How We Got Here : The 70's--The Decade that Brought You Modern Life--For Better or Worse
By David Frum
Basic Books/224 pages/$US25

Reviewed by Sean Hackbarth

That 70s Book

By Sean Hackbarth
web posted March 13, 2000

The 1970s seem to be an embarrassing decade. We treat it like that strange uncle no one mentions at family reunions. Memories of polyester and gold chains on the phosphorescent dance floor make many cringe. America was stymied by oil shocks, stagflation, and an aggressive Soviet empire. But by looking at fashion, television (That 70s Show), and movies (an up-coming Charlie's Angel's movie) 1970s nostalgia has clawed its way into pop culture.

David Frum, Weekly Standard contributing editor and author of Dead Right, gives us the first cultural history of the 1970s. How We Got Here is a wonderful mix of cultural description and sociopolitical analysis.

In How We Got Here, Frum argues that the 1970s, not the 1960s, were the decade that made America what it is now. Feeling has trumped thinking. Illegitimacy and abortions have shot up. Unmarried couples living together and single-parent families have become socially acceptable. The 1970s was the time Americans finally threw away the military-inspired social and political norms of the previous 40 years. Or as Frum puts it, "It should be understood instead as the rebellion of an unmilitary people against institutions and laws formed by a century of war and the preparation for war."

The 70s were a decade that brought rise to terrorism, oil shocks, and stagflation. It was also the decade that began the decline of the conglomerate and trade union, ended conscription, discredited price controls, and gave rise to the personal computer.

Frum first examines the lost of trust in American society. Watergate can't be blamed because the loss in trust began to appear in 1966. Frum even says, "Watergate became a scandal because Americans were losing faith in their institutions. [his emphasis]." Vietnam can't be totally blamed either because the loss of trust is seen in other industrial countries around the same time. Frum then turns the question around. Instead of wondering why there was such a loss in trust in the 1970s, he wonders "why an earlier generation trusted so much."

Frum's answer is that the first part of the century was devoted to bringing order to "a recalcitrant world." Trust-busting brought order to too-powerful corporate titans. The Federal Reserve was created to bring order to the banks. Total War central planning was imposed on America to fight (and win) two world wars. New government laws and programs were created to get America working again and to ease economic chaos. So even though the government was extensively involved in the economy, the 1950s are considered a conservative era because, "a war-battered world hungered for tranquillity, stability, and the appearance of continuity." This order-out-of-chaos generated this public trust.

Much of that trust was lost due to rising crime rates and the inability of police to fight it. After employing a new methodology, in 1975, the Justice Department found that 37 million Americans were the victims of a rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, or auto theft in 1973. The public's thirst for order was seen in movies featuring aggressive police (Dirty Harry), vigilantes (Death Wish), and even the Mafia (The Godfather and The Godfather Part II). Crime rates exploded while prisons were emptied of criminals and police departments were denied additional officers.

Trust wasn't just vanishing on city streets, it was also disappearing in the factory. Younger workers were complaining of "monotonous" jobs. In protest, workers quit, didn't show up for work, or even sabotaged products. Many managers returned the rebellious feelings. They considered current workers less conscientious than workers in the past.

Trust was also weakening between the consumer and the producer. In the 1970s, imported cars, radios, and cameras offered Americans something better and cheaper than before. American producers responded by pumping out junk like eight-tracks and Corinthian leather-upholstered Chryslers.

While Watergate severely damaged the public's faith in government, Frum thinks the investigations and indictments of government officials at all levels really led the public to believe every politician is a crook.

Then there's the institution that "wins credibility for itself by attacking the credit-worthiness of everyone else"--television. Shows like 60 Minutes searched for scandal in every shadowy corner. "Week after week, it treated America to the crimes and misdeeds of its two favorite targets: the Pentagon and big business. Land fraud in Arizona, the evils of nuclear power, game-show cheating, Tupperware's manipulative selling techniques, the abusiveness of credit checks, phosphate mining, unsanitary conditions in slaughterhouses, carcinogens in hair dye--on and on the roster of villainy went."

In the 1970s, Americans learned from the Pentagon Papers that they were lied to about how America got involved in the Vietnam War; they learned how the IRS was used by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations (and only considered by Nixon's) to attack political opponents; and they learned about clandestine CIA operations. This piling on didn't help the public's distrust with government.

Frum then examines duty. Whether it was a new immigrant, a farmer, a coal miner, or a factory worker, until around 1965, people accepted the fact that life would be hard and the rewards few. "Life was labor and toil," writes Frum, "and its rewards were never to be reaped by oneself, always by one's children." Before the 1970s, one's duty was to work hard at a tough job to improve the lot of the next generation. That feeling ended in the 1970s. After that, "Americans would live for themselves. [Frum's emphasis]" People now accepted divorce and leaving children because one spouse did not love the other. A cheating scandal rocked West Point. More people cheated on their taxes. Since it was considered just to break the law in antiwar protests, why not break the rules to pass a test or keep more income? With the loss of trust in institutions, "the power of the old answers to these questions was fading."

More women entered the work force, not because their household needed the additional income, but because work became a source of identity. Devotion to work got stronger, but with more flexibility as to schedule, attire, and etiquette. Quitting and finding another job didn't have the stigma it did in the past. This attitude has culminated with the Silicon Valley work-style. People come to work in sandals and jeans, work 16-hour days, and run around the office shooting co-workers with Nerf guns. Even management has caught the casual bug. Apple's CEO Steve Jobs doesn't wear a tie at major public presentations. One's job is now a means of self-fulfillment and not only a way to pay the bills.

Couples earlier in the century understood and accepted hardship in a marriage. That too changed in the 1970s. "The self-sacrifice required to save a faltering marriage, even the lesser dose necessary to preserve a moderately happy marriage, was regarded by those who had grown up in a less arduous era as a betrayal of one's sacred obligation to oneself," writes Frum. Divorce exploded from 480,000 divorces in 1965, 640,000 in 1969, 773,000 in 1971, to more than 1 million in 1975. People stopped referring to their "husbands" and "wives," instead opting for "spouse" or "partner." People thought it was all right for a child to be raised in a single-parent household. Men and women delayed marriage, and they "thought two children ideal in 1980." Instead of duty to the next generation, the 1970s focused on duty to oneself. Duty's focus has shifted from the next generation to the present one.

Frum then goes examines the 1970s rejection of reason. Obi-wan Kenobi's advice to Luke Skywalker to "Use the Force" typifies the 1970s attitude. Encounter groups became the rage where, as one group leader put it, "We're physically tight and so emotionally tight that we don't dare let go for fear of finding out what we really feel. The point is to get rid of those blocks, both emotional and physical, so we can start growing as human beings again." Frum points out that our present discomfort with using reason to judge others evolved from a problem solving technique developed by the military. Now, the environmentalist movement has ingested anti-rationalism into its core beliefs and has turned recycling into "the secular mass performed every day over the recycling bins." Frum writes, "The conviction that nature is benign and science is dangerous and the mistrust of claims of scientific expertise are now permanent features of the American scene." We see this today with the constant health scares by the media and the rise of "alternative" medicine.

Even the rise of Evangelical Christian churches are, to an extent, a rejection of reason for emotionalism. People rejected the liberal politics and emphasis on ritual in mainline Protestant churches and replaced it with conservative politics and a "more intense and fulfilling emotional experience" of Evangelical Christian churches. Frum goes on: "The post-1980 American faith was more emotional, more forgiving, more individualistic, more variegated, and often more bizarre. It was less obedient, less ritualistic, less intellectual. It concerned itself more with self-fulfillment and less with social reform. Americans yearned as fervently as ever for a direct encounter with the transcendental, but they chafed against the authority that had once guided them toward that encounter. They hungered for religion's sweets, but rejected religion's discipline; wanted its help in trouble, but not the strictures that might have kept them out of trouble; expected its ecstasy, but rejected its ethics; demanded salvation, but rejected the harsh, antique dichotomy of right and wrong."

A huge change institutionally in the 1970s was extension of rights and the changing of legal strictures. In Goldberg v. Kelly, the Supreme Court ruled that a welfare recipient was entitled to a hearing before his benefits were taken away. This erroneous extension of due process implied that welfare recipients were entitled to their benefits, and ending the handout was tantamount to a government taking.

How could the court come to such a conclusion? Justice Brennen thought "the law was never a clear-cut set of rules by which citizens could ascertain their rights and officials govern their conduct. It was an unpredictable and continually shifting set of standards." Of course a "continually shifting set of standards" means there are no standards period.

Courts relaxed class action suit rules that set up the super-suits of the 1980s and 1990s. The courts also made it tougher for mentally ill patients to be committed; some even used the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard for criminal cases.

An interesting case study illustrating judicial arrogance and usurpation of power is forced busing. Intra-municipal busing pushed white families out to the suburbs and private schools and was "the death knell of the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest."

The book does a great job weaving the many strands of 1970s society: political, economic, social, and cultural. I liked the way, Frum inserted pop culture references from Star Wars to Gail Sheehy books to emphasize how much the changes penetrated society. However, the book isn't perfect, and I have two qualms with it: 1.) Frum's analysis of Evangelical Christianity is slightly flawed; and 2.) he doesn't forcefully argue that the 1970s, and not the 1960s, was the pivotal decade of change.

First, Frum ignores Evangelical Christianity's emphasis on morals. Jerry Falwell built his Moral Majority out of Evangelical Christians. Pat Robertson did the same with his Christian Coalition. Many people are afraid of Christian conservatives "imposing their morality" on society. Christian Conservatives are the constituency that politicians go after when they talk about family values. Frum is right when he notices that Evangelical Christianity is more individualistic and less ritualistic. This parallels nicely with the transformation to a more-casual workplace. What Frum fails to see from his own description of the state of mainline Protestant churches in the 1970s is that the watering down of theology was an important reason for declining membership. The push for women priests, the rejection of homosexuality as a sin, and an allegorical reading of the Bible forced many to seek churches with more meat on the theological bone.

Second, Frum doesn't really argue that the 1970s was the decade of cultural change that the 1960s is considered as. Frum's book is a history of the 1970s, not a comparative study of the two decades. In fact, Frum doesn't strictly describe the 1970s. No serious social study can strictly confine itself to some numbers on a calendar. Peoples and societies don't perfectly abide by Gregorian chronology. In many instances, he goes back as far as 1960 and ahead to the early 1980s. What he is really comparing is the attitudes of the WWII generation with those of the Baby Boom and their children. For Frum, the 1970s are the transition years. Those are the years when the Boomers really began to assert themselves, and the following generation followed in their footsteps.

Those are just two minor nit-picks in a great book. I'm sure there will be many other books chronicling and analyzing the 1970s, but Frum is the standard bearer. The bar is set and any future tome on the time period will be compared to David Frum's How We Got Here.

Sean Hackbarth publishes The American Mind, a daily weblog and ElianWatch.

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