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The ‘70s As The Real Revolution
The tumultuous 1960s usually get the credit, or the blame, for shaping contemporary American culture. It was the decade of Woodstock and marijuana, of student unrest, protests over Vietnam and civil rights and the days when President Johnson’s Great Society battled poverty and the Supreme Court created Miranda rights.
Yet despite the images of protest, war and assassination that form the nation’s collective memory of the ‘60s, reality was something very different, suggests conservative thinker David Frum. Even by 1967, only 5 percent of Americans had tried marijuana. Despite Woodstock and Altamont, the No. 1 song of 1969 wasn’t from Country Joe and the Fish; it was from the Archies ("Sugar, Sugar"). As late as 1964, a majority of American brides said they were virgins on their wedding night.
And, Frum points out, 30 years later, the Great Society lay tattered, and the federal welfare program had been abolished. The first baby boomer to become president, a protester of the Vietnam War, would actually order more overseas military adventures than any president since Franklin Roosevelt, with hardly a contrary word spoken at home.
The 1970s, meanwhile, are remembered as one long national fashion nightmare, a cultural hangover of leisure suits and disco. Frum, however, argues in his latest book, "How We Got Here" (Basic Books, $25), that it’s the ‘70s, not the ‘60s, that were most responsible for shaping modern-day America.
"A political upheaval was transformed into an upheaval in habits, beliefs and morals, and not the habits, beliefs and morals of an elite few, but of a quarter-billion souls spread across a vast continent," Frum writes. "The social transformation of the 1970s was real and was permanent. It left behind a country that was more dynamic, more competitive, more tolerant, less deferential, less self-confident, less united, more socially equal, less economically equal, more expressive, more risk-averse, more sexual, less literate, less polite, less reticent."
Calling from Washington last week, Frum—the author of "Dead Right" and a regular contributor to the Weekly Standard and NPR’s "Morning Edition"—said he originally conceived of his book as an unflattering history of the ‘70s called "Low Tide," critiquing an era not only of bad fashion but failed politics (Watergate, Jimmy Carter), the competitive collapse of American corporations and rapidly disintegrating families.
"At the time, it seemed heartbreaking. American corporations seemed unable to produce a decent product. ‘Made in the USA’ wasn’t a statement of quality but failure," Frum said. "But while the ‘70s seemed like a bad time when it was happening, a lot of good things were being born. Things were swept away, but it was time for a lot of them to be swept away. Corporations responded by eliminating top-down management structures and allowing people to think creatively, for example.
"We deregulated the airline industry. We made it legal for Americans to own gold. We learned wage and price controls don’t work and, when the price of oil doubles, that the right thing to do is nothing. There was a significant loss of faith in government, but that was positive as well. Now we’re not looking to the government to pay for our retirement. We’ve learned that there’s a difference between an IRA and Social Security, and that an IRA is better. And technologically, there was the invention of the personal computer, the mouse and the creation of the Internet."
On the other hand, the new culture of self-expression and freedom that began flourishing at the office had a flip-side at home, as drug use and the divorce rate skyrocketed, showing to Frum that not all liberation is healthful.
"One million American families lost parents to divorce," Frum said. "That’s there today, in how difficult it is for people in their 20s to form successful relationships."
The other downsides of the ‘70s, as Frum sees them: the growth of out-of-wedlock birth rates; a plunge in academic standards because schools made self-esteem and emotional fulfillment more important than intellectual achievement; the end of the melting pot as newcomers were no longer asked to quickly American-ize; and new forms of religion that "encouraged Americans to think less about ethics and more about their inward spirituality."
All these changes, good and bad, happened because the social and political structure built to manage industrialism and to fight world wars stopped making sense. Inflation, technology and the defeat in Vietnam helped discredit the old way of doing things.
Frum’s not nostalgic for the past. Before the ‘70s, you couldn’t find a good risotto in Minneapolis, cartoons on TV for a sick child at 10 a.m. or an airplane ticket to Paris for less than $900. But he also believes it is possible to "re-moralize" and understand maybe our grandparents did some things right.
"If you believe the past is better than tomorrow, you want to make time pass as slow as possible," he said. "Nostalgia is the enemy of purposeful action. It’s important to believe things can be better."
© 2000 The Hartford Courant
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