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How We Got Here, the 1970s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life (for Better or Worse)

by David Frum

Neo-conservative columnist David Frum announces his intentions at the outset of his latest book. Not only does he promise to provide a history of the 1970s, a decade that Frum feels is much maligned and unfairly overshadowed by the 1960s, he will also position the decade as the root of much of what we are experiencing in the dawning of the new century. Unfortunately, neither of these ambitions is achieved.

How We Got Here is an impressive, meticulously researched assemblage of data and information, perhaps the most thorough reckoning of the 1970s yet published. However, the book lacks a significant organizing principle to encompass all of this information. Thus, the image of the 1970s that emerges is piecemeal and incomplete, lacking a true sense of the times. This would be acceptable were Frum simply tracing the roots of contemporary society (as promised), but this is not the case. Nowhere in How We Got Here does Frum define where, precisely, “here” is. Frum’s vision of contemporary society (and its ills) can only be inferred by extrapolating the trends that he ascribes to the 1970s (and only arbitrarily – since virtually every “1970s development,” from the lack of faith in government to the surge of anti-technological feeling, finds its direct antecendents in the 1950s and 1960s). The incomplete picture of Frum’s 1990s that emerges is no more complete or thorough than that of Frum’s 1970s, and, as some might expect, tends toward the negative.

Frum’s view of the world is also, to an almost jingoistic degree, American, focusing almost exclusively on American societal, legal, and economic developments. The rest of the world seems to exist only in reference to the United States. Canada is mentioned only in passing.

With the wealth of information Frum has gathered, there is the potential for a tremendous book. How We Got Here does not live up to its promises or its potential.