Here’s an easy one: Say you’re a conservative polemicist in search of a big, fat, easy-to-demonize emblem of liberal folly. You could follow the lead of your right-wing brethren and take another whack at the reliable ’60s, with their mythic trinity of sex, drugs, and pinko-coddling. Or you could take those same caricatured images of your foes and attach them instead to an era that can’t even wrap itself in nostalgia for noble crusades and pre-inflation paychecks.
The choice is a hell of a lot easier than getting your AMC Gremlin to start on a cold winter morning. To really stick it to the lefties, quit evoking those late lamented ’60s and instead pin ’em to the decade of disaster movies, OPEC embargoes, and Peter Frampton. That’s pretty much what David Frum is up to in How We Got Here: The ’70s, the Decade That Brought You Modern Life—For Better or Worse, an exhaustive, wide-ranging denunciation of the 10 years between Nixon and Agnew and Starsky and Hutch.
The author of a widely praised 1995 book on modern conservatism, Frum is a delightful writer. And it doesn’t take Frum’s vantage point as a veteran of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page or a contributing writer to the conservative Weekly Standard to agree with his central contention: The “liberal” ideas despised by today’s neocons may have hatched during the late ’60s in places like Cambridge, Mass., but they really gained nationwide currency in the decade after. Persons of the opposite sex shared living quarters. People watched talk shows. Episcopalians became irrelevant. Men wore designer clothes. It was an accumulation of dissipation—and, Frum sniffs, the fullest triumph of muddle-headed liberalism.
Frum’s book is rich with—if not quite convincing in its use of—statistics on various forms of ’70s decay. Anecdotes, however, form the center of his polemic. For long chunks of How We Got Here, in fact, Frum’s case against the ’70s reads like copy from a particularly erudite culture-war attack-ad: See the workers lazing now that American culture has told them that bosses suck! See the couples splitting up now that psychotherapists have told them that divorce is gutsy! See the construction projects languishing now that busybodies can tie things up on process quibbles! See the welfare recipients shirking now that legal-theory types have turned their checks into something it requires due process to cut off!
Few aspects of the decade are spared. Seventies America lost its credibility abroad when it abandoned its allies in Vietnam. Seventies America doomed its economy through relentlessly inflationary monetary policy. Seventies America poisoned its race relations with things like busing and affirmative action. And post-’70s America reacted to all this by booting the ineffectual Jimmy Carter and a passel of liberal senators in favor of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Frum makes some convincing arguments. His explanation of how enshrining untenable new rights severed society’s responsibilities to weaker people—like, say, how establishing the right to not be institutionalized wound up filling city streets with mentally ill far worse off than they’d been before—is poignant. And he eviscerates ’70s scientific kooks and their apocalyptic theories. (Like “global cooling.” Really.) Elsewhere, though, his jihad rings unintentionally comic: Ordinary brides may glide down the aisle, while ’70s brides who aren’t given away by their fathers “clomp.” That’ll show ’em.
If the sheer height of ’70s cultural change belies the era’s reputation for stagnation, the width of those changes makes it hard for even the most ham-fisted rightist to characterize them as all bad. And despite the charmingly snotty land mines in Frum’s dependent clauses, his conclusions are remarkably measured. Unlike conservatives who mourn the post-Vietnam loss of everything true and right and American, Frum wonders whether it was the postwar quarter century that was the anomaly. Mistrust of elites, disdain for military service, and a government that can’t seem to accomplish anything have a history much older than Norman Lear’s television career.
In How We Got Here’s introduction, Frum takes pains to point out that the decade of his youth, whose changes are fast acquiring the shroud of inevitability that comes with age, was a mixed blessing: “It left behind a country that was more dynamic, more competitive, more tolerant; less deferential, less self-confident, less united; more socially equal, less economically equal; more expressive, more risk-averse, more sexual; less literate, less polite, less reticent.”
In other words, a country that can’t quite manage an irony-free rendition of the national anthem but can create the amazin’ Internet economy. For a free-market type, what’s the problem with that? It doesn’t take Adam Smith to tell you that longing for things like bowling leagues and kids who don’t cheat in school pales in comparison to those wondrous wonders of unfettered modern capitalism for which ’70s culture—if not ’70s politics—prepared us. We screwed our big cities and the poor folks stuck in them? Stanch that bleeding heart, buddy: Breaking square old community bonds is just what conservative new-economy theorists say makes modern America special!
Poke through the contradictions of the neoconservative critique—which loves unfettered capitalism but looks down on its uncouth culture—and you get the sense that a real fan of the free market might have a word for Frum’s screed against self-indulgent, decadent, morally relative culture: liberal. In the end, How We Got Here says a lot more about the state of conservatism circa 2000 than about anything in 1977. Just as it’d be easier for rightists to damn Bill Clinton for hugging and draft-dodging and Oval Office blowjobbing if he weren’t also managing a scorching entrepreneurial economy, it’d be easier for them to dismiss ’70s rot if that rot hadn’t produced such ass-kicking casual-Friday capitalists.
Today, those capitalists, or at least their kids, can’t get enough of the ’70s. From Dazed and Confused to That ’70s Show to Detroit Rock City, the decade is everywhere, (de)sanitized for a new generation. In part, the trend is a manifestation of post-’70s hypocrisy: Worried that showing modern teens doing modern-teen things will earn you a televised condemnation from William Bennett? No problem—just dress those dope-smoking fornicators up in bell bottoms!
But I think there’s something purer about our current run of ’70s style. In the ’80s, Reagan led mainstream culture through a prolonged exercise in Eisenhower nostalgia. In the ’90s, our computers can generate any font of the past three centuries at the touch of a button, and our postmodern culture can follow almost as fast, from retro to cyber. The ’70s were the last decade where the future—for all its ugly-clothed, psychobabbling, teacher-striking warts—seemed to be happening now.
It’s no surprise, then, that you could describe How We Got Here as a product of the ’70s. A fellow at the new-right Manhattan Institute (founded in 1978) whose commentaries regularly show up on National Public Radio (first broadcast in 1971), Frum has been nurtured by the formidable media-intellectual infrastructure conservatives built during that decade to wage war on entrenched liberalism. But, as Frum’s book points out, no amount of moralizing can get the cultural genie back in the bottle.
Indeed, broadsides like How We Got Here have become another ’70s contribution to the permanent cultural landscape, like easy divorce and pesticide scares. Unable to offer a road map to a better society, books like this one get by in just the same way as the kooky ’70s intellectual trends Frum chronicles: by capitalizing on modern Americans’ insatiable appetite for being told how worthless, stupid, and doomed they are. CP