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How We Got Here: The ‘70s; The Decade That Brought You Modern Life—For Better Or Worse; By David Frum; Basicbooks: 224 Pp., $25
Zachary Karabell, Zachary Karabell is the author of the forthcoming "The Last, Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election."
Most of us remember the 1970s as a collective bad hair day. Many of us roll our eyes and shake our heads whenever we see old footage of bell-bottom-clad women and men wearing those absurdly broad ties and wide lapels. But the 1970s were more than an exercise in group kitsch. They were 10 years of tectonic cultural change. More than a state of mind or a strange interregnum between the activist ‘60s and the conservative ‘80s, the 1970s were a period that saw the erosion of the values and mores that had characterized the United States for much of the 20th century and a fitful attempt to develop new ones.
David Frum’s "How We Got Here" is an unusual, entertaining hybrid of political commentary, history, philosophy and polemic covering most of the major political, economic, social and cultural trends of the decade. It begins with the breakdown in trust between citizens and the erosion of law and order and progresses to the debacle of Vietnam, the corrosive legacy of Watergate, the fraying of family and community, the growth of religious fundamentalism on the one hand and New Age movements such as est on the other, to sexual promiscuity and governmental incompetence.
The ‘70s "were strange, feverish years," Frum writes. "They were a time of unease and despair, punctuated by disaster." Frum is the author of a previous book on the virtues of the Republican revolution ("What’s Right"), and he is at home on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard. Frum has also developed a reputation as something of a maverick, willing to ask unorthodox questions and come up with his own answers.
For Frum, the eclipse of so-called traditional values in the ‘70s has been a disaster for the general culture. Like many conservatives, he looks back to the ‘50s, an era he believes reflected stolid American virtues—virtues that included a respect for authority, self-reliance, a sense of responsibility to others and a belief in the primacy of the civic good over individual narcissism. For Frum, on every score, the ‘70s represented an utter rejection of those values.
For Frum, the ‘70s were a time when cynicism and sourness became fashionable, when the federal government made economic decisions that led directly to inflation and stagnation and most seriously when the bonds of respect and deference that linked doctors to patients, generals to privates, parents to children and ordinary citizens to elected officials all but disappeared.
Frum’s argument is enfeebled by his devotion to the cheap shot, the sarcastic aside. Too often, he condescends to the average men and women who tried to probe beneath the surface of official Washington by asking uncomfortable questions about what the military did in Vietnam or what the CIA was doing in various corners of the globe. He scorns the millions of ordinary Americans who tried to redefine marriage by eschewing the traditional ceremony or cohabiting. Quoting a woman who explained why living with someone felt more meaningful than having a marriage certificate, Frum writes, "Alas for her, cohabitation proved even less lasting than a piece of paper." This tone pervades "How We Got Here." Frum liberally sprinkles his discussion with rhetorical questions meant to convey disdain, and he gives few indications that he is anything but grumpy. According to Frum, the hippies, yippies, gays, women, blacks and liberal judges appointed by liberal politicians and selfish id-driven people started calling the shots in the United States. We didn’t get sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll; we got AIDS and broken families and homelessness. We got too many government regulations and too little personal responsibility; too much economic meddling by Washington and too little Milton Friedman. It is a familiar lament and by now an exercise in dead-horse beating.
Still, Frum’s views are not entirely devoid of nuance. He notes that for the last 50 years, "Americans have been asked to choose between two myths about their country’s recent past. In one, the heroes are the parents; in the other, the children." For the parents, the middle years of the century were a time of peace and prosperity that was ruined by the culture of the ‘70s, while for the children, the ‘70s brought to an end "a dark epoch of racism, sexism, and homophobia." Observing both myths, Frum concludes that neither stands up to strict scrutiny and that too many "moralists and politicians" today have "an uncritical nostalgia for the days when people ate what was put in front of them and were bloody grateful for it." Frum recognizes that the sphere of personal freedom has been much enlarged since the ‘70s, and that the ‘50s were "more militaristic, less innovative, more statist, less tolerant . . . more prejudiced, less free." Still, he also believes that certain things were better before and that the ‘70s left wounds that still fester.
Frum defends his curmudgeonly tendencies as healthy. "Discontent . . . moves humanity. . . . It is discontent that moves us morally too—not backward . . . but onward." Frum thinks that by condemning what he doesn’t like about the ‘70s, he can help move contemporary culture forward to a better future.
Much is omitted in Frum’s guided tour of the ‘70s. For example, he doesn’t talk about many of the decade’s most distinctive aspects. He doesn’t address the frivolity of the time, and he includes no discussion of movies or television or music and no musings on the changing nature of pleasure.
For many people, the ‘70s weren’t grim so much as they were ambiguous. The clothing. The funky hair, gravity-defying afros sticking up into the air and long, really long, flaxen bangs, flat and droopy, and oh, all that eyeliner. The movies, bursting with jagged camera images, Hammond organ music, gritty film stock, "Mean Streets" and "Coming Home," tough films, tough directors. And television, more like cinema verite than sitcoms of the ‘90s, replete with social commentary, provocative themes, the poor. Frum, oddly, is tone deaf. It’s as if he never permitted himself to crank up his stereo and listen to the lethargic guitar solo at the end of "Hotel California." We may cringe when we see that picture of our family, long hair, mustaches and polyester, but we also smile a bit, as if to say, "Never again," but oh, what a time.
© 2000 Los Angeles Times
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