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The London Free Press
June 2, 2000, Friday

David Frum’s New Book Explains Our Misery

Rory Leishman, London Freelance Writer

What has gone wrong in Canada, the United States and Western Europe? At a time of unprecedented prosperity, why are these countries so burdened with violence, misery and despair?

David Frum serves up some answers in an entertaining and perceptive new book, How We Got Here: The 70s, The Decade That Brought You Modern Life—For Better Or Worse. To begin with, he observes that despite persistent complaints about the difficulties of making ends meet, the great majority of Americans are far better clothed, housed and fed, and far more lavishly entertained, than any previous generation.

Even the poor are much better off. What now passes for a poverty line amounted to an average income 50 years ago. "In other words," writes Frum, " at the end of the 1970s, a poor family could afford to buy about as much as a middle-class family could in 1950."

In one crucial respect, though, the poor are much worse off. Unlike their predecessors, the great majority of low-income individuals no longer live in intact families.

In the 1930s, notes Frum, impoverished families did not typically live in chaos, "with mother out all day and children parked in front of the televisions, with dad replaced by a sequence of boyfriends, in a neighbourhood where nobody worked and where fathers never lived with their families, where drugs were openly sold, bullets careened through the courtyards of the housing projects and junk food was munched form morning to night. Tragically often, that was precisely what it meant to be poor in 1980."

An epidemic of illegitimacy and divorce has served to perpetuate poverty amidst affluence. Generous, no-strings-attached welfare payments in the 1960s were supposed to solve the problem. Instead, they have served only to aggravate matters by fostering dependency, undermining the work ethic and sabotaging the traditional family.

To compound the misery, a devastating breakdown in family stability has been accompanied by an upsurge in violent crime. Referring to the United States, Frum observes that, "One’s chance of being robbed, raped, assaulted or murdered nearly tripled between 1960 and 1980, with the biggest single jump in crime occurring in 1974."

Not even little children have been spared from soaring crime and violence. As illegitimacy rates soared in the 1970s, so did injuries to battered children. "Between 1950 and 1975," reports Frum, "the homicide rate for children between ages one and four tripled; in 1975, murder was the leading cause of death of young children in the United States."

These are the tragic results, explains Frum, of subjecting illegitimate children, "to the temper of an overwhelmed and despairing mother and the predation of a series of resentful, insecure and often violent boyfriends."

Divorce manuals in the 1970s used to assure us that single-parenthood posed no risks for children. We now know better. Research over the past 30 years has amply confirmed that boys and girls who grow up without the care and supervision of a natural or adoptive father are far more likely than their peers to drop out of school, abuse drugs, get into trouble with the law and end up themselves as impoverished, embittered and despairing single parents.

The sexual revolution of the 1960s was supposed to bring peace, joy and liberation. Instead, it has fostered abortion, anguish, single parenthood and a threefold increase in suicide rates among United States teenagers.

"I think I am typical of my generation," lamented a sexually active young woman in the 1970s. "To live a life of continuous affairs is a big blank. You get nothing from it. But what’s the alternative?"

Frum takes heart from her discontent. At the conclusion of his book, he suggests, "It is discontent that moves us morally—not backward, because the past never returns, no matter how lovely it was—but onward, away from the follies and triumphs of the 1970s and toward something new: new vices, new virtues, new sins—and new progress."

Is that right? Surely not. The whole tenor of Frum’s book serves to confirm the wisdom of Ecclesiastes: Truly, there is nothing new under the sun. The crimes, follies and misfortunes of the 1970s were due less to anything new than to an unbridled indulgence in old vices and old sins. And there is no way people in this new millennium can curb these old evils except through a revival in the good, old, Judeo- Christian virtues that have stood the test of centuries.

NOTES: Rory Leishman is a London freelance writer. His column appears Fridays.

© 2000 The London Free Press

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