A Time of Passion: America. 1960-1980 by Charles R. Morris is one of the most insightful books I have ever read. For reference, there are only two other books that I would rank in the same category out of hundreds. If you ever wanted to understand why America and (to some extent) the world is the way it is–economically, politically, socially, and philosophically–it is critical to understand how America “lost its innocence, and with it, its certainty” during the turbulent period, 1960-80. Many insightful books have been written about 1960s, but what makes “A Time of Passion” exceptional is that it carries the insights forward to reveal trends. These trends continue to shape our world today, a testament to the veracity of Morris’ insights…and this book was published in 1986! He was also remarkable prescient in some of his predictions (the savings and loans crisis and more recently the housing bubble). The only thing that he totally missed was the Internet…but then again, few people saw that one coming (except maybe some SF writers).
This book is not an easy read because of the subject material, but it is worthwhile. Morris has a gift for explaining complex concepts well, but you will still have to chew and digest a little before moving on (particularly in the economics section). It is also a hard reality check for both conservatives and liberals. In the beginning, you may feel that Morris is unduly harsh on liberals, but later you will feel the opposite when he analyzes conservative policies. American politics yo-yos between the poles, but the more things change, the more they stay the same. Morris wrote, “The grievous sin of the war was to become involved without understanding the consequences.” He was writing of Vietnam, but the same could apply to Iraq. Why?
As Morris explains, both camps suffer the same fundamental flaw: oversimplification. Their inability or unwillingness to understand the complexity of reality leads to an expectation that the system can be controlled by making the “right” adjustments. From Vietnam to Iraq, the Great Society to welfare cuts, Keynesians vs. monetarists. America is ever in search of the “fix”–the quicker the better. Is this an effective approach? If not, what is?
Morris hopes that one day America will accept complexity and learn to live with unpredictability. Rather than mining past data with the expectation of future control (which has a spotty track record), it might be more effective to seek fundamental principles and to understand the flow of history. He ends the book by writing, “The complexity of events give rise to neither hopelessness nor hubris, but inspires instead awe and delight at the wondrously unfolding patterns of the world.” Written like a philosopher…
“A Time of Passion” is a penetrating, unflinching look at a critical time in American (and even world) history. 1960-80 was when America “grew up,” but is the nation more mature? Have we as a people learned our lesson? By cutting to the core and exposing the underlying principles at work, Charles R. Morris has given us some of the insights necessary to effect meaningful social and political change going forward. America faces a number of complex challenges from education to healthcare. Whether we rise to meet them is still an open question.