TIMES OF PASSION: America, 1960-1980 by Charles R. Morris

TIMES OF PASSION: America, 1960-1980

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A promising ""personal exploration"" into major episodes and aspects of the past two decades--that turns into a disappointing ""lesson in the limits of rational models."" Morris is the author of the premier study of New York City's financial collapse, The Cost of Good Intentions; one of its merits, despite the title, was not neatly pinning blame on liberal social policies. Here, Morris properly insists on the complexity of events; his accounts of the period's phenomena--whether Vietnam, the civil rights movement, Nixon-and-Watergate, or the erratic economy--aptly illustrate that complexity. Line-by-line, indeed, he often gets things precisely and disturbingly right: ""It may be true, for example, that the [Vietminh] were never part of an organized global conspiracy; but on the other hand, once in power, they turned out to be as cruel and despotic as the most rabid anti-Communist could have predicted."" Even his parenthetical remarks can be acute, amusingly so: ""Economists love telling about the disappearing anchovies"" that sent animal-feed prices up; ""It was important, but not that important."" (The disappearing anchovies appear on the latest New York Times graph of the period's economic shifts.) Morris' estimable aim is to discredit single-factor causation. And, finally, there is sense in his kick-off contention that ""Kennedy's election,"" far from opening a New Frontier, ""was the culmination of a fifty-year tradition of expansive pragmatism""--which Morris follows with a discussion of the progenitors of pragmatism, Dewey and James, and Keynesianism as its embodiment: a way to purposefully manipulate the national economy. On this foundation, however, Morris structures a chronicle with a familiar plot--the failure of attempts to fine-tune the economy. Its also-familiar villains are intellectuals of all stripes--plus ""the upper-middle-class cultural elite."" (We're even reminded, once again, that most people prefer snowmobiles and campgrounds to Thoreauvian meditation.) And its climax is the too-simple contrarian equation of Reagan with Kennedy: he thinks he can push buttons too. Pragmatism has its limits, says Morris; moralism has its limits (cf. civil rights, poverty, Vietnam). ""Loss of certainty"" isn't a bad thing. There, he's not wrong--and when he practices what he preaches, describing and interpreting without schematizing, the book does sparkle and provoke.

Pub Date: March 14th, 1984
Publisher: Harper & Row