A world so lost that people no longer believe it ever really existed

Jonathan Last at the Weekly Standard has an insightful article coming out in the September 30th edition of the magazine (available now online), entitled “Two Miserable Decades” in which he compares and contrasts the periods from 9/11 until today, and the 70’s – or more precisely, the period from 1967 through 1979. Having been born in 1960, I endured that earlier period at a highly impressionable yet largely oblivious stage of life. Of course, it is common lately to hear the Obama presidency compared to Carter’s, but this article looks much deeper into the fabrics of these oddly-related eras:

So which period was worse? There’s a strong case to be made for each. Superficially, you could argue the ’70s, for all the obvious reasons: 58,000 Americans dead in Vietnam, Watergate, gas lines, the last helicopter leaving Saigon. But the deeper undercurrents suggest a different answer.

After all, American culture was fraying in the ’70s, but for the most part, society agreed that it was fraying and that this dissolution was problematic. In the 1970s, the country retained habits learned during almost two generations of the strongest growth in American history. A 40-year-old in 1970 had lived through the Depression and the Second World War, and his parents had seen the Great War, too. These people were made of stern stuff. And they could plausibly look at the world around them and see it as a terrible aberration. They could believe that the normal state of affairs was much better and that a return to normalcy was possible. That’s why the country responded to Reagan’s call for “morning in America.”

Our age is different. A 40-year-old in 2000 was a teenager during the maelstrom of the ’70s. He saw the bright spot of the mid-1980s and the respite from history that was the 1990s. But to him, the economic and social patterns of the ’00s look like the norm.

As for the culture, the social order of the 1950s may have been washing out to sea during the 1970s, but today it might as well be Atlantis—a world so lost that people no longer believe it ever really existed. When 1 out of every 10 births is illegitimate, it’s a societal failure. When nearly half are, it’s a new way of life.

Last touches on many different elements of both time periods, from the bizarre (e.g. Paul Erlich’s “Population Bomb” apocalyptic to Jimmy Carter being elected leader of the free world a few months after having submitted an official UFO report) to the banal (e.g. economic performance) to the culturally basal (i.e. the state of cultural institutions and the social expectations thus engendered – hence the notion of a world so lost as to be incredible).

Much of it was easy to follow, and hardly controversial. But Last made one comment in particular that jumped out at me as potentially very insightful – and certainly provocative. He claims that the passage of Obamacare may have an even deeper negative significance to the political fabric of the country than did the resignation of Nixon – this because of the purely partisan nature of support that saw its ugly passage by professional politicians who quite often did not really support it (indeed, how could they, since its content was unknown to those who voted it into law!), and who knew their constituencies didn’t want it, but who voted to enact it anyway, to toe the party line. In other words, he sees it as a failure of the democratic processes built into our political institutions, which is indeed a foreboding notion for a nation that has nothing else to offer toward social cohesion if democracy fails, other than television “culture”.  It is a fascinating and sobering thought, which gives some practical weight to the oft-repeated complaints of the hyper-partisan nature of contemporary political discourse, especially in Washington.

The essay makes for good reading, especially for those who think often about the era of the Western “cultural revolution”, and how it continues to influence behaviors and beliefs today.