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Denver Rocky Mountain News
Though Retro May Be Chic, ‘70s Have A Lot To Answer For
People who lament the deplorable state of American society—and nearly everyone can find something to deplore—are quite likely to blame whatever they don’t like on the ‘60s. I’ve done it myself.
Not so, says David Frum in his new book, How We Got Here. The ‘70s, he says, are ‘‘the decade that brought you modern life—for better or worse.’’
The turmoil of the ‘70s should be understood as ‘‘the rebellion of an unmilitary people against institutions and laws formed by a century of war and the preparation for war.’’
The political consensus of the middle decades of the 20th century was an anomaly in American history, Frum says, built on the common experience of depression and war. The centralized state had never been so strong, yet people submitted to it with little complaint.
The war demanded ‘‘taxation, regulation, and control; hierarchy, centralization, and secrecy; conscription, obedience, and authority—none of them easily reconciled with the American constitutional scheme or the American national character.’’
As long as everything worked pretty well, pretty well everybody went along. But in the ‘70s things stopped working. The Vietnam war, in the eyes of opponents, discredited the government that waged it, and the abandonment of South Vietnam did the same for those who had supported the war, or at least its aims.
The civil rights movement had shaken the country’s confidence in its own rectitude, but it was the courts’ takeover of the public schools that shattered its confidence in the government’s power. ‘‘Busing,’’ Frum says, ‘‘triggered a whole new perception among ordinary middle-class people of the malignity of public authority.’’
And economic disaster in the ‘70s destroyed the illusion of government competence in that field. Remember the misery index, the sum of inflation and unemployment? In 1970 it was 10.6; in 1980, 20.6. The decade encompassed Richard Nixon’s wage and price controls, Gerald Ford’s hapless ‘‘Whip Inflation Now’’ buttons and Jimmy Carter’s ‘‘malaise.’’ None of it helped, because inflation comes from the government printing too much money and the government kept doing exactly that.
The price of oil quadrupled, causing a recession, and the government’s reaction was to inflate the money supply some more. ‘‘To turn a commodity shock into a decade of inflation demands the all-out, full-time effort of dozens of hardworking public officials,’’ Frum says.
All that explains why Americans so readily identified with the line from the movie Network: ‘‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!’’
When people get mad enough, they don’t think things through. ‘‘Americans did not pause to distinguish between obsolete and unnecessary restrictions and good and wise one,’’ Frum says. ‘‘They smashed them all.’’
Marriage was merely one among many equally good lifestyle choices, society, not criminals, was responsible for skyrocketing crime rates, the public schools dedicated themselves to fostering self-esteem. Self-sacrifice was out and self-indulgence was in.
But pendulums swing back, and the ‘90s were as conformist as the ‘50s—just about different things.
‘‘Imagine a club like Studio 54 opening in Rudy Giuliani’s New York, ‘‘ Frum suggests. ‘‘In 1995, the place would have been permanently shuttered within the first 24 hours under a barrage of drug, prostitution, public hygiene, liquor licensing and traffic violation charges.’’
For young people, ‘‘the 1970s must look like a time in which people had more fun than anybody is permitted to have today.’’
What Frum has done is take the jigsaw-puzzle pieces of American social history, turn them over, and assemble them into quite a different picture of how we got here—and where we want to go.
‘‘I believe human beings can learn from the past and make moral choices accordingly,’’ Frum said. ‘‘It’s always possible for us to lead a better life. And some of the guideposts to a better future are found in the past.’’
© 2000 Denver Rocky Mountain News
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