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The Ottawa Citizen
March 28, 2000

An intriguing view Frum the 1970s

David Warren

I have begun to think that the ‘70s are the very worst years since the history of life began on earth.
--Joseph Alsop, 1974

My own view is that Western civilization—the one descending from medieval Europe, and the only one of the ‘‘great civilizations’’ to last into the 20th century—came to an end sometime in the month of August, 1968. I’m not sure I can name the day.

A lot happened in that month, outwardly, from the streets of Paris to campuses across the United States. I am not even thinking about such events as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which was already beyond the pale of civilization.

Nor am I suggesting that in July of that year everything had been well. To the wise in 1919, it was already clear that we weren’t going to make it.

What I instead have in mind is a certain final attitude of resignation and helplessness that set in among the few remaining guardians of culture in the 1960s. And it was in August 1968, I think, that the news reached them that the gig was up, that there was no longer any such thing as legitimate authority. Henceforth it would be every man for himself, or more precisely, every woman and child—for that is about when the divorce laws collapsed, and abortion became thinkable.

Of course, every generation in this still-ticking century thinks it had the privilege of witnessing The End, and therefore of having glimpsed in childhood the last glow of the ember. David Frum is seven years younger than I, and is therefore inclined to move the date forward to a point in the mid-1970s.

He has however written a superb book of social history to vindicate his chronological position, a book as well-researched as it was poorly proof-read—How We Got Here: The ‘70s (Random House). And one of the things that makes it so good, is its hopefulness.

Mr. Frum’s view is that at the very nadir of American life—economic, cultural, intellectual, spiritual—people began to learn from their mistakes. And he argues that the far more self-confident America we live beside today—once more the heart pumping the West—also dates from those 1970s.

Mr. Frum thinks in facts, and covers his pages with sharp little facts, which make them abrasive. He lacks the oily charm of a ‘‘literary’’ writer. Yet he is, I believe, the most original thinker today on the right of the political spectrum—the side that has enjoyed, since the ‘70s, a near-monopoly on thinking.

And I doubt it is entirely a coincidence that he comes from Canada. While his subject is chiefly the United States, his insights are those of a sympathetic outsider.

No country, no matter how large, is capable of supplying its own Tocquevilles.

While his book focuses on the 1970s, it comprehends a much longer period. Mr. Frum describes his decade as the beginning of a pendular response to the six or more preceding.

For the America that ‘‘peaked’’ in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s was an America that had been outfitted for war. It was an America in some sense returning to the chaos of its late 19th century. That had been a time of high urban crime rates, low church attendance, huge immigration, and seething multiculturalism.

Whereas the ‘‘melting pot,’’ white-bread America that we remember had been a response to that. It was Theodore Roosevelt, at the turn of the century, who had campaigned for English monolingualism and American values, neither of which were then quite assured.

And they were the homogenous, conformist, ultimately suburban qualities that served America through two world wars in the most dangerous of centuries. And it was this America—which valued order and decency above life itself, and had little room for rugged individualism—that aspired to build a high culture in the peacetime of the 1950s, atop its rather mediocre pedestal.

The truth, as I have come to see it, is that you can’t build nations without wars. And the inference I draw is that we should not build nations, and only seek ‘‘liberty under the law.’’ But this is not exactly how Mr. Frum sees things.

He finds both good and bad in the convention-ridden society that disintegrated, as he brilliantly argues, not in the ‘60s but in the ‘70s. He finds both good and bad in what crawled out of the wreckage. And the problem he formulates is how to move forward, towards the best of both—towards order and decency and liberty and individualism in one accumulating wave.

Read previous David Warren columns at www.ottawacitizen.com

© 2000 The Ottawa Citizen

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