Kojak was not simply popular but aesthetically accomplished. Whatever you might say about TV back then—and much of it was good—there is simply no comparison to the golden age of today.

For most of his career, Savalas (1922-1994) could pass for a vaguely exciting yet essentially non-threatening “exotic ethnic.” He was Greek American, after all, and he hit it big in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the percentage of foreign-born people in the United States hit a historic low of just 4.7 percent. At such low numbers, we could afford to feel expansive toward foreigners. To be Greek American (his birth-name was Aristotelis!) was a slight variation on being Italian, Jewish, Polish, Slavic, or any number of acceptable white- ethnic types. In every possible way—and all to the good—we live in an infinitely more cosmopolitan world, one that is vastly more connected to every corner of the globe. The percent of foreign-born in the country is around 13 percent and inching back up toward where it was in the decade Savalas was born.

Savalas was lucky to be born when he was, as it meant he didn’t have to suffer as much for his ethnicity the way previous generations had. As Leslie Fiedler would suggest in his prescient 1970 study of American writers and what would come to be known as identity politics, Waiting for the End, an economically ascendant post-war United States was finally confident enough to start playing with its sense of identity. This was an age of Black Power and even “Polish Power,” where The Godfather cast the archetypal American experience as the story of Italian-American gangsters and Roots cast it as a slave narrative. Jewish writers were the guardians of the novel—that most WASPish of genres—and to be “ethnic” was not simply tolerated but celebrated.

The cast of characters we expect to meet in our daily wanderings has vastly expanded to include every possible permutation of race and ethnicity imaginable. We may not exactly be post-racial, if that term means the elimination of all tribal-based prejudice and attitudes, but we’ve traveled a huge distance. In 1974, according to Gallup, only about 30 percent of Americans “approved” of interracial marriages. The current figure is 87 percent. Similarly, attitudes toward gays and other long-marginalized groups and behaviors (such as smoking dope) have shifted radically in favor of inclusion.

The sorts of character tics that helped make Savalas’ Kojack memorable—the chrome dome, the lollipops, the idiosyncratic “who loves ya, baby?” tagline—have become so completely absorbed into an increasingly libertarian culture that they are unremarkable today. Assuming you go into an office, chances are every day is casual Friday. Shaving your head is passe and even tattoos are fading as a personalized cultural statement. Your HR person is as likely to be as pierced as your barista.

And think of world-rocking changes in gender roles and expectations. For all the righteous rage related to the crassly and frankly sexist rhetoric around GamerGate, here too we’ve come a long way (baby). Take a look again at Savalas’ body there on that cover. Like virtually every other male sex symbol of the time—including even rock stars like Robert Plant and sex machines like Warren Beatty—he’s a piece of human veal. And yet he’s confident and unembarrassed despite sporting less definition than a spelling bee for illiterates.

That body, I’d argue, is the essence of male privilege and it has largely disappeared not just from the covers of People but from most relationships. It’s not that men can’t still get by without having chiseled abs and contoured delts, but they can’t get away with thinking they are unambiguously the object of all female desire. Men who still think they will inherit a world in which they won’t be working hard as hell to please their partners sexually, economically, intellectually, and emotionally are men whose time has most definitely past.

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Indeed, as we think about progress since 1974, consider as well the cover of the magazine’s special 40th anniversary issue. It features Taylor Swift recreating the mag’s very first cover, which in turn featured Mia Farrow dressed as Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby.

The distance between the two women can’t be measured simply in years. Farrow’s professional life has been almost entirely bounded by the men in her life—Frank Sinatra, Woody Allen—and an entertainment industry that exploited actors like a steel mill uses iron, as a raw material. Swift is thriving in a post-Napster record world in which she not only has far greater control over the presentation of her sexuality but over her music, her marketing, and her future.

That, I submit, represents Progress with a capital P—and not just for her, but for all of us.