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Finding the seeds of the present in grape boycotts, the Vietnam War
David Frum is an intellectual historian in a precise sense: He believes ideas possess the power to determine historical change. According to Mr. Frum, "Incendiary ideas only move from paper to life when they transform the behavior and beliefs of the mass of the people—when they cease to be known as the work of their author and are absorbed instead as the common property of humanity.”
One might expect a historian with this perspective to put a high value on logic and reason, to feel uncomfortable with the messy contradictions of social upheavals, and to take as his dominant narrative mode irony. For such a writer, the excesses of the 1970s provide a wealth of material. Mr. Frum makes the most of it.
From his idealistic perspective, Mr. Frum argues it’s the ‘70s, rather than the much bruited ‘60s, that deserve our attention. If the cultural hothouse of the ‘60s bred new and unusual ideas in places like Cambridge and New Haven, it was "the supposedly quiescent ‘70s" that saw these ideas color the mainstream of American life.
The story of this change in "the common property of humanity" is the subject of Mr. Frum’s "How We Got Here: The 70’s, The Decade That Brought You Modern Life (For Better or Worse)," which he organizes in sections devoted to grand concepts: Trust, Duty, Reason, Desire and Rights. As he charts the evolution (or degradation) of these concepts across the decade, Mr. Frum paints a detailed portrait of the sprawling cultural experience that transformed the United States in those years.
Take trust. What caused the spectacular decline in the public’s trust of virtually every American institution during the ‘70s? One factor was the government’s loss of the ability guarantee its citizens’ safety. Throughout our history, criminals have been stereotyped ethnically, the Irish tough, the Sicilian hoodlum, the Jewish bootlegger.
But when the crime statistics "darkened" (Mr. Frum’s word) following displacement of blacks who had migrated to the industrial cities in the ‘40s and ‘50s, liberals began to feel guilty. They located the cause of crime in the society, not the criminal. Thus, quite logically, government agencies assumed the task of social reform. Instead of prosecuting criminals, government began to re-engineer society.
The rest, as they say, is history. As Mr. Frum points out, crime was to the liberalism of the ‘60s what communism was to the left of the ‘30s—an issue provoking a misjudgment of such proportions that it utterly discredited its underlying (liberal) ideas. As the joke says, a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged.
In surveying the ‘70s, Mr. Frum offers an entertaining brew of pop culture, social history, and political analysis. His writing is brilliant, whether he is presenting a thumbnail sketch of the Bretton Woods agreement, an annotated overview of self-help book titles, a substantial essay on judicial philosophy or a precise (though merciless) flaying of the natural foods "movement.” Here is his description of the liberalization of the mainline pulpit in the ‘70s.
"Their pews might be empty, but William Sloane Coffin of Yale and Bishop Paul Moore of New York could still make news by denouncing the bombing of Hanoi. From the perspective of the press, it was the ultimate ‘man bites dog’ story:
"The spiritual advisers to the establishment joining the cause of the shaggy and radical. But the thing about man-biting-dog stories is that they depend on a degree of manly self-restraint. When the in baskets of the news organizations begin to overflow with press releases from men announcing their intention to chew on the haunch of a St. Bernard next Tuesday, man-biting-dog stories become as tedious as dog biting man. That’s what happened to Coffin and Moore. After Vietnam came welfare rights, ecology, boycotting grapes, boycotting Nestle’s baby formula, South African apartheid, nuclear disarmament, and on and on.”
In the same tradition as Henry David Thoreau, Mr. Frum sports a broad iconoclastic streak. If some of his ‘70s commentary covers familiar ground, his analysis goes against the grain often enough to keep things interesting. Some of his atypical judgments are compelling (e. g. the ‘50s were a morally complex time in comparison to the ‘70s); others, less so (Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon were acting on noble principle rather than craven self-interest in seeking to prohibit publication of the "Pentagon Papers"). But, it is his independence of thought that leads the author to shape his argument’s final insights.
The weight of the book’s conclusion owes much to the hundreds of pages of example and anecdote preceding it. But the following sketch may indicate the force of Mr. Frum’s logic. While the ‘50s are most often seen as a state of normalcy, from which the ‘60s and ‘70s departed, the author takes a radically original view. He sees the ‘50s as the atypical era, a time during which a temperamentally non-militaristic American populace adjusted to—and enjoyed the benefits of—the continuous military buildup that marked the first half of the century.
War, Mr. Frum notes, is not without benefits for the victors. During the ‘50s, a militarized America enjoyed a heightened sense of purpose; a thriving labor movement; the cultural reinforcement of sex roles and strong feelings of spiritual equality. At the same time, Americans had grown accustomed to the demands of a militaristic society: taxation; regulation and control; hierarchy, centralization and secrecy; conscription, obedience and authority.
But this synthesis was inherently unstable. Three triggers exploded it in the ‘70s: Vietnam discredited the habits of mind of the ‘50s; desegregation destroyed the nation’s self-confidence; and the statist mid-century economy created, and failed to curb, inflation. Thus, in Mr. Frum’s view, the ‘70s were a decade of readjustment, admittedly extreme, during which America "burst the carapace" of mid-century statism.
Today, Mr. Frum sees America on the verge of turning away from the self-indulgence of the ‘70s toward a more normal American life. He finds our current position, on balance, hopeful. True, the author concedes, contemporary society is newly cautious without being "remoralized.” Stress, not a shared moral sense, sets our behavioral limits. But how can we judge well, he asks, if we have been taught that it is wicked to be judgmental? Maybe we can’t. But we can still feel misgivings. And in this book, Mr. Frum presents a strong argument that our discontent can move us forward into new vices as well as new virtues and new progress.
George Daffin is director of public relations for YH Communications in Grand Haven, Mich.
© 2000 The Washington Times
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