Stephen Karlson (shkarlson) wrote in 50bookchallenge,
Stephen Karlson


William L. O'Neill wrote Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960s. Although the author shared the prejudices of coastal intellectuals (opening the book with the usual cavils about the 1950s) his analysis is more careful, giving readers doubts early on about the received wisdom of the era, particularly about the powers of an activist President. If I wanted to do Book Review No. 33 as a sentence, that sentence might be Beware Activist Presidents and the People who Call For Them. As a first attempt at interpretation (the book has a 1971 publication date and the August 1970 Sterling Hall bombing might be the last event noted) it identifies some of the ideas of the era that came to grief, and is prescient about the reasons that happened. Some of the commonplaces of the era, however, didn't stand up so well. A sidebar on Ralph Nader veers into transportation aesthetics (p. 126)
In a way, automobiles were central to the national economy precisely because they were so costly and wasteful. Public transit was cheaper, safer, and more efficient, but however widespread it became it could never, for just those reasons, puff up the economy as autos did. American prosperity was based on waste -- disposable containers, annual model changes, and planned obsolescence. Even a change from internal-combustion engines to other forms of automotive power would threaten it. The very fact that electric- or steam-powered automobiles would be simpler to operate told against them. No manufacturer wanted to make propulsion systems that would earn him less money. And if even by some miracle a suitable vehicle were devised, how could people be induced to use it?
All those college-educated, socially and environmentally conscious young people and all those technocrats, more than a few of whom were accused of selling out when they entered middle age as yuppies, and nobody anticipated a series of oil shocks in which precisely that miracle car would make its inventor a lot of money and provide the inducement for people to use it. That's where Detroit's first post-World War II crisis began. There's a passage (p. 153) on William Buckley's campaign to become New York's mayor that, while taking the obligatory digs at what passed for conservatism in those days, effectively concedes that Mr Buckley had the policy mix that would ultimately fix the Big Apple. The analyses of the tensions among New Leftists, minority-power revolutionaries, hippies and Hell's Angels make for fascinating reading. Professor O'Neill underestimated the capacity of self-despising academics to resolve the conflict between rooting out racism and sharing rewards: in that conflict is the roots of whiteness studies and the blaming of people who look like me for all our remaining ills.

The professor's website lists books such as The American High (the 1945-1960 period I refer to as The America That Worked), published 1986, and The New Left, published 2001. I'm tempted to read them and provide reviews. From 1984 or so to 2001, the country put much of the Sixties silliness aside. Perhaps the professor demonstrates similar growth.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)
Tags: history, politics
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