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The Boston Globe

February 13, 2000, Sunday

How’d We Get So Vacuous? The ‘70s, Spin, And Too Much Self

By Katherine A. Powers

As I was lying in bed the other morning, listening to the radio and debating the issues—getting up versus giving up—I heard a pundit, elated and frisky, gleefully pronounce that the Bush-McCain contest was not one of different positions, but of different "styles." The voters of New Hampshire, he told us (positively bouncing in his seat), had shown that, of the two styles, they prefer "candor" over—I don’t know what, "dynasty," maybe. I can’t say; by this time my head was under my pillow. All this long-headed blatting on from these self-entranced media wallahs is driving me nuts: The journalismo jabber about "cojones" and "alpha males," and about the role of the media, the job of the media, the perception of the media, the perceived perception of the role of the job of the media—layer after layer added to the onion.

How did we get here? I have a stack of books that I hoped would answer this question, the first title being, as it happens, "How We Got Here: The 70’s, The Decade That Brought You Modern Life—for Better or Worse" by David Frum (Basic Books, $25). As a description of the 1970s the book is remarkable. The cover alone, with its string of keywords from that unlamented era, would make a grown man cry (though without embarrassment, thanks to the ‘70s): Mr. Goodbar, Uri Geller, Larry Flynt, Donahue, Fonzie, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Birkenstocks, poppers, spinach salad, EST, the Secret Life of Plants, and You Are Your Own Best Friend. Within the book, Frum’s argument for the decade’s having engendered our present deplorable sensibilities and the general dumbing down of everything is both original and convincing—it blows the 1960s’ claim to that honor out of the water. His discussion of the defining cultural and political aspects of the 1970s, especially his treatment of the growth of self-absorption in its several manifestations, is depressingly acute.

At a higher level of analysis, Frum’s hypothesis that the 1970s represented "the rebellion of an unmilitary people against the institutions and laws formed by a century of war and the preparation for war" has much to be said for it, as does his assertion that the 1970s’ break with the past was as abrupt and sweeping as it was because of the Vietnam War, desegregation, inflation, and, to some extent, advances in technology.

For all that, the book is dreadfully and fatally flawed. Presented here, despite discussions of taxation, wages, and inflation, is an America that has gone wrong culturally with a vengeance, and politically, too, but that seems to have no financial infrastructure. Indeed, in an ode to deregulation, its consequences for savings and loans institutions (remember them?) are passed over silently. Here, furthermore, are no economic entities working their will on politics and foreign policy, or peddling their wares, or conniving at and cashing in on mass credulity. Nowhere in his book are corporations and cartels (except as victims of "60 Minutes" investigations).

Where are the interests of oil, tobacco, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, broadcasting, publishing, the AMA in national health insurance, ITT in Chile, Bacardi in Cuba, the United Fruit Company in Guatemala? Where are the interests of the phalanx of consultants and analysts that gathered force in the 1970s to produce nothing, but who prey off a "service economy"? And where, except as a demonstration of its conservative version, is "spin"?

Spin, the deepening fog that obscures every issue in public life, is the subject of Stuart Ewen’s brilliant "PR!: A Social History of Spin" (Basic Books, $17). The book begins and ends with Edward Bernays, and draws a partly admiring, partly chilling picture of the self-styled "Father of PR." His "hallucination of democracy," as Ewen puts it, is that "a highly educated class of opinion-molding tacticians is continuously at work, analyzing the social terrain and adjusting the mental scenery from which the public mind, with its limited intellect, derives opinions." The "engineering of consent" has replaced the liberal idea of democracy. We all know this; but Ewen shows how this state of affairs came to be, starting with the muckrakers of the Progressive era. Usually thought of as champions of democracy, they are shown here in a less flattering light. Their exposures and campaigns, worthy though they were, appealed to emotion and were, in fact, commodities of a sort. "Reforms" were stage-managed, not forged from public involvement.

In my opinion, the most intolerable aspect of contemporary life—worse than living in a concocted reality, worse than simply accepting it with a shrug—is that the reign of spin has given rise to that scabrous tribe of commentators who make a living by analyzing what other analysts are trying to project. It is positively Swiftian.

For years I have been hearing how funny Joe Queenan is. During the long period when I thought people were talking about Joe Keenan (a different Joe who wrote a couple of comic, campy novels), I used to agree wholeheartedly. I finally got the names straight, and soon after heard Andy Rooney on the radio—still from my bed, I regret to say—praising Queenan’s independent thinking and sense of humor. A moment’s happiness washed over my despairing form. And, mirabile dictu, as though my powerful, well-rested mind had summoned it from the realm of Hyperion, Queenan’s new book appeared at my door the very next day.

"My Goodness: A Cynic’s Short-lived Search for Sainthood" (Hyperion, $21.95) is simply awful. In it is distilled so vast a portion of self-congratulation, self-regard, self-involvement, self-promotion, and sheer selfy-selfness that to read it is to witness someone disappearing up his own "self." Queenan makes Cokie Roberts (who has just published a book with her husband about their marriage) seem modest, unassuming, and interesting. The "idea" behind "My Goodness" is that Joe Queenan, a politically incorrect curmudgeon, decides to become sensitive, caring, the whole deal. To get across the full force of this blindingly dull high concept, he recycles countless past attacks on fat targets and crows about what a bad boy he’s been.

But, golly, would you look at him now! "The very idea," he marvels, "that Nasty Old Joe Queenan was writing letters to apologize for things he had written was nigh on inconceivable. Yet there I was, apologizing here, apologizing there, apologizing everywhere. Jeepers, that Grinch was in a sorry state!"


© 2000 The Boston Globe

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