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National Review
February 7, 2000

A Low, Dishonest Decade

John Podhoretz; Mr. Podhoretz’s column on the 2000 campaign appears in the New York Post.

How We Got Here: The 70’s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life (For Better or Worse), by David Frum (Basic Books, 481 pp., $25)

IN his introduction to Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey opines that, "if he is wise," any chronicler of recent events "will attack his subject in unexpected places; he will fall upon the flank, or the rear, he will shoot a sudden, revealing searchlight into obscure recesses, hitherto undivined. He will row out over the great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen, from those far depths, to be examined with a careful curiosity."

That is exactly what David Frum has done in How We Got Here. Frum’s extraordinary new book is to the writing of contemporary American history what Strachey’s 1918 work was to the genteel biographical tomes of its day—an audacious act of revisionism, written in a voice and style so original it deserves to be called revolutionary. The author of Dead Right and frequent contributor to conservative journals both here and in Canada, Frum has taken a huge leap forward as a writer with a compulsively readable and effortlessly commanding amalgam of history, sociology, and polemic.

The book’s mile-long subtitle is The 70’s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life (For Better or Worse). Frum begins with the important observation that the restructuring of American society, for which the 1960s are usually given the credit and blame, actually took place during the 1970s. The cause of this change, Frum believes, was the country’s loss of trust in its institutions at every level of society. This loss of trust was entirely justifiable, in his view. From the cocooning mega-corporations that began to make substandard goods to the White Houses that misused the powers of the presidency in the pettiest and most indefensible ways, American "institutions and laws formed by a century of war and the preparation for war" proved themselves ill suited to running a nation that was at risk not of military invasion but of spiritual, political, and economic suicide.

The overhaul of America in the 1970s "was a revolution not so much against institutions as against the cool, methodical habits of mind underlying those institutions." After all, those "cool, methodical habits of mind" were responsible for horrors like slum clearance, which replaced the tenement neighborhoods of old with the nightmarish housing-project wastelands of the New. But, Frum notes sadly, "like all revolutions, this one attacked what was good in the old regime of rational thought just as fiercely as it attacked the bad: ideas of serious scholarship just as much as the excesses of Bauhaus architecture; orthodox religious faith as much as the planned economy."

That passage offers a glimpse of the book’s unique flavor. Frum can range from the helium-light precincts of pop culture to the obscure regulations undergirding wage-and-price controls without putting lead in the helium or making the complex simplistic. How We Got Here is the sort of book that will bedevil those who like to underline its author’s salient or trenchant comments, because they will have to resist the temptation to run their yellow highlighters through every other sentence.

Though he writes from the perspective of a conservative (actually, given Frum’s Canadian origins, one might more precisely call him a Tory, albeit a very "dry" one) and his work is an analysis of a decade in which liberalism ran rampant, Frum does not revisit the 1970s to bury them. Far from it. He makes the bold claim that the painful lessons America learned in the 1970s helped teach us how to find renewed purpose and vigor in the two decades that followed:

America won the cold war, pioneered the computer revolution, squelched inflation, and suppressed crime, yes, but only because it first underwent a decade and a half of suffering and humiliation. Those years were daunting and frightening because habits and institutions that had worked brilliantly for half a century suddenly sputtered. . . . Then [Americans] recouped. They rethought. They reinvented. They rediscovered in their own past the governing principles of their future. Out of the failure and trauma of the 1970s they emerged stronger, richer and—if it is not overdramatic to say so—greater than ever.

The most obvious change wrought by the 1970s was the libertinism that rose in conjunction with the liberation of sex from the shackles of law and tradition. After a precis of the court decisions that effectively ended two centuries of the legislation of sexual morality, Frum sums up: "Every era tacitly places one liberty ahead of all others; one that must always prevail when values conflict. For late 18th-century Americans, that liberty was freedom of religion. For late 19th-century Americans, it was the right to own and dispose of property. For late 20th-century Americans, it is sexual freedom." One of the many unintended consequences was the devastation done to marriage: As the 1970s progressed, Frum writes, "a once-universal institution was dwindling into a middle-class idiosyncrasy, like bottled water or cotton shirts."

One of the chief causes of its dwindling status was the Supreme Court, which "one by one struck down laws that distinguished between the offspring of wed and unwed unions, explicitly repudiating in 1977 an argument that states had any legitimate interest in buttressing ‘legitimate family relationships.’" In that same year, Frum notes, "a major survey by the Centers for Disease Control found that children born out of wedlock were 250 percent more likely to be abused than children born to married parents, but as far as the Court was concerned, illegitimacy was not a vast social crisis in the making. It was just another lifestyle choice."

Today, we fret over illegitimacy and hammer into American youth the health risks associated with sex, and Frum does say that "the compulsive promiscuity of the 1970s has subsided." But, he says, "it is very wrong to think of the sexual history of the past 40 years as the swinging of the pendulum from restraint to license and then back to restraint again. The 1970s blew to smithereens an entire structure of sexual morality. Revolutions like that do not last forever. They cannot. But the ending of a revolution is not the same thing as the restoration of the old order. It is the institutionalization of a new one."

The institutionalization of the new order owed not a little to the democratization in the 1970s of post-Freudian ideas about the human psyche. Europeans such as Freud—who witnessed the slow collapse of their continent into war and tyranny—were horrified by the idea of letting loose the shackles from mankind, but "as psychotherapy was Americanized, all [its] Central European anxieties were dismissed as outdated gloom. The mind did not resemble Dracula’s castle, with horrors unimaginable chained in its dungeons; it was like a Santa Monica sea house whose windows had become a little grimy. Polish them up, let the outside in and the inside out, and the owners will once again enjoy the sunlight."

But as emotions increasingly held sway and the country lost faith in the promise of rational stewardship by highly educated eminences grises, it began to embrace irrationality as never before. Americans turned in massive numbers to spoon-bending magicians like Uri Geller, who claimed to possess genuine psychic powers, and ridiculous theories about interplanetary visits spun by the Swiss hotelier Erich von Daniken. And, more worrisome, they became prey to frights, frenzies, and scares about their health and the environment even as they grew healthier and the environment less toxic.

"Scarcely a year would pass between 1969 and 1982 without a major food and drug scare: cyclamates in 1969, hormones in beef in 1972, nitrites the same year, red dye number two in 1976, hair dyes and saccharin in 1977, coffee in 1981," Frum writes. He reminds us that in the 1970s, Americans were told and told and told again that the world was on the verge of entering a new Ice Age, and then makes this fascinating connection: "The most quoted Ice Age alarmist of the 1970s—Stephen Schneider—became, in a neat public-relations pivot, one of the most quoted global warming alarmists of the 1990s."

The case of Stephen Schneider demonstrates that "it was less important to the new apocalyptics to know which catastrophe was going to ravage the world than to agree that some catastrophe was sure to do so."

The spirit of catastrophism made itself felt in the world of religion as well. Frum observes that while the best-selling religious tome of the 1950s was Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, in the 1970s it was Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, a terrifying vision that might have been called Apocalypse Soon. Lindsey’s popularization of the Book of Revelation hit tens of millions of Americans with the force of prophecy at the same time liberalism became the dominant creed of the mainline Protestant denominations that had formerly dominated American religious life. Women and homosexuals donned the cloth, in keeping with the liberationist ethos. But "to the manifest bafflement of the mainline Protestants, the bold reforms failed to halt the decline in membership. Women bishops followed women priests; acoustic guitars were replaced by electric guitars; ministers ascended to ever loftier peaks of grooviness; racism replaced pride as sin number one; and still the pews emptied, gifts dried up, and vocations diminished."

No, God was not dead. He had, in Frum’s reckoning, just moved from Connecticut to Dallas. The explosion in numbers of the evangelical and Pentecostalist movements in the United States testified to the nation’s spiritual yearnings. But, Frum believes, born-again Christianity wasn’t really a reaction to the 1970s so much as an offshoot of the decade. Many of its churches "offered a more intense and fulfilling emotional experience at a minimum, and in many cases miraculous healings and solutions to personal problems." Frum sternly discerns in born-again eschatology a "shift from an ethic of rectitude to an ethic of forgiveness," and says of Americans in the 1970s in general: "They hungered for religion’s sweets, but rejected religion’s discipline; wanted its help in trouble but not the strictures that might have kept them out of trouble; expected its ecstasy but rejected its ethics; demanded salvation, but rejected the harsh, antique dichotomy of right and wrong."

Americans had particular reason to seek salvation, because so much was going wrong here. The country suffered an endless series of blows in the 1970s. A war was lost. Inflation spiraled out of control owing to political cowardice and economic blindness. Wage-and-price controls were imposed, and when they didn’t work, they were tightened still further. The policy of forced busing tore cities to ribbons and undid 20 years of civil-rights progress.

There was a crisis in governance because the public correctly believed it was progressively becoming disenfranchised:

People felt that their views did not much count because in fact their views did not much count. . . . For a decade, power had been massively and systematically transferred from elective branches of government, where it could be controlled, to non-elective branches, where it could not. Power flowed from prominent and visible officials to a multiplicity of the obscure and invisible. Was it surprising that a country whose government had decided to treat its people like subjects should find that those same people no longer felt themselves to be citizens?

Thus rose the grass-roots warriors, people like Phyllis Schlafly and Howard Jarvis, whose ability to rally millions against the Equal Rights Amendment (in Schlafly’s case) and property taxes (in Jarvis’s) indicated that Americans were not ready to throw in the towel—that they were willing to fight for what they believed and not to be bullied into thinking they didn’t deserve what they owned.

Ronald Reagan’s election was only moments away, and would bring a low, dishonest decade to a happy close. But, Frum says, "Americans were not returning to the era of laissez-faire. Rugged individualism no longer swayed them. But neither did the social democratic ethos of the middle years of this century. Americans were moving on to something new, a creed that blended the antique ideal of self-reliance with a soft sense of entitlement, providing one made some minimal effort on one’s own behalf."

Frum doesn’t engage in the trite, false technique so beloved of "10-years-in-600-pages" hackwork like David Halberstam’s, in which the events of an entire decade are viewed through the eyes of a few supposedly representative Americans. How We Got Here is a macrohistory, an indelible portrait of America from above, whose author uses a zoom lens on occasion to offer a tight shot of a moment in time when a huge and infinitely variegated country changed suddenly, dramatically, and permanently in ways we are still struggling to understand.

© 2000 National Review

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