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The Orange County Register
April 30, 2000 Sunday

The Decade that wouldn’t Die; A new theory declares that everything we are has a touchpoint in the ‘70s

Amy Wilson

There’s this thing called "genvy," which loosely interpreted, means that your generation is so much better than mine. Hint: It is mostly said by boomers about Gen-Xers.

So now, with the average age of Americans being 39, you know what’s coming: a big, whopping rethink of the ‘70s, thus making genvy as outdated as a Ford Pinto.

So forget all that previous talk about ‘70s clothes coming back and, hey, maybe disco wasn’t so hideous. That was child’s play. The real ground zero for ‘70s rethink is just now gaining steam.

For starters, we have "That ‘70s Show," more Donna Summer (VH1’s Divas) than most of us are comfortable with and the two-night movie on NBC, "The ‘70s"—"The decade that changed everything.” (The show starts tonight andconcludes Monday. )

If that weren’t enough, now comes a new book that lays claim to explaining the allure of a decade most of us would like to forget.

This intellectual redefinition comes courtesy of David Frum’s "How We Got Here" (Basic Books, $25). Subtitled "The ‘70s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life—For Better or Worse," the book makes the case that, as a culture, we are more dynamic, competitive, tolerant, socially equal, expressive, risk-aversive and sexual than before the infamous decade’s influence.

Which is swell but, says Frum, we are also less deferential, self-confident, united, economically equal, literate, polite and reticent. And for the same reason.

Oh my.

Frum’s case—and he does have one—is that everything we are has a touchpoint in the ‘70s. And it isn’t the moment when Bill Gates founds Microsoft. It is so much more complicated than that.

"People have this bad habit about talking about technology," Frum says.”This was a social revolution. In the ‘70s, we experienced the worst economic traumas, the worst series offoreign-policy decisions.

There was very little that was good. Nobody was paying attention to some guy adding file/edit/delete to his hardware.”

Frum, a contributing editor to the conservative political magazine "The Weekly Standard" and a senior fellow at Manhattan Institute, will be 40 in June, and he’s not buying that the ‘60s were so all-fired important to now, either.

"We act like unless you were part of the left-wing anti-war march, you weren’t doing anything," Frum says.”Our society’s experience with the ‘60s tends to be the peculiar experience of a cohort of people. Most young Americans were actually quite hawkish.”

And the ‘70s were not that vapid decade where we all suddenly got quiet, complacent and nonpolitical.

"Take the anti-abortion marches," Frum offers.”A single one in Washington, D. C., in the ‘70s drew more protesters than the famous March on Washington (for civil rights). Why is that not noise?People who were part of the 1976 Reagan campaign. They talk about it as the most exciting time of their lives. Why the discount?”

OK, we asked, why?

Because The Officially Really Crummy Decade was a study in how the institutions and the belief systems that had worked for forever failed, Frum says. And we, as a matter of course, don’t much like failure.

"Our fathers believed in organizations, rules and the power of organized effort. They believed practical intelligence could solve problems. In the ‘70s, all those things didn’t work to alleviate slums in the inner city, the atrocious highway system, inflation which was outside of their experience. They were tested, and they failed the test.”

And thus the social revolution that got us where we are today?

"We live in a democratic society, and we have to write a democratic history. Between 1915 and 1920, for example, the New Woman emerges, but only for 50, maybe 100 women who live in New York or out West with Georgia O’Keeffe. The question is, ‘When did the beautician in Utica become the New Woman?’ "

He answers his own question.

"It was the ‘70s.”

You have to ask—especially if you lived through it: So how come we all thought it was so boring?

Frum speaks slowly now. In January 1998, he explains, he had finished one-quarter of the book and it was already 500 pages long.

He had, he emphasizes, too much proof of this thesis.

Take just a few examples. Death at the Olympic games in 1972.

The taking of U. S. hostages in Iran. The dollar plunging. Nixon


From disaster, writes Frum, liberation.

"It should be understood," Frum writes, "as the rebellion of an unmilitary people against institutions and laws formed by a century of war and the preparation for war. The discipline (required for war) was bound to relax.

From liberation, unintended stuff, Frum argues.

More living together before marriage. More sex in the movies.

Mainline Protestantism decreases, evangelical Christianity surges.

More about me, not you.

In 1970, Phil Donahue is nationally syndicated and a whole new genre of nonjudgmental, totally tolerant TV begins. In 1972, the courts finally allow contraceptives to be prescribed to unmarried couples and "The Joy of Sex" published. In 1975, First Lady Betty Ford admits her drug addiction and the era of personal revelation begins.

Frum says he’s not trying to vindicate a generation. He doesn’t believe you could make the sameanalysis for any two decades 20 years apart.

History isn’t cyclical, he says. Neither is culture. We fit.

We start.

We’ll all probably wear polyester again someday.

© 2000 The Orange County Register

Visit the How We Got Here webpage



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