Book Reviews

Sucking In the Mid-To-Late Seventies

Philip Jenkins disturbs the Carter-Reagan era's sleep of reason.


On its surface, Philip Jenkins' new book Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America is another installment in a growing body of literature treating the once-forgettable 1970s as a seminal period in the creation of contemporary America. But where previous studies—Bruce J. Schulman's The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture and David Frum's How We Got Here most prominently—posit the decade Garry Marshall built as a period of catastrophic or liberating disruption, Jenkins' brilliant little book shifts both the time frame and the terms of the discussion.

First, Decade of Nightmares slightly moves the definition of the "long seventies," identifying the period from 1975 to 1986 as the critical period. (Jenkins plays fast and loose enough with his examples, however, that it may be more accurate just to say the book approximately covers the Carter-Reagan era, with leeway at both ends.) The book also asks more nuanced questions than others in its genre: For one, how did a period of such enormous disruption also produce so much continuity? The post-1975 period was a time when the apparent triumph of progressive sixties values was decisively reversed, when the identity-politics-driven New Left fell into permanent disarray, when technocratic approaches to social problems were abandoned in favor of Manichean thinking that defined social ills as moral problems and aberrant behavior as the product of evil rather than dysfunction. But why weren't these retrenchments accompanied by reversals of gains made in civil rights, feminism, or gay liberation (particularly when the last two came in for strident counterattacks during the period in question)? Why does popular history ignore the important policy continuities between Jimmy Carter, the deregulating architect of the anti-Soviet proxy war in Afghanistan, and Ronald Reagan, the bumbler behind the "Reagan recession" and the disastrous mission in Lebanon? How did the working class not merely drift away from the Democratic Party but turn passionately against it? And finally, why has the conservative consensus that emerged in the Reagan period proven so durable—lasting (Jenkins argues) until today?

Regular readers of Jenkins' work will be unsurprised to learn the answer: Americans during this period remained in the grip of a series of "moral panics" that drove policy and produced a view of history in which rational (and numerical) realities mattered less than emotional perceptions. The concept of moral panic, of public hysteria over topics ranging from ritual child sex abuse to designer drugs to terrorism, is a regular theme of Jenkins' (and one which I have argued he promoted too facilely in treating the recent management scandal over sexual misconduct by Catholic priests).

The pleasant surprise is how beautifully the theme works when applied to the politics of the late seventies and eighties. You don't have to be a John Wayne Gacy completist, a POW/MIA stalwart, a cult deprogrammer, or a child suffering from recovered memories of Satanic rape at the hands of your daycare center trusties (to name just a few of the real and unreal bogeymen Jenkins drags out of history's dustbin), to appreciate Decade of Nightmares' trip down Painful Memory Lane.

It's a bracing re-imagination of an era. We know now that inflation was on the verge of being whipped, that double-digit interest rates were a relic of practically medieval economic thinking, that urban decay was a passing phase in the renewal of America's cities, and that the Soviet Union was one Yakov Smirnoff routine away from the old folks home of history. But at the time, such problems seemed chronic, and were aggravated by countless smaller terrors to create a sense of cosmic dread. A nation of latchkey kids was being either driven mad by Angel Dust or abducted by brainwashing cults. Intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic were mutilating cattle in the countryside, while in urban areas the sixties problem of "white flight" had escalated into a vision of American cities in violent, unmanageable, apocalyptic decline. Iranian maniacs were not just keeping 52 U.S. citizens in captivity: They were, in a hysterical phrase that made the career of the supposedly unruffleable Ted Koppel, holding America hostage. More Americans remained in dank prisons in communist Vietnam, despite having been repeatedly rescued by Sylvester Stallone, Gene Hackman, and other Hollywood stars. Americans at home were not safe either, easy prey for crack dealers, child rapists, swine flu, out-of-control Gen Xers just entering their teens, and serial killers (a concept, and a phrase, that attained national prominence in the early eighties). Even our apparent birthrights of electricity and warm homes had come to seem suspect, dependent as they were on shady Arab oil sheiks and nuclear power plants on the verge of melting down. Worst of all, Americans had become too narcissistic, emasculated, antisocial and self-absorbed to do anything about it.

Although the effect of these panics was frequently to put the population in a more pessimistic or conservative mood, the cause frequently came from the left. Much of the early eighties hysteria about child molesters and satanic ritual abuse, for example, is traceable to Susan Brownmiller–school feminism, with its view of rape and incest as frequent or normative aspects of patriarchy. (It's also notable that conservatives such as Wall Street Journal columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz were honorable early skeptics of sexual abuse panics.) The serial killer, too, ended up as an icon of unadulterated evil, but originated in psychoanalytic notions of compulsive behavior. But whether you believed the child abuse epidemic was the result of unchecked male pathology or unbridled sixties libertinism, the important thing was that you believed there was a child abuse epidemic, requiring a strong response—stout Reagan, in other words, not pusillanimous Carter.

In one of those insights that are best hidden in plain sight, Decade of Nightmares notes that no major coverage of the 1980 presidential campaign mentions the Atlanta child murders, that year's biggest, most disturbing, most compelling news story. This is not to say that Jimmy Carter would have won re-election if only Wayne Williams had been railroaded a few months earlier. But there is no denying the sense of horror and powerlessness that hung over those days, infecting even the incumbent's home state.

This is soft science, and Jenkins beefs up his arguments with the citations of pop culture ephemera that have become standard procedure in studies of this sort. He is skillful at this part, comfortable with the vagaries of punk politics, the cult of MacKenzie Phillips, Hal Lindsey's End Times blockbuster The Late, Great Planet Earth (and the many books of environmental apocalypse that now seem indistinguishable from it), and the gradations of slasher movies. Decade finds meaning in very special episodes of Mork & Mindy, in the no-budget Rapture film A Thief In the Night (which reportedly gained an audience into the hundreds of millions via showings on the international Protestant church group circuit), and in Sexual Suicide, George Gilder's unintentionally hilarious rampage against gay and feminist activism (and the author's own flagging masculine energies).

It's no secret that this type of material is easy to write and frequently fun to read, and this reader would have liked to see Jenkins devote more of his energy to coverage of popular culture. Not only because he occasionally gets something wrong (erroneously grouping the Men Without Hats classic "Safety Dance," a song whose only concern is the listener's capacity to dance if he or she wants to, with the antiwar/antinuke music genre of the early eighties), but because there is room for so much more. Once again, The Bad News Bears gets ignored as a watershed film, as does Dawn of the Dead, the popular culture's last word on both de-urbanization and Me Generation anomie. And where is Oingo Boingo's "Only a Lad," a song that demonstrated even New Wave fancy lads could produce a tough-on-crime anthem? Married With Children debuted at the tail end of the period Jenkins treats, to unanimous disapprobation from conservatives who viewed the show as an assault on traditional values; but in hindsight, Al Bundy is a clear avatar of the working-class forgotten man whose real enemies are mealy-mouthed elites from the blue states (and who, unlike Archie Bunker, is the show's unmistakable hero). And though Jenkins devotes much of the book to child protection manias, he ignores the children's media of the time, which included not only The Smurfs but the psychedelic Strawberry Shortcake brand and the limitless, Hellraiser-style perversity of the My Little Pony franchise.

But this is to criticize Decade of Nightmares for not being a different book. Jenkins has made an important contribution to our understanding of post-sixties America. If the book has a failing, it may be that Jenkins doesn't follow his arguments to their disquieting conclusions. Decade ends on a modest plea for reason, acknowledging that while terrorists, killer drugs, and child molesters exist, we need to shrink the space they hold in our consciousness and avoid hysterical reactions. This supposes that reasonable reactions are advisable, or even possible. Against a hypochondriac who insists on wearing a surgical mask at all times, facts and logic are useless, because it's the hypochondriac who has facts and logic on his side: The world really is crawling with killer germs and unimaginable pathogens. The only counterargument is that nobody wants to go around looking like Dr. Giggles every day; but that's an argument based on preference, not logic.

To take a recent example of hysterical overreaction, it appears the USA PATRIOT Act may finally be losing steam. The best arguments against the act, however, haven't been logical appeals to the best interest of the average citizen (who has almost certainly not noticed the act's effects). They have been panicky appeals to the slippery slope and other fears that tend to exist more in the mind than in reality. Nobody is making the argument that we'll catch more terrorists once we get rid of the PATRIOT act—only that it's better to live with the danger than to court some vaguely defined panic. By the same token, Jenkins appears to be dismayed at ballooning rates of incarceration in recent decades. But like many civil libertarians, he avoids the question of whether those rates might have something to do with precipitous drops in violent crime rates over the same period. I am not defending the prison boom or the PATRIOT Act, merely noting a troubling point about contemporary hysteria: that in many instances the hysterics have turned out to be right, or at least as right as anybody else offering solutions.

In what may be Decade of Nightmares' most brilliant juxtaposition, Jenkins compares the psychiatrist figures in slasher movies from two very different eras. At the end of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 Psycho, perpetual hothead Simon Oakland is brought in to explain murderer Norman Bates' pathology in great scientific detail, his psychiatric wisdom flowing in articulate numbers while authority figures from the church, the state, and the victim's family listen in rapt silence. Eighteen years later, John Carpenter's Halloween ends with perpetual egghead Donald Pleasance being asked if slasher Michael Myers is the bogeyman: The creepy shrink replies that yes, he probably is. You couldn't find a more striking contrast between technocratic liberalism and conservative reaction. But there's another wrinkle here: By 1978, let alone by 2006, Oakland's pseudo-scientific display of Freudian-momist skylarking looked not only wrong but laughably stupid and under-informed. The bogeyman explanation seems downright scientific by comparison. The real surprise may not be how silly moral panics of the past look today, but how disheveled today's rational high ground will look in the future.