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Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America
Oxford University Press, 2006
352 pp., $28.00
by John Schmalzbauer
Against the Manichaeans
It has often been said that "everything happened in 1968." French poststructuralists, civil rights veterans, and baby boomers have been especially partial to this interpretation of history. It was in 1968 that disgruntled students mounted the barricades in Paris. It was in 1968 that Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy were struck down by assassins, putting an end to the hopefulness of the decade.
Born three days after King's death, I have always accepted this view of 1968. Too young to remember the events of that storied year, I have been forced to rely on the recollections of my elders, whether in Hollywood films, political journalism, or more scholarly treatments. One such work, Todd Gitlin's The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, tells the story of the decade from the point of view of an activist-turned-sociologist, tracing the rise and fall of the era's various social movements. On the opposite end of the political spectrum, Myron Magnet's The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties' Legacy to the Underclass blames the cultural shifts of the decade for the decline of urban America, providing academic cover for the downsizing of the welfare state.1
For all their passion and exuberance, many accounts of the 1960s suffer from two major flaws. The first is their unrelenting partisanship. Too often, notes E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, the history of that decade has been told through rival parodies of the Left and the Right.2 A second problem is their tendency to downplay the importance of the preceding and succeeding decades. If everything happened in 1968, nothing happened before or after.
Recently, a friend told me he wanted to write a book about how everything happened in the late 1970s. I'm afraid Philip Jenkins has beaten him to the punch in the just-released Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America. Chronicling the period from 1975 to 1986, Jenkins successfully avoids ...