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Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America
Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America
Philip Jenkins
Oxford University Press, 2006
352 pp., 27.63

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by John Schmalzbauer


Against the Manichaeans

Philip Jenkins' revisionist take on post-1960s America.

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 the dangers of both political partisanship and Sixties myopia.

For Jenkins, the 1970s were as much a continuation of the 1960s as they were a departure. Describing what he calls the "mainstreaming" of the Sixties, he argues that the changes wrought by the counterculture took at least a decade to be absorbed by the wider society. This finding has been substantiated by survey researchers. As pollster Daniel Yankelovich pointed out in his book New Rules, most Americans remained untouched by the upheavals of the 1960s. Only in the 1970s did public opinion data reveal what Yankelovich called a shift in the "giant plates of culture." The sexual revolution, the drug culture, and the rise of alternative religions all trickled down to the masses in the 1970s.3 But the late 1970s and the early 1980s were also a time of reaction as more Americans became convinced that the social changes of the day had gone too far. It is this pendulum swing between countercultural radicalism and political conservatism that constitutes the heart of Jenkins' narrative.

All this may be familiar to those who have followed the scholarship on the conservative turn in American politics. What makes Jenkins' book unique is his focus on the "moral panics" behind the political movements of the 1970s and 1980s. Viewing American history as a series of "alternating cycles of hedonism and puritanism," Jenkins argues that the period from 1975 to 1986 was especially fertile for the proliferation of potent anxieties, worries, and fears. These "nightmares" included illegal drugs, sexual abuse, serial killers, and sexually transmitted diseases.

In Decade of Nightmares, Jenkins explores campaigns against child abductions, the war on drugs, and a host of other moral crusades, arguing that most of these relied on inflated statistics, overblown fears, and the rhetoric of demonization. He is especially critical of the early Eighties "panic over missing children." Noting that some activists claimed that as many as 1.5 million children disappeared each year, Jenkins argues that the actual figure was probably less than one hundred.

Readers familiar with Jenkins' The Next Christendom and The New Anti- Catholicism may be unaware of his parallel career as a student of social problems. His 1998 book Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America was hailed as a solid contribution to the sociological literature. Decade of Nightmares employs the same analytical tools, showing that public fears often bear little relationship to the actual incidence of social problems.

A self-described Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian, Jenkins has sometimes been labeled a religious conservative. A Catholic colleague of mine once praised him for having the same enemies as he did. In 2004, journalist Jeff Sharlet went further, calling Jenkins a "best-selling neocon crusader disguised as a scholar."4

Jenkins is anything but conservative in Decade of Nightmares. Calling the Reagan Administration's war on drugs "cranky and puritanical," he notes that the "range of acceptable opinions about drug policy narrowed frighteningly in these years." He also criticizes the false equation of homosexuality and pedophilia, unsubstantiated reports of ritual satanic abuse, and claims made by 1980s activists that child pornography was on the rise.

Early sociological scholars of deviance tended to romanticize the bohemian lives of their informants, displaying what Alan Wolfe calls "hostility toward bourgeois values." By contrast, the neo-conservative policy wonks of the 1990s warned against "defining deviancy down," calling for harsh new penalties against crime.5 Avoiding both extremes, Jenkins is equally hard on the Right and the Left, critiquing both the moralistic crusades of conservatives and the naïve openness of progressives. Reporting Kinsey researcher Wardell Pomeroy's shocking claim that adult-child incest could be "a satisfying and enriching experience," Jenkins notes that "little of the expert writing on child abuse published between about 1955 and 1976 can be read today without embarrassment." He also criticizes misguided efforts to mainstream hard drugs, ridiculing those who portrayed cocaine as no more dangerous than nicotine or alcohol.

Several chapters in the book extend Jenkins' critique of "moral panics" to anti-communism and the war on terrorism. An equal opportunity critic of Democratic and Republican foreign policy, Jenkins notes how Cold War fears blinded America to Middle Eastern terrorism. Critical of George Bush's "axis of evil" rhetoric, Jenkins also comes down hard on Michael Moore's conspiratorial film Fahrenheit 911.

For Philip Jenkins, battles against evil empires and domestic conspiracies are ultimately rooted in the same Manichaean approach to American politics. In the final analysis, it is this ancient heresy that constitutes the real target of Decade of Nightmares. Arguing that both the Right and the Left "have adopted a worldview based on fears of subversion and predation," Jenkins criticizes the dualistic rhetoric of American politics. Refusing to engage in culture-war polemics, he recognizes with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that "the line between good and evil runs through each human heart."

Decade of Nightmares should not be read as a blanket condemnation of moral and religious language in the public square. Instead, it should encourage people of faith to cultivate a more humble approach to public life. Above all we should beware of apocalyptic rhetoric about conspiracies and predators. As Jenkins convincingly demonstrates, such language has often led us astray.

John Schmalzbauer is Blanche Gorman Strong Chair in Protestant Studies at Missouri State University and author of People of Faith: Religious Conviction in American Journalism and Higher Education (Cornell Univ. Press).

1. Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (Bantam, 1987); Myron Magnet, The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties' Legacy to the Underclass (Morrow, 1993).

2. E.J. Dionne, Why Americans Hate Politics (Simon & Schuster, 1991).

3. Daniel Yankelovich, New Rules: Searching for Self-Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down (Random House, 1981), pp. xi-xx.

4. Jeff Sharlet's "Anti-anti-anti-Catholicism" is available at www.therevealer.org/archives/ daily_000171.php

5. Alan Wolfe, Marginalized in the Middle (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 39; Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "Defining Deviancy Down," The American Scholar, Winter 1993.

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