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By David M. Oshinsky, the author of " 'Worse Than Slavery': Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice," is the chairman of the history department at Rutgers University.
How does one explain the growing nostalgia for mood rings, pet rocks, platform shoes, fern bars, "discomania" and other artifacts from the 1970's? Do Americans hold no grudges? Are their memories that short? From the killings at Kent State and Jackson State in 1970 through the Iranian hostage crisis and aborted rescue attempt in 1979, this decade produced one disaster after another. The oil embargo, the Watergate scandal, the resignations of Vice President Spiro Agnew and President Richard Nixon, the fall of South Vietnam, the near meltdown at Three Mile Island -- all contributed to a national mood of pessimism and unease. Divorce rates and violent crime shot upward in the 1970's, while student test scores tumbled. For the first time since the Great Depression of the 1930's, most Americans ended a decade poorer than they began it.
Leadership was in scarce supply. The images of Gerald Ford sporting his Whip Inflation Now button and Jimmy Carter battling the energy crisis in his cardigan sweater did not quite match the vision of the polio survivor Franklin D. Roosevelt assuring a hungry, frightened people in 1933 that the "only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Where Roosevelt offered hope and vision, Ford provided comic relief, most of it unintended: banging his head on a car door, tumbling down the steps of an airplane, whacking spectators on the golf course with his tee shots and insisting, among other things, that there was "no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe."
Carter, on the other hand, made a gloomy decade seem positively morose. His motto could have read: "The fun stops here." In perhaps the defining moment of the 1970's, he went on national television to complain about a crisis of the spirit, a national malaise, that had led Americans to forsake God and family for the worship of "self-indulgence and consumption." With the economy then in shambles and inflation at a record high, people were in no mood to be lectured about their moral failings. "If the Carter administration were a television show," the columnist Russell Baker observed, "it would have been canceled months ago."
David Frum agrees. As a contributing editor of The Weekly Standard and a political conservative, the author of "Dead Right," he fully appreciates the role that Carter's presidential incompetence played in Ronald Reagan's rise to national power. Yet his critique of the 1970's is oddly similar to Carter's fatuous malaise speech in that both describe a nation in turmoil, struggling with the values of its cherished past. Though Frum provides a different explanation for America's endless troubles in the 1970's, his opinions are every bit as self-righteous as Carter's -- if a lot more entertaining.
Frum is a terrific writer who deals breezily with a wide range of contemporary issues. Until the 1960's, he contends, Americans were united by a common set of beliefs. It didn't matter if someone came from the Nebraska heartland, the Kentucky coal fields or the immigrant sidewalks of New York. He or she knew that life meant struggle, sacrifice and obligation, with the rewards falling to one's children, not to oneself. This noble yet somber philosophy propelled America through the Great Depression, World War II and the 1950's -- a decade in which the nation's enormous wealth had yet to be channeled into utopian government programs to help solve all our social ills.
That came in the 1960's, Frum says, with a new generation of political leaders who "would no longer abide the restraints that had bound the sad-eyed old men who had preceded them." Young, arrogant and deeply committed to expanding the liberal vision of social justice, these leaders "believed in the limitless potential of their societies, their governments and themselves." As Frum sees it, this vision produced impossible hopes and shattering disappointments. The failure to end poverty and discrimination angered many blacks, while the increase in crime and welfare rolls disillusioned many whites. At the same time, the expanding war in Vietnam served to glamorize protesters who often broke the law. A downward spiral began, marked by racial violence, uncivil behavior and destructive radical movements. Frum has no trouble assigning the blame. "The old men of the 1950's earned trust; the young men of the 60's squandered it."
There is little evidence in this book to support such grand generalizations. Frum simply spins his web with a confidence that ignores contradiction and rival opinion. Who, for example, are the "young men of the 1960's" who "squandered" America's trust? Frum doesn't say, but the true villains in his saga come mostly from the "sad-eyed" older generation: President Lyndon Johnson, who force-fed America the failed Great Society; Chief Justice Earl Warren, who struck down public school segregation, Frum says, with dangerous logic and "very flimsy legal justification"; and Associate Justice William Brennan, a "kindly, unscrupulous man" who supposedly turned the court system into a playground for every loser with a grievance against society.
Never one for understatement, Frum insists that the bewildering pace of social and cultural change in the 1960's created a revolution in beliefs and habits that turned a conformist, obedient, puritanical, self-confident people into a permissive, emotional, hedonistic, guilt-ridden mob. He can even date this transformation to "sometime after 1969." It is true, of course, that America paid a price for the excesses of the 60's, and that much of the bill came due in a hurry. While Frum is far too glib in analyzing those excesses, he is a master at describing their effects on the 1970's -the decade," he says, "that brought you modern life." And what comes through powerfully is the obsession with personal freedom that replaced the more collective ethos of the past.
Americans now reveled in self-improvement, self-expression, self-indulgence and self-gratification. A new work ethic emerged, preaching "identity" and "fulfillment." Well-paid employees, mostly young, chafed at the rigor and monotony of their jobs.
Self-help books explained things like "your erroneous zones" and "how to be your own best friend." Jogging and exercise became essential parts of middle-class life. Good mental health now required excruciating public confessions. Betty Ford admitted to drug and alcohol addiction, while Phil Donahue insisted that all neuroses receive an hour of national attention. A whole language of psychobabble was created, urging people to "find your own space" and "do your own thing." By the 1970's, Frum notes, "every Buick owner in the country understood how very dangerous it was to keep his feelings bottled up."
Long-term commitments went out of style. Marriage rates dropped. Fewer babies were born; having children in the 1970's seemed more like a burden than a blessing. It took a hundred episodes before Mike and Gloria became parents in "All in the Family." Other successful sitcoms -- The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "The Jeffersons," "Rhoda," "Three's Company," "The Bob Newhart Show" -- featured no children at all. Never before, Frum says, were Americans so keenly focused on their own happiness, their own desires. What they overlooked was "the self-discipline needed to make that freedom a blessing rather than a curse."
Frum sees the 1970's as bringing "the most total social transformation" to America "since the coming of industrialism." While few historians would endorse such puffery, there is much about this decade that changed American life. For a conservative like Frum, the positive legacy of the 1970's can be seen in the decline of labor unions, the deregulation of industry and the recent emphasis on family values. He believes that the 70's made America more competitive, expressive and dynamic on the one hand; less literate, deferential and united on the other. "How We Got Here" may not map out the cultural path to the year 2000 in perfect sequence but, frankly, who cares? It's a quirky, irreverent book, and great fun to read.
©2000 The New York Times
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