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In These Times
March 20, 2000

Sucking in the ‘70s

By Joe Knowles

How We Got Here: The ‘70s: The Decade that Brought You Modern Life (For Better or Worse) By David Frum Basic Books 418 pages, $25

After Barry Goldwater leveled a shotgun to the notion of a common good—but before Ronald Reagan pulled the trigger and Bill Clinton cooked the remains—there were the ‘70s. The decade was the last hurrah for public space as we know it, before the consensus of focus-grouped, bite-sized government rendered obsolete ambitious public works, or, in the more menacing and politically acceptable phrase, "big government.” Despite the ongoing cachet of ‘70s nostalgia, nothing so definitively demonstrates the old republic’s death more than that monolith of ‘70s civic architecture and philosophy: the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, built in 1977 and blown to smithereens in 1995. For all the official hand-wringing—and open contempt for civil liberties—engendered in the bloody aftermath, who is Timothy McVeigh but the brutally logical extension of Goldwater’s false conscience, Reagan’s cowboy bravado and Clinton’s abject cowardice?

The ‘70s are the missing link in the nation’s trajectory from halcyon hope in civil rights and the Great Society to deep suspicion of one’s neighbors and manifestly desperate faith in e-commerce and 401(k) retirement plans. Up until now, not many serious historians have ventured a sustained examination of the ‘70s, perhaps for fear of what they might find decaying beneath the shag carpet. The left prefers the vigorous idealism of the ‘60s, the right the go-go ‘80s; both would rather not dwell on inflation and the Bee Gees. The title of the Rolling Stones’ 1981 greatest-hits compilation says it all: Sucking in the Seventies.

Enter David Frum, amiable right-wing columnist for Canada’s National Post and hip-to-be-square contributor to The Weekly Standard. Frum’s strong suit heretofore has been as a theorist of electoral politics. Though a true believer in the rightist program, his past warnings against the "marketing oxymoron" of George W. Bush’s "compassionate conservatism" are telling, as is his unforgettable summation of the Clinton presidency: "The left gets words, the right gets deeds.” So as Frum turns his hand toward pop history, there’s reason to believe he can shed some light on an important time that is too often ignored or glibly reprocessed as just another dab on the palette of retro fashion. Indeed, the thesis stated in the subtitle of his new book, How We Got Here: The ‘70s: The Decade that Brought You Modern Life (For Better or Worse), is unimpeachable, insofar as it states the obvious.

For starters, the first shots of the sexual revolution may have been fired in the ‘60s, but in the ‘70s the revolt spread from the campuses to the suburbs. As Frum notes, the number one song in 1969 was The Archies’ "Sugar, Sugar"; in the ‘70s, disco anthems to gay liberation percolated through shopping malls, and nobody seemed to be bothered by Woody Allen’s Orgasmatron or John Updike’s best-selling tales of wife swapping in New England. In the ‘70s, Nixon ended the draft, and Carter went him one better, granting outright amnesty to those who previously had ditched Uncle Sam’s war machine. Nixon gave the environmental movement a federal imprimatur by creating the EPA; Carter gave solar and other alternative fuels a priority they haven’t enjoyed before or since. The ‘60s were a space-age decade of plastic and Formica; the ‘70s a relatively crunchy interlude of spider plants and macrame. Those years may not have been as historically pointed, but they were unprecedented.”The agonies and protests of the 1960s ended, and the questions of those days lost their focus and intensity," Frum writes.”But they did not cease to prick. Like a drop of ink in a bucket of water, the questions blurred, lost their shape, became indistinct, and finally vanished—but in vanishing, tinctured the whole bucket.”

That’s a nice way of putting it, which is good, because beyond this sensible point of departure, Frum’s compulsively readable style is one of the few things he has going for him. His understanding of the ‘70s is couched in a half-true, fuzzy view of the past 100 years, where the chaos of two world wars and the Great Depression transformed the supposedly laissez-faire-loving Americans of the Gilded Age into the "garrison society" of midcentury, with strong unions and relatively small gaps between rich and poor. Circumstances "convinced normally individualistic Americans to submit to unprecedented direction and regimentation.”

Substitute "elites" for "Americans" in this sentence and Frum would have it right: For most Americans, the sweat-shops and factory floors of the 19th century were the real time of "unprecedented direction and regimentation," when the vast majority worked incessantly at near-slave wages. By the ‘50s, however, a high school graduate could work only 40 hours a week and support a family of four. Elites, of course, finally agreed to wear this harness of progressive redistribution only after Depression-era threats of popular uprising were palpable in the streets.

But Frum interprets the ‘70s as the popular revolt against this "garrison society," when we took heroic steps toward the happy dawn of Reaganomics. Again, Frum has a habit of confusing his friends on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal with the general public. If what he means by the garrison society is liberalism, then yes, obviously it started dying in the ‘70s. (Certainly our actual garrison society is still alive and well, as anyone aware of the Pentagon’s budget, or the flourishing prison industry, can tell the selectively informed Frum. ) But it wasn’t as if the clockpunchers down at the local plant demanded their real wages fail to keep pace with inflation. They didn’t insist that their unions be busted, and, later on, they didn’t plead to have their jobs downsized or exported to some dictatorship free of pesky labor and environmental standards. All these assaults on the working and middle classes were a direct result of the darkside of ‘70s politics, where the trend back toward laissez-faire took its first bold steps in both parties.

What gave elites the green light to abandon the old social contract? Here is where Frum’s ass-backwards historical lens occasionally can be instructive. The reasons Frum gives are, essentially, Vietnam, civil rights and inflation. Postwar liberal capitalism could not survive public scrutiny of its imperial underbelly, which was finally laid bare in the bloody jungles of Vietnam. Similarly, the aftermath of the civil rights movement did for the domestic consensus what Vietnam did for foreign policy.”If America could have been so terribly blind to justice in this one way," Frum asks, "might there not be other ways in which it was equally blind? " And runaway inflation, which signaled the beginning of the lower classes’ decades-long plunge, corroded popular faith in the economic wisdom of the old political establishment. Liberal capitalism crumbled in the face of this discrediting triad: The public no longer believed the elites’ story, and therefore, the elites reasoned, why should we? (Curiously, this analysis uncannily resembles that of Marxist social theorist Immanuel Wallerstein, but that’s another story. )

In the ensuing vacuum, currents flowed in all directions. Culturally, it was an exciting interval between the mass entertainment of the ‘50s and ‘60s and the computerized niche marketing of the ‘80s and ‘90s. From A Clockwork Orange to The Godfather to Annie Hall, the movies were never more adventurous. You could peruse the bookstand at the airport or supermarket and find, situated between diet bestsellers and pulp romances, a mass-paperback copy of an anarchist epic like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Politically, it was heterogeneous to say the least: Suburban homeowners associations teemed with mad-as-hell John Birchers and anti-tax extremists, while bands of radical squatters took over portions of the burned-out urban core. In Washington, both parties visibly convulsed with debate, as elites wondered aloud where to go from here. But, despite occasional flashes of progressivism, they eventually made up their minds: Old guard Republicans put up a weak fight against the proto-Reaganite laissez-faire insurgency, while leading Democrats began waving the flag for deregulation. The owners of the country seized the initiative in the vacuum—and we didn’t. This is the enduring tragedy of the ‘70s.

But not, of course, if you’re David Frum. How We Got Here is a remarkable exercise in disinformation. The book is so fraught with basic errors and inexplicable arguments that it’s hard to know where to begin. In one sermon against the evils of price controls, he argues that, contrary to what you’ve heard from those raving liberal geologists, oil is actually a renewable resource: "The world’s oil supply is not like the world’s supply of an old master’s paintings. . . . The world’s supply of oil is more like a supermarket’s supply of canned tomatoes . . . the more tomatoes that customers buy, the bigger an inventory the store will carry.” Still more troubling are his flat-out lies, like how Nixon and Kissinger "prevented" a "Communist coup" in Chile, how Supreme Court Justice William Brennan was like Chairman Mao, or, in Frum’s weirdest moment, how feminism led to . . . shoplifting? Say what?

Meanwhile, on Vietnam Frum is cooly able to admit that "the Indochina commitment exceeded America’s real security needs.” But then he goes on to denigrate the New York Times’ decision to publish the Pentagon Papers—which so nakedly revealed the war as an imperial adventure run amok—as "a grand defeat for the ideal of national security.” Similarly, Frum makes some unexpected overtures to the prospect of gay rights. Indeed, old-fashioned bellicose hatred just won’t do these days, at least if you want to be taken seriously. So Frum instead tries to make a martyr out of washed-up singer Anita Bryant, the anti-gay crusader who was as distasteful a bigot as there ever was: "While it could be dangerous for a public figure to speak in favor of homosexual rights, it was positively lethal to oppose them.” It doesn’t occur to him that just maybe she deserved to fall into obscurity, both for her artistic demerits and dubiously retrograde politics. In the free marketplace of ideas—the one free market Frum is afraid of—Bryant lost.

I could go on and on, but this smattering of Frum’s inconsistencies points to a graver issue. Most history books reveal more about the times in which they are written than about their ostensible subject, and How We Got Here easily falls into this category. As a history of the ‘70s, it’s pretty worthless, but it does speak volumes about the mood and politics of today. Frum’s pattern here mimics the rhetorical style of the right’s supposed antichrist, Bill Clinton: Pre-emptively massage would-be critics with some nice words, then go ahead and cheerfully disregard the facts. Perhaps Frum understands Clintonism so well because he’s an ace practitioner of Clintonesque feel-good conservatism himself: How We Got Here is, finally, a depressing triangulation of history, a distortion of a critical period in America when we could have chosen a much different path in the after-math of liberal capitalism.

Instead, we got handed the poisonous brand of conservative capitalism of the past two decades, for which Frum’s book is a smiling and gleeful apology. Triumphant about the loss of our manufacturing base to dictatorships abroad, Frum is happy to report that "social democracy was born on the assembly line and died with it.” Not necessarily: From last year’s awesome showdown in Seattle to this year’s ridiculous presidential race, events do point to another fissure in the suffocating consensus, a golden opportunity for a progressive revival that perhaps hasn’t been seen in 30 years. Will we dare to propose an alternative vision—and act on it—or will we, once again, let the elites work it out among themselves?

© 2000 In These Times

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