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National | The Seventies gave us artificial "community"

Issue: "Cracking the code," April 29, 2000

The Seventies, for me, passed in a fog. Not because of my youth; I married in January of 1971 and was raising two preschoolers by the end of the decade. But our family was isolated from popular culture and current events: We owned no television, subscribed to no newspaper, didn't even buy a radio until 1976. I never saw an original episode of All in the Family and didn't understand what the Watergate scandal was about until it was over. I cast my first presidential vote for Jimmy Carter-also my second, for which the only excuse is rank ignorance. Little children demand a lot of attention, and besides, as soon as the decade was over, social commentators were assuring me that I hadn't missed anything. After Kent State, the oil embargo, Nixon's resignation, the Iranian hostage crisis, stagflation, rising divorce rates, and falling test scores, even liberal Democrats were eager to move on, Reagan or no Reagan. A new book by conservative author and editor David Frum argues that the Seventies are underestimated. How We Got Here is the name of his retrospective, subtitled The Decade that Brought Us Modern Life (For Better or Worse). He charts a profound distrust in traditional institutions (government, church, family) that began around 1965 and worked a revolution in American thought. The revolution wasn't all bad; some aspects of the old conformist order were ripe for toppling. But, "unfortunately, every human idea, even the very best, is only true up to a point. Equally unfortunately, we usually ascertain where that point is by bumping up against it-hard." Christians began a counter-revolution, but their efforts were reactive and dealt more with effects than causes. According to Mr. Frum, the burning issue of the Seventies was not family values or moral standards so much as individualism. Before, most Americans had geared their hopes and efforts toward their children. After the "Me Decade" (in Tom Wolfe's immortal phrase), they focused on themselves. In material terms, the Seventies left us a more enterprising and expressive nation, laying the groundwork for an unprecedented entrepreneurial boom. The downside is that the decade that inspired new levels of enterprise also brought new levels of anxiety. Perhaps America has always journeyed toward the Seventies-after all, what other nation promises every citizen a right to the "pursuit of happiness"? The late historian Page Smith, in his multi-volume People's History of the United States, explored recurring themes in the American experience, one being the spirit of personal enterprise (or "rugged individualism"). Without doubt, it was a powerful force: The natural drive toward self-improvement, combined with almost limitless opportunity, propelled the nation to world prominence within a bare hundred years of its founding. But with the possibility for success came an equal possibility of failure, and though the roads in America generally tended up, there were plenty who fell by the wayside. Mr. Smith argues that anxiety over such a wide field of possibility kept America on the verge of excess, beset from its earliest days by alcoholism, political extremism, and violence. Only a sense of community, with its shared (mostly Protestant) ethic, kept the American enterprise in balance as it barreled through history. That sense of community fell in the Seventies-what would take its place? Unwittingly, I caught a glimpse of the new order one warm summer morning in 1972. I was walking down a busy street in San Jose when a young woman stridently hailed me from her driveway. Her beat-up Beetle wouldn't start and she was late for work-could I give her a push while she popped the clutch? Her little girl, a wide-eyed, curly-headed toddler with the remains of breakfast still on her face, stared at me from the front seat. No father, I suspected; the feminist bumper sticker on the VW implied that men were superfluous. After two unsuccessful tries to make the motor turn over, we stood on the curb while the lady in distress signaled passing motorists: "Hey, sisters! Stop!" Finally someone stopped: a man in a white shirt and tie, middle-aged and middle-class, doing what guys are supposed to do when the weaker sex needs help. Could he have sensed that the delicate balance of gender obligation was about to be destroyed? Was his stay-at-home wife secretly reading Betty Freidan? Did he appreciate the irony of getting the helpless libber's car started? If so, he didn't show it as he waved away the $5 bill she offered. I might have seen it then: uncommitted adults and rootless children turning to strangers for help, notably Our Father in Washington. Since there is no such thing as a truly sovereign individual, community always survives in some form. But Americans in the Seventies renounced their obligation to it. The "community" that has emerged since is artificial rather than organic, guided by regulations instead of mutual debt, with income redistribution as its modus operandi. "Modern Life" looks more and more like a busy street of self-focused individuals, anxiously going as fast as they can in opposite directions. And ultimately dependent upon the kindness of strangers.

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Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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