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The Plain Dealer
March 19, 2000 Sunday

From Socially Aware ‘We’ To Self-Indulgent ‘Me’

By Robert Santelli

Try answering this question: You know history is in need of revision when (a) the accepted interpretation of a particular era or event becomes dog-tired and worn thin, (b) a new generation of thinkers and critics refuses to accept the standard story handed down, (c) the so-called truth becomes irrelevant, or (d) all of the above.

If you selected the last option, you’d probably side with David Frum in his assessment of the ‘60s in his new book, "How We Got Here." According to Frum, that infamous decade is unquestionably overrated, while its impact on modern American history and culture, is overblown.

Rather than the ‘60s , says Frum, it was the ‘70s that defined the last quarter century of American history and that continues to affect how we think about our country and ourselves.

Frum is a revisionist, and an ardent one at that. Fifteen or 20 years ago his theory would have stood little chance of being taken seriously, particularly in the popular press. But these days the ‘60s might seem to some less important than they once did, in part, because those turbulent years are farther away than they used to be, not to mention the decade has been scrutinized and romanticized by the media, historians and social critics almost continuously since 1970.

So, on the surface at least, "How We Got Here" sounds like a refreshing read. But Frum’s frothing, anti-’60s fervor gets the best of his book. Consider this statement: "The millions of Americans born since 1970 seem to have collectively decided that the (Baby) Boomers are absolutely the most boring generation of old-fogies ever to have inflicted their reminiscences on the young." Then there is: "Unless the people of the present day correctly understand the social convulsion of the 1970s, they will stumble into fatal errors of judgment about their own times and their own lives." And finally there is this one: "Now, as they (Boomers) turn fifty, the mood of the country is shading into melancholy, tinged with the doubts and regrets of late middle age."

Really? Those are pretty strong, even skewed, statements. Are they true? Not from my view, though I am one of those wretched boomers, so perhaps I am a bit biased. Frum backs these eyebrow-raising ideas and others in "How We Got Here" with reams of factoids and informational bytes that raise the importance of the ‘70s at the expense of the ‘60s . (To paraphrase Frum: If the ‘60s were so good musically, why was the top song of 1969 "Sugar, Sugar" by the Archies?)

Admittedly, it is difficult to deny the importance of the ‘70s on our lives today. Frum, however, often forgets that the ‘70s evolved from the ‘60s. And to begrudge boomers for their part in history and to slice up their decade with one razor-sharp statement after another, often with the fury of a personal vendetta, diminishes other aspects of "How We Got Here."

And there is plenty in "How We Got Here" that is worthwhile and fairly presented. The bulk of the book is a general history of the ‘70s ; Frum tackles everything from consumerism and patriotism to racism and the defeat of liberalism. He adroitly explains how the community-conscious "we" decade became the self-indulgent "me" decade. According to Frum, the loss of faith in American institutions and the government had a lot to do with it.

But in the end, those nagging anti-’60s diatribes that run rampant through the book’s introduction and return in the conclusion can leave the reader feeling a bit bulldozed. Revision of the past is both good and necessary. Retaliation is not.

© 2000 The Plain Dealer

Visit the How We Got Here webpage



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