"How We Got Here: The 1970s--The Decade That Brought You Modern Life"
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 6 Apr 2000, p. 344-353
Frum, David, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
Some vivid images from past decades. The documentary-maker's version of history. The world of ordinary people turned upside down in the 1970s and how that is so. A review of the 1970s and what they meant for our society and our economy. World leaders of the 1970s. The speaker's view of the 1970s as the decade that brought us modern life.
Date of Original
6 Apr 2000
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David Frum Author, Columnist and Senior Fellow, The Manhattan Institute "HOW WE GOT HERE: THE 1970sTHE DECADE THAT BROUGHT YOU MODERN LIFE" Chairman: Robert J. Dechert President, The Empire Club of Canada

Head Table Guests

David L. Lindsay, President and CEO, Superbuild Corporation and a Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Drew Callander, OAC Student, Lawrence Park Collegiate Institute; Catherine Henderson, President, Ontario College of Art and Design; Patrick Luciani, Executive Director, The Donner Canadian Foundation; Dr. Murray Frum, Chairman, Frum Development Group; Catherine Steele, VicePresident (Toronto) and Partner, GGA Communications and Third Vice-President, The Empire Club of Canada; Roger Martin, Dean, Rotman School of Business, University of Toronto; Kenneth Whyte, Editor-in-Chief, The National Post; and Anne Collins, Vice-President and Editorial Director, Random House Canada.

Introduction by Robert J. Dechert

David Frum is one of America's most thoughtful and provocative political commentators-and he is barely 40 years old. Not bad for a kid from Toronto.

David is the author of several acclaimed books including "Dead Right," published in 1994, which chronicled the rise and fall of the conservative movement in the United States and was described by the New York Times as "the smartest book written from the inside about the American conservative movement."

His second book "What's Right" prompted the Wall Street journal to describe him as "one of the leading political commentators of his generation."

In his latest book entitled "How we got here: the 1970s-the decade that brought you modern life," David describes how the ideas of the 1970s evolved and illustrates how they continue to impact us through current political leaders such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair who were trained in the 1970s when they formed their ideas about the role of the state in our society.

If his book can explain why we all succumbed to disco music and how we can prevent such a dreadful thing from ever happening again his place in history will be truly established.

David Frum is a contributing editor to "The Weekly Standard," and a Senior Fellow of The Manhattan Institute. He writes a column that appears in the New York Post and in Canada's National Post, and he broadcasts regular radio commentaries on national public radio's "Morning Edition." He has appeared on CBS's "Sunday Morning," "The McLaughlin Group" and CNN's "Crossfire"-to name a few. David was formerly an editor and writer on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.

David was born in Toronto and he is a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School. He currently lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife and two children.

Ladies and gentlemen please welcome Mr. David Frum to the podium of The Empire Club of Canada.

David Frum

I have an idea that with this talk I ought to show slides. Wouldn't it be fun to see photographs of the guests at this table taken in say 1974? The big groovy sideburns, the viva Zapata mustaches, the peasant dresses, the clogs? As for me there does exist in some (I hope) tightly secured photo album, a photo of my bar mitzvah in June 1973; I wore a brown polyester seersucker number, aviator eyeglasses, and a bow tie as big as my head.

People think of the 1970s as a nothingburger sort of decade, but from a visual point of view, there's no period of this century that's more instantly recognisable.

F. Scott Fitzgerald called the 1890s the cut-glass decade, because every home that aspired to gentility plopped a cut-glass bowl on its sideboard. In the same way, the 1970s might be called the spider-plant decade. What made a home a home (or so middle-class people then thought) were plants suspended from every wall and over every window. The plants had to be supported by macramé nets, and with them you needed the hand-made plates and blemished glassware from the Yucatan or Portugal. Furniture was upholstered in earth tonesbrowns and oranges-and piled high with nubby pillows. Plaster was stripped off the walls to expose the underlying brick, and the broadloom lilted up to reveal the maple flooring.

Bellbottoms and glitter bells; giant muffins and cocaine-has any other decade spawned quite so many visual clichés?

In a way, the sheer comical lavishness of the 1970s was the biggest obstacle to writing about them. Who could take them seriously? But let's try, at least for the next dozen minutes.

During the making of the movie, "Saving Private Ryan," the Dreamworks publicity department released a photo of the star, Tom Hanks, face to face with the director, Steven Spielberg. Hanks was clad in GI battle dress. Spielberg was wearing his trademark tee-shirt and baseball cap. It was a wonderful image, the 90s meeting the 40s. One found oneself glancing back and forth, from the man dressed as a warrior to the man dressed as a 12-year-old and back again, wondering where had the one man gone? Where had the other one come from? When did this big change occur?

The usual answer is of course the fabled 60s. We've all seen the TV clips: as the Byrds sing "Turn, Turn, Turn," the camera cuts from images of Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to flower children in San Francisco, soldiers helicoptering down into a rice paddy, bombs dropping from the bay of a B-52, protesters, hippies smoking marijuana and flashing peace signs and Lyndon Johnson declaring he will not run again.

This documentary-maker's version of history is not entirely wrong. But it isn't quite right either. It isn't true that the nation's young people took to the streets in the 60s to protest the Vietnam war. Almost every public opinion poll taken during the war showed that youth disproportionately supported the war. The most 'dovish' group was the over fifty-fives. It isn't true that the sixties were the decade in which the conscience of the nation was at last aroused against racial inequality. In fact, the crucial turn in public opinion occurred in the 1950s. And despite all that fantastic footage of stoned young people rolling in the Woodstock mud, it's not even true that the 1960s were the era of sex, drugs, and rock' n' roll. Only 5 per cent of Americans had ever tried marijuana by as late as 1967. A majority of American brides said they came to the altar as virgins as late as 1964. The number-one song of 1969 was "Sugar, Sugar" by the Archies.

When you think of the 1960s, it's a great mistake to imagine them as represented by, say, Hillary Clinton. For most Americans, even most young Americans, the 1960s were the 1940s, except that frozen vegetables had replaced canned. It was only in the next decade, the supposedly anticlimactic decade of the 1970s, that the world of ordinary people was turned upside down.

In 1972, New York magazine published the story of a 31-year-old mother of four from the Baltimore suburbs. After a decade of marriage, she was bored and restless. One day she couldn't take it any longer: She left, moved to New York and took a job. In her essay, she asked: "Was I spoiled because I was taking so many other people-like my husband and children just to pick some at randomover the hill with me in my decisions?" Or was I moral in the deepest sense because I would no longer in the name of sacrifice to others-like my husband and children, just to pick some at random-let slip away the one life I was given as wholly mine to do something with?

Now this is obviously not a new thought. You catch echoes of Emerson and Thoreau in it, Nietzsche and Rousseau, even; some might imaginatively suggest the serpent in the Garden of Eden. But in the 1970s what was once unconventional, even anticonventional, thinking became instead the nearly universal outlook of ordinary men and women.

By 1979, 39 per cent of all Americans, 60 per cent of educated young Americans, agreed with the statement that "people should be free to look, dress, and live the way they want whether others like it or not." By now, that statement has probably become so unexceptionable that most of us in this room would find it difficult to imagine how anybody could disagree with it. Once upon a time, a psychologist named Penelope Russianoff barged her way to fame with a course called "assertiveness training." (She even got a cameo spot in the movie, "An Unmarried Woman:) For $150, Russianoff led her students through 10 weeks of drills and workshops that helped them put their needs first. A graduate of the course, a painter, described what it did for her. "One occasion stands out; it sounds silly, but it was important. I moved my studio from a small room (the dining room) to the biggest room in the house. I took over the centre of the entire place. I have to see my paintings from everywhere, from every viewpoint; they have to be the focal point so I can judge them and experience them. Before I was married, my work space was at the centre of my living quarters. But when I got married, the main room became the living room. It seemed the acceptable thing. But I gradually knew I needed to take over the living room. I agonised silently for months about it before making the switch. Then suddenly one day I did it. I got a friend to help me. I had to move all the furniture, even a piano. When my children and my husband came home, it was all done. They had to accept it. There were some hard moments, but I knew I needed it. It was my life and my work at stake." True, the marriage ended in divorce, but no technique can solve all one's problems.

The painter may seem to have gone a little far. But isn't her way of thinking familiar? And aren't its consequences? Respect for authority dwindled: a 1979 survey by the National Education Association discovered that 110,000 teachers, one out of every 20, had been the victim of a physical attack by a student in the 1978-79 academic year. Every poll taken during the decade showed tumbling regard for political leaders, for business, for unions, for churches, for the military and for medicine.

Intellectual standards were overthrown: in 1973, the University of Texas at Arlington introduced America's first credit course in belly-dancing. Test scores plunged throughout the decade; that is when tests themselves weren't abolished first.

Manners loosened. Not so long ago, Americans were thought of as a taciturn, uncommunicative people. In his 1970 bestseller, "Body Language," the psychologist Julius Fast complained of his difficulty persuading his patients to speak about themselves. Now there's a lost continent of Atlantis! The 1970s were the decade when white Americans stopped dressing up to go to church, when they became habituated to cursing (in 1976 "All the President's Men" achieved distinction as the first film to use the worst obscenity in the English language without forfeiting its R rating for the pornographic X).

Sexual mores were revolutionised. As late as 1972, a substantial majority of American women held that premarital sex was always or almost always wrong; by 1982, the majority said that such relations were never or only seldom wrong. Only 2 per cent of the women who turned 18 between 1953 and 1961 had slept with as many as five men by their thirtieth birthdays; 22.5 per cent of the women who turned 18 between 1971 and 1980 would carve that many notches into their bedpost. Unwed livein relationships became so commonplace that the Census Bureau created a whole new category on its forms: Persons of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters." (Otherwise known unromantically as POSSLQs.) Unsurprisingly, this more promiscuous culture had trouble sustaining marriages: more than one million American kids lost their homes to divorce in each and every year of the 1970s.

Birth rates plunged suddenly and abruptly. In 1967, 40 per cent of Americans thought four or more was the ideal family. Six years later, in 1973, only 20 per cent of American adults thought that four or more was the ideal. In 1971, upper-crust Bryn Mawr conducted a survey of the five most recent graduating classes. About three-quarters of the alumnae participated. They reported giving birth to more than 70 babies. In 1975, the college repeated the survey. Again, three-quarters of the alumnae responded. This time, they reported a grand total of three babies. Today, there is not one country in the developed world where the population is replacing itself.

They were strange feverish years, the 1970s-a time of unease and despair, punctuated by disaster and sudden panics; oil shortages, killer bees, Watergate, environmental scares and the Iran-hostage taking. Institutions from the presidency to the union hall all wobbled. "There were," wrote a columnist for the New York Times in 1975, "fleeting moments when the public scene recalls the Weimar Republic of 1932-33."

Oil shocks, the collapse of the international monetary system, busing, disaster in Vietnam, inflation, repeated recessions, Soviet aggression, appeasement at home and environmental scare stories; it was just one disaster after another. The scientist who is now probably the most articulate prophet of global warming, Stephen Schneider of the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, came to fame as an apostle of global cooling. "We feel," said his colleague Walter Orr Roberts in 1976, "that downturn of temperatures since 1950-and rapidly in the 60s-probably represents a trend and isn't just a short-term chance fluctuation. We feel that it's more likely that these colder average temperatures in the northern hemisphere will continue for 20 or 30 years, and therefore we consider it a significant climate effect that the world will probably have to contend with for a long time." The International Federation of Institutes of Advanced Study warned that the cooling "indicates major crop failures almost certainly within the end of the decade. This, coinciding with a period of almost nonexistent grain reserves, can be ignored only at the risk of great suffering and mass starvation." The Lord High Executioner in the "Mikado" announced that it really didn't matter which names were put upon his little list, and in that same cheerful spirit it was less important to the new apocalyptics to know which catastrophe was going to ravage the world than to agree that some catastrophe was sure to do so.

Catastrophes, though, can be liberating, as well as destructive. In the 1970s the giant corporations that had dominated the American economy since the 1890s began to shrink. 7 per cent of Americans worked for the 25biggest private sector employers in 1969, but only 4.5 per cent did so in 1998. Trade unions lost their power. The personal computer was invented. It became legal to ship a crate of lettuce across the country without asking the Interstate Commerce Commission for permission. The draft was abolished.

Irving Kristol wisely observed that the great event of the 20th century wasn't the crisis of capitalism; it was the death of socialism. The 1970s were the decade in which the final fatal blows were administered. The decade's most important intellectual event was the renaissance of classical economics. Friedrich Hayek won the Nobel Prize in 1974; Milton Friedman won in 1976; and their triumphs were echoed in the world of affairs. The Swedish Social Democrats lost power after 44 years in office in 1976. Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister of Britain in 1979. Ronald Reagan won the U.S. Presidency in 1980. The high-tariff, state-ownership-manipulated currency policies that nationalist governments in the Third World had flirted with since the 1950s were definitively discredited in the crisis of 1982. Even here in Canada, where our Pierre Trudeau so loved the Third World that he wanted to lead Canada into joining it, the dogmas of half-century of Stalinism began to crumble. The price of crude oil has tripled since the summer of 1998: do you hear even a single voice suggesting controls might be appropriate? Or that we should halt exports so that we could have a cheap "made-in-Canada" price at home?

The world leaders of the 1970s belonged to the generation to whom the First World War was a fresh wound, that had suffered the Depression as young men, that came of age during World War 11, and that helped reconstruct the world economy in the 1950s. They had learned something from those experiences, and that something was: markets cannot be trusted; governments can. From right to left, from Richard Nixon to Harold Wilson, they scorned the old-fashioned negative liberty of the 19th-century and celebrated the bold modern new world of central direction and state control. And they promptly steered that bold modern new world into one calamity after another. Suddenly that archaic 19th century world no longer looks so out of date. Friedrich Hayek, who was born under the Emperor Franz Josef but lived to see the fall of the Berlin Wall, used to joke that when he was 20, the only people who agreed with him were 80, and that at 80, the people who agreed with him were all 20.

Before 1970, America was a "love-it-or-leave-it" society. You didn't like Chevrolets? Tough. Your kid was home sick; and wanted to watch a cartoon at 10 on a weekday morning? Also tough. You wanted a chequing account that pays interest? Again tough. You needed to pay less than $900 for an economy ticket to Paris? Tough once more. You'd like to own some gold coins? Fella that's a very serious crime in these United States. In the 1970s, that all changed. It was the decade that brought us modern life.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Catherine Steele, Vice-President (Toronto) and Partner, GGA Communications and Third Vice-President, The Empire Club of Canada.

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"How We Got Here: The 1970s--The Decade That Brought You Modern Life"

Some vivid images from past decades. The documentary-maker's version of history. The world of ordinary people turned upside down in the 1970s and how that is so. A review of the 1970s and what they meant for our society and our economy. World leaders of the 1970s. The speaker's view of the 1970s as the decade that brought us modern life.