Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America

December 18, 2008

There is something deeply flawed about this book. It's got nothing to do with the author's ability to observe and absorb the facts, nor with his ability to cater to an obvious fan base, nor even with getting his manuscript published. After all, Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, has an impressive 18 books to his credit. So why is this not a good book? The answer is that it is deeply boring and analytically weak.

The organising idea seems simple. Jenkins sets out to map the social, political and cultural changes in the US that prepared the ground for the conservative 1980s. His account starts with what he sees as the real end of the 1960s: the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974. This is then followed by the post-1974 years - the "anti-1960s" backlash. The long 1970s, here seen as a kind of Sattelzeit - a term German historians have used to describe what seems to be a low event period linking up two seemingly more eventful periods - saw the emergence of a new alignment, which began to crystallise and to take on political importance with Reaganism. Jenkins argues that this political momentum did not happen by stealth but that underneath this new political momentum lay a major social and cultural tectonic shift. His epistemological interest (if that is indeed the right word for Jenkins' muddling-through) is to detail the emergence of a new conservatism.

Jenkins may be a fair chronicler, but a good chronicle doesn't necessarily make for great history writing. What we get here is "history light" - the academic equivalent of a decaf espresso. The reader desperately looks for a serious argument; everything is mentioned but nothing is properly explained. It sometimes reads like a patchwork of newspaper and magazine clippings and film reviews, while less-than-analytical comments - or short sermons - provide the missing link. It doesn't add up; this is neither proper contemporary history, cultural sociology or proper politics.

Moreover, chapter titles and subtitles are relentlessly kitsch: "I Want to Believe", "The Trouble with Men", "The Hard Core", "Psycho Killers" and "The Abuse Epidemic". One can write about moral panics, as Jenkins has done before, but to capture paranoia in the US context is no easy task; it needs an approach more attuned to the subject both in terms of content and form. This book reads like bad news, followed by more bad news, followed by even more bad news.

Other more successful attempts to chart America's 1970s and 1980s come to mind. Mike Davis' Prisoners of the American Dream, the same author's morphology of Los Angeles in City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear, or Sean Wilentz's recently published The Age of Reagan may not be perfect and they can - as in the case of Davis - occasionally sound over the top, yet they capture the spirit of the time in a way that makes it interesting for the reader. They show how things that happened in the recent past still matter and how they impact on the present. Davis and Wilentz distil the main message either by modelling (see Davis' brilliant diagram of LA's ecology of fear) or by witty or even brilliant prose (as in the case of Wilentz).

In contrast, Jenkins here sounds flat and often moralistic. This book may appeal to believers, do-gooders or the politically correct, but I would not recommend it for academic purposes. Why it was published by Oxford University Press is a mystery.

Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America

By Philip Jenkins
Oxford University Press
352pp
£14.99
ISBN 9780195178661
Published 3 July 2008

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