Accustomed as we have been to periodizing history into decades, we're in for some confusion now: What are we supposed to call this decade? The zeroes? The Os? The aughts? We have no precedents to guide us, since nobody in the past century seems to have spoken in terms of decades until the 1920s, or really until the 1930s, when people began to look back on something they called the 1920s. History, we've come to believe, occurs naturally in 10-year units. We even assume that decades possess their own agency--David Frum subtitles How We Got Here, his new book on the 1970s, The Decade That Brought You Modern Life. Where will we be if we can't properly label the '00s?
We also assume that decades possess their own moral character. Frum's sub-subtitle is For Better or Worse. In Only Yesterday, the archetype of popular histories of American decades, Frederick Lewis Allen gently rebuked the 1920s for their disillusionment and ballyhoo. Allen was a liberal, but his critique had no explicit political intent. Even his long discussions of the Harding administration scandals and "the breakdown of Coolidge and Hoover prosperity" didn't serve as a rallying cry for Democratic leadership and a new agenda. It wasn't until conservatives discovered the moral character--or the immoral character--of the 1960s that a decade became a powerful trope in American political discourse.
Frum structures How We Got Here around the orthodox conservative litany of complaints: the decline of trust; the crisis of authority; the erosion of duty and responsibility; the denigration of reason and of academic and aesthetic standards; the burgeoning of self-gratification, sexual indulgence, moral agnosticism; the proliferation of "rights"; the rise of identity politics. But Frum claims to have something original to say about these things. Instead of blaming the 1960s, we ought to blame the 1970s. That's when the real revolution happened--when the "upheaval in habits, beliefs, and morals" swept beyond the "elite few" to "the mass of the people."
How did it happen? Why? What caused "the most total social transformation that the United States has lived through since the coming of industrialism?" Surely it is the historian's obligation to supply a thoughtful explanation of such a transformation. Not Frum. His conception of his role is "to describe--and to judge." Impatient with "grand historic forces," he sees change as an accumulation of "individual choice." "In the 1970s," Frum writes, "Americans did not merely bump into the limits of the ideas that had governed the mid-century world, they crashed. The distrust and despair that seized them were the wounds from that collision." Disgusted by its hubris, "Americans" repudiated liberalism--which, in Frum's scheme, includes the planners of the Vietnam War and the Great Society, antiwar protestors of every stripe, the New Left, civil rights activists, feminists, members of the counterculture, environmentalists, "reformers and dreamers," elitists all.
But through some inexplicably insidious process (or was it "individual choice?"), liberalism also won over Americans, who suddenly thought it was OK to break the rules and the law, get divorced, show emotion in public (even men), have premarital and nonmarital sex, put themselves ahead of their families, join bizarre self-help programs, become gluttons, be gay, engage in excessive litigation. The feminist movement, Frum says, may account for the increase in shoplifting among "emboldened" girls. Antiwar protestors legitimized lawbreaking and thus encouraged Americans to cheat on their exams and taxes. Environmentalists promoted a new "religion" of recycling, akin to other crackpot end-of-the-world fantasies among "the new apocalyptics." Liberal Supreme Court justices, especially William Brennan, who, "like Mao Zedong, was one of those unusual men who get more radical as they age," destroyed "the sacredness of the law" and imposed something "capricious and whimsical" in its place. And so on. In place of analysis, Frum, the defender of "reason," serves up innuendo, elision, conflation, and analogy.
To the rescue, of course, comes the market. The "suffering and humiliation" of the 1970s did finally compel "Americans" to understand and act on the failures of liberalism. And having rejected political and economic liberalism, they may choose to cast off cultural liberalism as well. "[I]f remoralization is not yet a fact," Frum writes, "it can still be an aspiration." Except, perhaps, for "the poor" who-- "bombarded with images of middle-class Americans avoiding marriage and scorning work" and unable to "afford even one of the youthful mistakes that others can regret, or even chuckle over, in the security of middle age"--have been so devastated by cultural liberalism that they are left pathetically "groping for safety in the dark."
So captivated is he by "the triumphant renaissance of the prestige of market economics" that Frum manages to mention de-industrialization only once--obliquely--in almost 400 pages. The market, he believes, will redeem America morally as well as economically. Tellingly, Frum ignores a critical book of the 1970s: Christopher Lasch's 1979 bestseller The Culture of Narcissism. Unlike Frum, Lasch was willing to plumb the depths of the cultural crisis he described; The Culture of Narcissism connected contemporary "demoralization" to "the hegemony of the business corporation, the managerial and professional classes who operate the corporate system, and the corporate state." Capitalism, Lasch argued, "has given rise to a new culture, the narcissistic culture of our time, which has translated the predatory individualism of the American Adam into a therapeutic jargon that celebrates not so much individualism as solipsism, justifying self-absorption as 'authenticity' and 'awareness.'"
In many ways a truer conservative than those who have held sway since the 1980s, Lasch had the courage to explore how market imperatives of expansion, mobility, innovation, consumption, and "antagonistic cooperation" relentlessly weakened family, community, and democratic civic life--how they made it "more and more difficult to achieve a sense of continuity, permanence, or connection with the world around us." (Lasch, by the way, rejected the notion that his book was an account of the "me decade." The culture of narcissism had deeper historical origins. "Journalists," he complained, "have taught us to think of decades as the standard unit of historical time and to expect a new set of cultural trends at ten-year intervals.")
Without any compelling explanation, what is at stake in Frum's relocation of this awful cultural revolution from one decade to the next? Very little, except for the marketing of How We Got Here. If he had chosen to write about, say, a 25-year period, the book's single strand of original argument would unravel. This would have been fine if the book were entertaining. But even as it's too breezy to enrich our historical understanding, it's too cranky to be any fun. (One exception: his characterization of the 1970s as "the spider-plant decade.") Frum thinks he's found an Archimedean point from which to weigh in on the legacies of the 1970s. He hasn't. How We Got Here is as weightless as he imagines the decade to have been.
The essays in The Seventies: The Age of Glitter in Popular Culture, edited by Shelton Waldrep, are exactly the kind of scholarship Frum has in mind when he writes about the repudiation of standards--and for that reason I'm inclined to say nice things about them. Oddly enough, Waldrep makes an identical claim to Frum's: that the 1970s, not the 1960s, "have now become a key part of the equation of our millennial anxiety--the place to look to for the answer to the question: Who have we become at the century's end?" Unfortunately, Waldrep's claim doesn't extend beyond his introduction, and the bulk of the collection seems to bear out the opposite: that the 1970s are distant from us, worth recovering in their repressed radical potential but actually present only as a vacuous, commodified revival of bell-bottoms, platform shoes, "Bohemian Rhapsody," and the like.
The best essays in The Seventies explore the contours of this commodification and the possibilities of salvaging alternative impulses from the decade. In "The Wayne's Worlding of America: Performing the Seventies in the Nineties," Stephen Rachman shows how the market is responsible for producing "the eruption of seventies nostalgia" that Frum deplores. The theme of the 1992 movie Wayne's World, Rachman argues, is "the impossibility of not being commodified or 'recuperated' by commercial culture"--a culture that provides us with the very limited pleasures of recognizing the references to Scooby-Doo or Laverne & Shirleyin its endless "repackaging" of the past. In "The Way We Were: Remembering the Gay Seventies," Christopher Castiglia reveals that "how we talk about what happened in the 1970s" shapes the present, and shows particularly how a powerful "counternostalgia," by condemning "the sexual 'excesses' of the immediately pre-AIDS generation as immature, pathological, and diseased," goads "gay men to distance themselves from the tainted past and to structure their lives along cleaner, healthier lines that end up looking very much like the borders of normative heterosexuality." Castiglia exhorts his readers to challenge this counternostalgia with "counter-memory"--not in order to "return" to the 1970s, but to help envision "the codes of intimacy and the models of communal preservation that contrast the abstemious and individuating ways of life developed in the eighties." Remembered as having "caused" AIDS, the 1970s enforce conservative "standards of 'normalcy'"; remembered for their "opportunities for oppositional pleasures," the 1970s can challenge those standards.
Too few of the contributions to The Seventies offer such bold arguments. Like much in the way of cultural studies, the essays (aside from some unprocessed interviews with disco stars) are virtuoso performances that ultimately illuminate very little. I admire the skill with which Charles Kronengold delineates "the use of the wah-wah pedal" in Isaac Hayes's "Theme from Shaft" and with which Anne-Lise François probes "the wide tie's unreadable rhetorical effects," but I'm left feeling trapped among many intricately branching trees, not only unsure about the way out of the forest but dubious about the existence of any forest at all. With its "interrogations" of "master narratives" and "totalizing discourses," maybe this is precisely the point of cultural studies--that there really is nothing beyond the particulars. It's curious, then, how infrequently the essays scrutinize the construct of the 1970s decade itself. Jennifer DeVere Brody, introducing her consideration of Cleopatra Jones as "'queer' black heroine," glosses her invocation of "the polyester decade" by parenthetically "(allowing for the error of the idea of an historical era)." By the time I closed the book, I actually welcomed the sales pitch on the back cover: "It was the wacky era between the decade of the left and the decade of the right." This may not change my way of thinking about the period, but "wacky" at least has the advantage of encompassing a wide range of 1970s phenomena, including (for example) that shimmering fabric known as Qiana ... Cindy Brady ... "Lady Marmalade" ... kung-fu fighting ... and Henry Kissinger.