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The Unloved Decade
David Frum argues that the 70s--yes, the 70s--were the years that changed it all
February 28, 2000

Reviewed by Lance Morrow

In January 1974 the columnist Joseph Alsop declared, "I have begun to think that the '70s are the very worst years since the history of life began on earth..." The decade seemed to be a convergence of ghastly fashions (ultrasuedes, double-knit bellbottoms and medallions, blow-dry haircuts), exotic self-esteem indulgences (est, Gestalt, bioenergetics, Arica, Reichian therapy, Krishna consciousness) and assorted bad ideas (disco, Erich von Daniken's cosmology) with such larger historical dysfunctions as double-digit inflation, riots on the gas lines, Watergate and the losing of the Vietnam War.

In How We Got Here: The 70's: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life (For Better or Worse) (Basic Books; 418 pages; $ 25), David Frum revisits, with a good deal of wit and a surprising ambivalence, what he calls "America's low tide." Popular memory tends to conjure the '70s as the bummed-out, banalized aftermath of the '60s, which were the authentic circus. Frum has a more interesting take. He considers the '60s, for all their noise and flash, comparatively inconsequential. "But the 'social' transformation of the 1970s was real and was permanent," he says. It left a country more dynamic, tolerant, socially equal and sexual, but also less literate, less polite and almost infinitely fractious.

At the time, the '70s seemed fairly awful--oversexed in a brainless way, infected by a fatal mix of narcissism and paranoia. Presidents (Nixon, Ford, Carter) seemed either crooked or clueless. Yet, in Frum's analysis, the hideous '70s were a fulcrum and a rite of passage that changed almost everything and brought us, for good and ill, to where we are. He's right. Much has been gained on the journey. But Frum does not sufficiently reckon what has been lost.

©2000 Time



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