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The Detroit News
March 1, 2000

Disco Decade of '70s created today's America

By Chuck Moss

Ah, those 1970s -- the Rodney Dangerfield of decades, replete with bad hair, stupid fashion, moronic leadership and disco. We who survived it greeted the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 like a lifer grabs at amnesty. The 1970s remain a vast, powder-blue, polyester leisure suit in the closet of American memory.

But to conservative writer David Frum of the Weekly Standard, the '70s deserve far more attention, having seen "the most total social transformation that the United States has lived through since the coming of industrialization. ..."

Frum spells out his thesis in How We Got Here: The '70s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life (For Better Or Worse). His book is more than 300 pages, but feels about half as long, so readable and accessible is the style. Although crammed full of fascinating history and analysis, How We Got Here never drags. David Frum's take on the Disco Decade tears open an unexpected line of inquiry.

According to Frum, the '70s were not merely about goofy fashions and music, but a time when the United States burst through the stable, garrison society erected by the discipline of industrialism and total war. The legacy of the '70s is a society both freer and more chaotic, a collective, continuing rebellion built on the momentum of the society-shattering 1960s -- for better and for worse.

Take the America of boomer childhood, now as quaint and lost as the America of Currier and Ives. At the time it seemed normal, but as Frum writes, "the stability of mid-century was the product of special and in some ways un-American circumstances: war and mobilization for war; the heyday of heavy industry; a depression that convinced normally individualistic Americans to submit to unprecedented direction and regimentation. A carapace of control had been locked upon the country as an emergency measure. But as the emergency dragged on decade after decade ... in the 1970s, the country at last burst through it."

Frum details that stable, controlled, postwar America: a landscape ruled by powerful, but not-yet-truly-big government; muscular unions; and oligopolistic, but supervised corporations. Square pegs didn't go in round holes.

Leaders like Dwight Eisenhower prized fiscal prudence, but, Frum adds, the "greatest generation was also the statist generation." When GI leaders like John Kennedy came to power all through the West, they attempted vast, ambitious social experiments, such as abolishing poverty.

"In a story as old as the Greeks," Frum writes, "overweening pride brought disaster. The old men of the 1950s earned trust; the young men of the '60s squandered it."

That squandering ran amok into the '70s -- in the economic mismanagement that led to inflation and recession; in the social engineering schemes, such as forced busing, that discredited liberal elites; in Watergate, which discredited everybody; and in the Vietnam War. Debacle after debacle destroyed public faith in the leadership. The social revolution followed hard.

In describing social changes, Frum is sternly adamant that too many babies were thrown out with the national bathwater -- quite literally, if you look at abortion. A rejection of regimentation and conformity spread from young people to middle-class marriage, to illegitimate births, to drugs and finally to a loss of social cohesion, spawning a nightmare backwash of human misery. Blind deference to experts gave way not just to healthy skepticism, but to a notion that "there is no truth, only political muscle."

Frum also contends that today's discontent and nostalgia for the mid-20th century is a yearning for the good things lost in the freedom revolution. Mock the Beaver Cleaver years if you like, but a world where kids come home from trusted schools to an available mom and a dad they respect, where every dispute doesn't mean a lawsuit, where self-discipline trumps self-realization, sounds better with each passing year.

While we can't go back to that world, there are elements of it that we can reinvent if we want. "Time may move in one direction, but it is never too late to lead a better life," writes Frum. The '70s didn't just happen -- they were the result of acts by people, mostly still alive.

As a society we should and can retrieve some of those lost virtues and societal elements, he argues. But before we can "re-moralize" and march forward, we need to understand where we've been and how we got here.

Michael Barone writes in his 1998 Almanac of American Politics: "Start with this proposition: that America today more closely resembles the pre-industrial America that Alexis de Toqueville described in the 1830s than the industrial America in which most of us grew up. Toqueville's America was egalitarian, individualistic, decentralized, religious, property-loving, lightly governed." Frum likewise finds parallels between the chaotic, immigrant-energized America of 1900 and today.

If so, a strange and unnatural interlude in American history has come to an end. As we face the 21st century in a dynamic society of winners and losers, Frum writes, "there is something healthier to do than pine for the lost days of the past." We're moved morally "onward, away from the follies and triumphs of the 1970s and toward something new: new vices, new virtues, new sins -- and new progress."

As we make this journey, How We Got Here is one of the few books that is a must-read, giving the 1970s the scrutiny they deserve. This wide-ranging volume, like its untidy, sprawling subject, belongs in the dance floor spotlight, not swept under the orange shag rug.

© 2000 The Detroit News

Visit the How We Got Here webpage



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