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The Dallas Morning News
April 5, 2000

Look where ‘70s brought us

William Murchison

You know what?—you never know.

You think you do, but you can’t. Too much is going on to get a good, enduring fix on the whole of it.

I’m talking about the 1970s, as is David Frum in a witty and invigorating new book, How We Got Here, all about the decade that "Brought You Modern Life (For Better or Worse)."

Whew! What a decade: The bottom seemingly dropping out of everything [ellipsis] faith, hope, charity; God, country, mom’s apple pie. And amid it all—revival. Of a sort.

Such is the story David Frum spins—not quite the story you expect on the front end, what with all the deeply disruptive things going on, hitting us in the face day after day! The list is lengthy: Watergate, the sellout of Vietnam and Cambodia, bushy sideburns, a couple of energy crises, polyester, busing, moral and cultural revolution, chardonnay[ellipsis]

Chardonnay?! Stop right there. What was wrong, pray, with abandoning whiskey as society’s drink of choice? Brother Frum, explicitly or through implication, teases us with just such questions.

He opens up vistas of understanding about life’s operations: the good, the bad, the ugly. Life is forever reinventing itself. What the consequences will be [ellipsis] you never know. You just can’t.

The ‘70s—for better or worse—made modern America. They concocted a thing of bewildering inconsistency, looseness—and promise.

In the ‘70s, says David Frum (the Canadian-born journalist who is already one of America’s sharper political and social commentators), our country floundered at "low tide"—more "wracked with woe" than at any time since the Depression. "Never—not even during the Depression—had American pride and self-confidence plunged deeper."

Then Americans decided to do something about it. "They rethought. They reinvented. [ellipsis] Out of the failure and trauma of the ‘70s they emerged stronger, richer and—if it is not overdramatic to say so—greater than ever."

Well, now, I don’t know that we want to go that far! "Greater"? Richer, for certain; kinder, gentler, more inventive, more productive. OK: I’ll go with that.

What we did, says Mr. Frum, was break out of the habits we had formed during the Depression and World War II—uncharacteristic American habits, involving deference to central authority. "Never had the state been so strong, never had people submitted as uncomplainingly, never had the country been more economically equal, never had it been more ethnically homogeneous, seldom was its political consensus more overpowering."

It couldn’t last, in other words. And it didn’t. Came the varied rebellions of the ‘60s; but came also a revulsion against control from above. This played itself out in the form of economic deregulation and exuberant commitment to business innovation and the free play of market forces. F.A. Hayek wins the Nobel Price for economics. Wow!

You won’t catch Mr. Frum—a conservative—arguing for the sweetness and beauty and perfection of life today, as contrasted with the darkness of ages past.

How We Got Here chronicles all the looniness of the ‘70s, all the dissipation, self-indulgence and plain old immorality. We haven’t climbed out of this pit yet—and may not.

A generalized concern with diet, health and spirit (whatever "spirit" may mean at a given moment) hardly compensates for the collapse of the old moral structures. "Duty" and "responsibility" aren’t bad words. They are human necessities. Americans of the 21st century flatly aren’t on a moral or cultural par with the folks who lived around here after World War II.

Ah. Well. Whatcha going to do about it—crawl into a hole? You never know what’s coming down. Americans in the early ‘60s surely didn’t. The late ‘60s took them—us—wholly by surprise, as did the ‘70s.

What continues to amaze—concerning Americans—is their indefatigability, their sense of wonder and aspiration. What is, doesn’t last long around here—for better or worse, as David Frum would put it. Hope amid despair may be our national trademark.

You never truly, really, actually know.

William Murchison is a columnist for Viewpoints.

© 2000 The Dallas Morning News

Visit the How We Got Here webpage



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