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Modern America: Child of the Seventies? Claiming that the seventies made America what it is today, this readable, illuminating book makes a respectable case
Attarian, John; John Attarian is a freelance writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He has written for The World & I on deposit insurance, the federal budget deficit, the line-item veto, entitlements, and Social Security.
How We Got Here: The 70’s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life (For Better or Worse)
It can be said of America today, as Charles Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." America enjoys unprecedented wealth, unchallenged military power, technological marvels, exotic cuisine, and equality of opportunity—none of which obtained as recently as 1960. Yet it is afflicted with pervasive crime and violence, drug abuse, illegitimacy, divorce, and child abuse—huge, dangerous running sores also barely known in 1960. America has been transformed beyond recognition in the last forty years, especially in social and cultural matters. In How We Got Here, a well-researched, highly readable book, David Frum, a Canadian journalist and contributing editor to the Weekly Standard, describes and evaluates that transformation.
The sixties, which saw the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, the Vietnam War, antiwar protests, and more, are usually cited to explain the change. As Frum points out, however, the typical sixties American still lived conventionally and supported the war.
Rather, he argues, the decisive change took place in the seventies, when "the spark of rebellion lit in the 1960s ... caught," becoming "an upheaval in habits, beliefs, and morals ... of a quarter-billion souls spread across a vast continent." True, its roots lie in World War I, the ideas of Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud, and perhaps even earlier events and thinkers. But "incendiary ideas" attain reality only when they "transform the behavior and beliefs of the mass of the people"—that is, become "the common property of humanity." This occurred, he maintains, in the seventies. Frum’s thesis is intelligent and plausible, and he makes a persuasive case—although in some places it founders.
Cynicism and mistrust about institutions pervade America. Yet in the fifties, when America was governed by old men who inspired trust and were cautious stewards of power, trust in institutions was almost universal, largely because things worked. Frum traces the collapse of trust to the arrogance of the younger rulers of the sixties, who disdained restraint and, in pushing policies beyond the limits of reality and prudence, squandered the trust earned earlier.
This was especially decisive regarding crime. People expect their government to protect them from crime, and until 1965, ours did a good job. In the sixties, crime began exploding; between 1960 and 1980, one’s chances of suffering violent crime—robbery, rape, assault, murder—more than tripled. This happened, Frum plausibly argues, partly because America had made "a quiet, collective decision in the 1950s and early ‘60s to view crime more indulgently." One reason was pride; social scientists thought they had grasped crime’s root causes and stressed addressing them, not punishment. The other was guilt: Blacks were just 12 percent of the population but committed over half the serious crimes, and liberal judges and juries shrank from punishing them. As government proved unable, even unwilling, to protect them, Americans became bitter about courts, judges, criminologists, and sociologists. Hence today’s strong support for the death penalty and gun ownership. Here Frum’s thesis holds up well.
Americans, he maintains, did not lose faith in institutions over Watergate, which led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation; rather, "Watergate became a scandal because Americans were losing faith in their institutions." America had weathered similar peccadilloes earlier. But this one "uncorked a flood of disturbing revelations" about both Republican and Democratic presidents and sparked a zeal among prosecutors, journalists, and congressional committees to expose and punish corruption and illegality. A huge quantity of transgressions emerged, at all levels of government and business. The resulting distrust and cynicism linger to this day. Again, Frum is on target.
The flight from duty
Another, even more momentous reversal was the abandonment of the generations-old ethos of duty, responsibility, and deferral of gratification. "Sometime after 1969," Frum observes, "millions of ordinary Americans decided that they would no longer live this way." One symptom was widespread cheating and stealing among students. Another was a new work ethic: Americans demanded that work be fulfilling, interesting, and gratifying. Labor discipline weakened. Quitting an unfulfilling job, idleness, and lucky money (e.g., lottery winnings) lost much of their stigma.
But one of the most dramatic—and important—manifestations of the flight from duty was the collapse of marriage. "A society in which people are encouraged to put themselves first is not likely to be a society in which many people celebrate their golden wedding anniversaries," Frum observes dryly, and divorce exploded: from 480,000 divorces in 1965 to over a million in 1975. Not only self-centeredness but feminist hostility to marriage propelled the change. Meanwhile, unmarried cohabitation became pervasive. By 1979, over a million households consisted of an unmarried couple. By that time, cohabitation and single parenthood were widely accepted.
Frum makes the important point that federal and state government strove to destigmatize cohabitation. For example, in 1970 New Jersey barred landlords from refusing to rent to unmarried couples, as most other states did soon afterward. Indeed, a key theme emerging from How We Got Here, though Frum does not state it, is that the overturn of mores that has so disastrously shredded America’s social fabric was assiduously abetted, even normalized, by the government. Federal court decisions extended a purported constitutional right to buy contraceptives to unmarried couples and even to minors; the Supreme Court voided laws that distinguished between legitimate and illegitimate children.
With self-indulgence enshrined, duty spurned, and marriage disprized, fertility collapsed. Despite the explosion in the population of women of childbearing age, the birthrate was the lowest since the Great Depression. Soaring contraception and abortion contributed, but, Frum rightly observes, the crucial factor was a change in women’s preferences, in disfavor of children, "because they believed, perfectly correctly, that children would inhibit their freedom and compromise their individuality." Feminists and pop psychologists urged women to put themselves first, put their children in day care, not stay married for the kids’ sake, and so on. Many did and still do.
The seventies also witnessed a turn against reason, science, and the intellect, in favor of intuition and feelings. This was not entirely outlandish, Frum observes, given the dehumanizing homogenization of life by mass marketing, television, and central corporate and government planning. Also, environmentalism became a major force (oddly, Earth Day is unmentioned), as America finally addressed environmental problems. But the discarded bath took baby with it. The seventies teemed with vacuous psychobabble, religious sects, cranks, panic-mongering (over artificial sweeteners and nuclear power), and "scientific" disaster scenarios such as Paul Ehrlich’s prediction of global famine by 1975. Mainstream Christianity declined, displaced by evangelical denominations that made few intellectual or moral demands on their faithful and stressed fervor and feeling instead, offering what many Americans wanted—salvation on the cheap.
One of the worst aspects of this disprizing of thought, Frum maintains, was the gutting of education, characterized by abandonment of academic standards, dumbing down, and grade inflation. In reality, though, education was already crumbling in the fifties. In Why Johnny Can’t Read (1955), Rudolf Flesch famously blasted the abandonment of phonetics in reading instruction and its disastrous results. Jacques Barzun complained of incompetence in instruction and learning and tolerance of failure out of concern for students’ feelings.1 The seventies merely greatly accelerated a dissolution already well under way.
If it feels good, do it
Shunning duty, Americans embraced self-centeredness. The new diet and exercise craze reflected this, as did the gigantic increase in credit- card debt from $1.4 billion in January 1968 to $63.4 billion in January 1982. But the most lurid sign of the new self-obsession was the normalization of indulgent sixties attitudes toward drugs and sex. Despite the war on drugs, illicit drug use remains widespread. For sex, Frum writes, the story is similar:
"The compulsive promiscuity of the 1970s has subsided. But it is very wrong to think of the sexual history of the past forty years as the swinging of the pendulum from restraint to license and then back to restraint again. The 1970s blew to smithereens an entire structure of sexual morality. Revolutions like that do not last forever. They cannot. But the ending of a revolution is not the same thing as the restoration of the old order. It is the institutionalization of a new one."
Indeed, surveys showed a fateful turnover in attitudes toward premarital sex among both young women and their parents: Whereas in the sixties solid majorities thought it wrong, by the end of the seventies majorities condoned it. Frum perceptively cites the advent and massive sales of sexually explicit romance novels in the seventies as further evidence of the shift in sex morals.
Fair enough. But during the "conservative" fifties, sexual mores were already weakening. The illegitimacy rate more than tripled between 1940 and 1960, from 7.1 births per thousand unmarried females of childbearing age to 21.6.2 Playboy appeared in 1953; Elvis Presley, lewdly bucking his pelvis against his guitar, was revered by millions of women and teenage girls. Here again, the seventies only exacerbated an already established decadence.
Frum is right, though, that contemporary androgyny started in the seventies, with men becoming sensitive, women becoming aggressive, and sex roles merging at home and workplace. Homosexuality became a "civil- rights category" then, due to a militant crusade for gay rights, aided and abetted by government decisions, such as widespread repeal of sodomy laws.
I want my rights!
He also makes a sound case that the seventies saw momentous changes in the legal system. The Supreme Court’s liberal majority increasingly made sweeping rulings grounded in specious reasoning out of zeal "to have its own way, regardless of precedent or logic." The courts made it their business to decide such things as discipline in public schools and what equipment athletic competitions could permit (the New York City Road Runners Club was forced to retract its commonsensical ban on wheelchairs). The seeds of today’s litigation plague were sown then, too; in 1978, for example, the California Supreme Court ruled that the burden of proof was on the defendant in product liability cases.
In Griggs v. Duke Power (1971) the Supreme Court fatefully redefined discrimination from an intentional to an unintentional wrong, opening the way to racial minorities, the disabled, and other groups to claim discrimination if confronted with situations they disliked. The federal government forced quotas on unions and local governments. Federal courts also made feminism’s revolution the law of the land, allowing women to become police officers and firefighters, with job standards lowered to accommodate them. The courts broadened the rights of noncitizens, even illegal aliens.
But the most explosive, resented court action was the widespread mandating of busing of children to achieve "racial balance" in public schools. A "revolution imposed from above," busing encountered violent resistance from below, dwarfing the Vietnam protests. It also prompted white flight from the cities, sealing their doom, and embittered many working-class whites.
In the seventies, Congress was radically reformed. Committee chairmen were largely stripped of power; subcommittees proliferated to give as many members as possible a piece of the action. Result? Congress became "dramatically less effective and accountable." Swamped with lobbyists, its legislative process became clogged with votes on amendments.
Many Americans concluded that the system was rigged and unresponsive, so participating in civic life was pointless. Voter turnouts and attentiveness to public issues plunged and have remained low ever since. Many Americans believed their country was only nominally a democracy. This was the predictable consequence, Frum rightly maintains, of the shift of power from elective branches of government, accountable to the people, to the unaccountable, uncontrollable courts and regulators. "Was it surprising," he asks, "that a country whose government had decided to treat its people like subjects should find that those same people no longer felt themselves to be citizens?"
Hitting bottom—and coming up
The seventies were a time of troubles, many of them economic. Inflation began accelerating in the early sixties and steadily worsened, until by January 1980 it was scourging America at a 16 percent annual rate. The culprit, Frum persuasively argues, was not the 1973 and ‘79 oil price increases but America’s expansionist government. President John Kennedy and his economic advisers believed that higher inflation was a tolerable price for eradicating unemployment and acted accordingly. President Lyndon Johnson ran deficits to finance the Vietnam War and Great Society simultaneously without raising taxes. Nixon was another big spender, as were his successors. As inflation raised incomes and real estate values, tax burdens steadily worsened.
Foreign affairs were equally doleful. Terrorism emerged and was appeased. When North Vietnam attacked South Vietnam again, Congress refused to help South Vietnam, and in 1975 the South fell. Emboldened, the communist powers launched adventures elsewhere. Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter responded feebly.
As America seemed overwhelmed by problems, morale sagged. "Never—not even in the Great Depression—had American pride and self-confidence plunged lower," Frum observes. Yet there were positive developments, such as deregulation, which facilitated future prosperity. In 1979, when an Iranian mob stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took the staff hostage, it "snapped the country out of its defeatist funk." Reasserting itself at last, America opted for rearmament and more robust policies.
The legacy, Frum argues, is that Americans have become fuzzily ambivalent about many matters, upholding both self-reliance and a sense of entitlement, and have become cautious (and only somewhat), rather than remoralized, in the face of AIDS and other problems. Although he asserts that "in many respects" America is better than it was a half- century ago—which is debatable—he is right that some changes have been for the worse, among them the loss of sexual restraint and high intellectual and cultural standards.
Frum asserts that the seventies’ disruptions should be seen as an unmilitary people’s rebellion against "institutions and laws formed by a century of war and the preparation for war." The Cold War’s "garrison society" didn’t suit the American character, and its discipline was bound to unravel. As to why this happened when it did, he cites Vietnam, desegregation, inflation, and technology.
This is unpersuasive. Marriage is hardly an institution formed by war and preparation for war, and arguing that legitimization of divorce, fornication, cohabitation, and illegitimacy flowed from rejection of a stultifying garrison society is just nonsense. Frum himself attributes the new laxity toward crime to pride and racial guilt. That’s rebellion at a garrison society?
Incredibly, Frum’s explanation of the timing of our unraveling ignores the baby boom. The young are always more turbulent than the elderly, and the fact that the largest generation in America’s history entered young adulthood at a time when authority figures—parents, clergy, university faculty and administrators, courts—were for various reasons relaxing social and legal controls was surely a crucial reason why America unraveled when it did. And as the sixties youths aged and began acquiring influence and power, they were naturally better able to affect America’s beliefs and conduct.
How We Got Here would be far stronger had Frum given this obvious point prominence. It deserved more attentive editing, too. Typographical, syntactical, and occasional factual errors crop up, as well as garbled and even incomplete sentences.
But overall, the book is quite valuable. Although not definitive, it explains much and throws useful light on the seventies. For those trying to understand modern America, How We Got Here is an excellent place to start.n
1.See Jacques Barzun, The House of Intellect (New York: Harper & Row, 1959), 94, 98-115, 116-131.
2.U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, Vital Statistics of the United States 1990: Volume 1- Natality (Washington, D.C.: 1994), 1-199.
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