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The Indianapolis Star
April 22, 2000, Saturday

1970s, for better or for worse

By Richard R. Roberts

How We Got Here—the '70s: The Decade that Brought You Modern Life (For Better or Worse)
Author: David Frum
Publisher: Basic Books
Price: $25

How We Got Here is an incisive, thorough and brilliant analysis of American life and culture in that cesspool of a decade, the 1970s, and the struggle to restore health and strength.

David Frum performs a remarkable feat, examining the massive shift from the proud and confident post-World War II years to the rebellion, flagrant crime and violence, sexual revolution, family breakdown, surging illegitimacy rates, decadence and nihilism of the years from the 1960s to the present.

"No one can understand our times without reading this book," wrote Michael Barone of U.S. News & World Report . Most readers without a strong ideological bias are likely to agree.

Max Boot of the Wall Street Journal writes, "No one has done a better job of explaining the origins of our present-day culture in all its weird and wonderful permutations."

Frum's style has the crackle and clarity of an ace thriller writer. Yet he tells this vast story with incredible detail, making it all come vividly alive in 39 chapters packed with facts intensely recognizable to adults who lived through these times—facts now illuminated with new insight.

Not the 1960s but the 1970s, says Frum, brought a surge of rioting, crime, violence, drug use, family breakups, adultery, college student cheating, the crumbling of safety and civility, judicial overreach, coddling of criminals, job dissatisfaction, militant feminism and homosexualism, self-centeredness, food and health fads, out-of-control inflation, political corruption, racially based double standards, terrorism, revolts against confiscatory taxation, runaway litigation, oil shortages, school deterioration, apocalyptic visions of global warming and cooling, and overpopulation and famine.

Also, rising school violence, anti-Semitism, anti-patriotism and moves toward the Balkanization of U.S. society—the end of the melting pot and multiplication of non-English-speaking, unassimilated immigrant blocs.

These were also the years when the U.S. Congress cut off military support and arms supplies to South Vietnam, assuring a communist victory, and withdrew support from Cambodia, opening the way for the Khmer Rouge slaughter of well over a million Cambodians to make way for an intellectual-designed "new society."

It was the time of White House security leaks, the Watergate political spying episode, arrest, trials and conviction of those involved, and the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

That should offer an idea of the scope and detail of this far-ranging and incisive book, which deserves a whole shelf of literary prizes.

More is bound to be heard from Frum, who is a contributing editor of the Weekly Standard and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

He has by no means given up on the United States, and takes account of its amazing variety and progress even though he wonders, as many Americans do, whether its current cultural base is not much weaker than that of earlier years, which despite many flaws was undeniably tough and enduring.

He says the social transformation of the 1970s "left behind a country that was more dynamic, more competitive and 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."

Yet if some things were not better in the days before the big transformation, he says, others were.

"It was better when people showed more loyalty to family and country, better when they read more and talked about themselves less, better when they restrained their sexuality, better when professors and curators were unafraid to uphold high intellectual and artistic standards, better when immigrants were expected to Americanize promptly, better when not every sorrow begot a lawsuit."

The fact that so many people today feel much is not well is proof that much is well, and it is discontent that moves us to invent, to improve, Frum reminds us.

We must know what is wrong if we are to make it right. You might consider this book a giant step in the right direction.

© 2000 The Indianapolis Star

Visit the How We Got Here webpage



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