Generation That Said No to Plastics (the Nineteen-Sixties Witnessed Youth's Rejection of the Phony and Artificial)
Chodos, Robert, Compass: A Jesuit Journal
There was a decade called the sixties, which began in January 1960 and ended in December 1969, but there was also something called The Sixties, of which rock music, hippies, drugs, sex, student protest and radical politics were some of the outward signs. Not everyone who lived through the sixties fully experienced The Sixties, but there were few who were not affected in some way. The Sixties didn't begin until the sixties were about half over; as for when, or indeed whether, The Sixties ended, there are probably as many answers as there are people who went through them.
Why did The Sixties happen in the sixties? Writing in Compass five years ago, historian Modris Eksteins suggested that something very like The Sixties was taking shape in the 1910s when it was cut short by the First World War. The war was followed by the failed attempt to return to "normalcy" in the 1920s, the Great Depression, the Second World War and the paranoid Cold War of the 1950s. By the 1960s the tragic cycle of the early and mid-twentieth century had finally run its course.
At the same time, post-Second World War prosperity was still at its height, fuelling the optimism that underlay The Sixties. There were also the sheer demographics of the era: the accession of the first wave of the baby boom to young adulthood. The powerful experiences of that stage of life were made even more powerful by the circumstance that so many of us were undergoing these experiences all at once--and larger numbers of us were congregated on university campuses than ever before.
Nor would the sixties have become The Sixties without the war in Vietnam. For people seeking evidence of the corrupt nature of the System, the Vietnam War was the smoking gun. I'm not sure whether it was because Vietnam was uncommonly foolish and futile as wars go, whether was appeared less palatable as television showed us more of it, or whether a generation had simply arisen that decided to take Isaiah seriously and Just Say No to war. In any case, one of the slogans of the antiwar movement was "What if they gave a war and nobody came?" In unprecedented numbers, people--young people especially--declined the invitation to participate in or support the Vietnam War.
The images that The Sixties most commonly evoke are American ones (Haight-Ashbury, Students for a Democratic Society, Woodstock), perhaps with a few British rock groups and Paris street marches thrown in. I spent most of the decade in Quebec, which had its own Sixties, intertwined with the American Sixties but not identical to them. As the name of a magazine of the time had it, Quebec was almost America: Presqu'Amerique.
The 1960s began in Quebec with the defeat of the hidebound Union Nationale provincial government, the election of Jean Lesage's Liberals, and the burst of energy that became known as the Quiet Revolution. In retrospect, many of the reforms of the Quiet Revolution were part of a wave of provincial affirmation that swept Canada at the time--in Ontario very similar reforms occurred in the name of Tory continuity under John Robarts. But as with most things, this affirmation had an extra dimension in Quebec, a dimension that was provided by nationalism.
In any case, the Quiet Revolution was already on the wane and conservative forces in the Lesage government had gained the upper hand by the time Quebec's Sixties really got underway in 1964. A number of things happened within a few months that signalled the start of a new era. One such event in Quebec was the confrontation between demonstrators and police during a visit by Queen Elizabeth that became known as "Nightstick Saturday." Another sign was the formation of the Union Generale des Etudiants du Quebec (UGEQ), the Quebec student union that split off from the Canadian Union of Students. UGEQ adopted a Paris-inspired philosophy of student unionism, according to which students were young intellectual workers whose proper role was to be in solidarity with fellow members of the working class. Almost at the same time, in Berkeley, the Free Speech Movement was mobilizing students at the University of California. And a few months later, President Lyndon Johnson began the long journey up the escalator in Vietnam, touching off the first student protests and teach-ins.
The atmosphere in Quebec heated up after the 1966 election unexpectedly led to the narrow defeat of the Lesage Liberals and the return of the Union Nationale. In a foretaste of what was to come, the votes the Liberals needed to win were siphoned off by two small parties favouring Quebec independence. The new premier, Daniel Johnson (father of the current Quebec Liberal leader), was a skilled politician who managed to keep the lid on for two years, despite Charles de Gaulle's "Vive le Quebec libre" speech and Rene Levesque's departure from the Liberal Party to found the sovereignty-association movement--which became the Parti Quebecois.
If Quebec was Presqu'Amerique, as a student at the province's most prestigious Anglophone educational institution, McGill University, I inhabited a kind of Presque Quebec. For a small but not insignificant group of Anglophone students--of which the McGill Daily, in whose offices I spent most of my time, was one of the bastions--identification with Quebec held a powerful attraction. Part of it was the sheer verve and zest of Quebec student politics; part of it was the prevailing sense that Quebec nationalism was anti-imperialist and of a piece with anti-imperialist movements elsewhere in the world. Canada, by contrast, was irredeemably enmeshed in the American Empire, as well as being insufferably dull.
Demonstrating against the Vietnam War in Montreal, we could shout "Le Vietnam aux Vietnamiens--le Quebec aux Quebecois!" The idea that the difference between the two struggles might be more than a nuance came later. Meanwhile, a debate raged at McGill on whether to join UGEQ. In 1967, on our third try, the pro-UGEQ side at McGill finally won a student referendum.
Daniel Johnson pere died in 1968, and his successor, Jean-Jacques Bertrand, lacked his political talents. Quebec activists moved into the streets. In the fall of 1968 it was the cegeps, the new junior colleges established as part of Quebec's educational reform, that exploded. The next spring, Quebec radicals turned their attention to that fortress of Anglophone privilege, McGill University, demanding that it be converted into a French-language institution. A fifth column of McGill students--again centred on the McGill Daily--agreed. A few days before the large McGill Francais demonstration of March 1969, with tension in Montreal running high, a taxi I was in was stopped by police for having four people in its front seat. In the back seat were 100,000 copies of a propaganda leaflet members of the Daily staff had helped publish. We were held in a downtown police station for a couple of hours and then released without charge.
After McGill Francais, we demonstrated for the release from prison of revolutionary leaders Pierre Vallieres and Charles Gagnon, then in support of taxi drivers fighting an airport limousine monopoly, and then against the Bertrand government's lenient language legislation. In the fall hardly a week went by without a demonstration of some kind. Finally the authoritarian city government of Mayor Jean Drapeau passed an anti-demonstration bylaw, and except for a group of brave women who defied the ban in November, the demonstrations stopped.
Meanwhile, UGEQ was dissolving in a morass of ideological contradictions. The group of McGill students also fell apart, a casualty of internal tensions, especially between its male and female members. I had also been involved in discussions with some of my Daily friends and other student journalists about starting a radical newsmagazine, and this became my primary interest. The first issue of the Last Post came out in December 1969, but this was a Canadian project, and essentially one of the seventies. For me The Sixties and the sixties ended more or less simultaneously.
Were The Sixties a blip in time or have they had lasting effects? There is certainly evidence for the first hypothesis. Optimism turned to cynicism. The call to order was heard from Richard Nixon ("the silent majority") and Pierre Trudeau ("fini les folies"). Students grew up and made their way in the world.
But none of the reactionaries of subsequent decades, from Margaret Thatcher to Mike Harris, has ever been quite able to reestablish the pre-Sixties synthesis. Sixties radicalism, political and cultural, may have been ephemeral, but the late twentieth century has been marked by movements for change that incorporate the best of the spirit of The Sixties.
Preeminent among these are the feminist and environmental movements. The origins of both are sometimes attributed to books published in the 1960s--Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, and yet consciousness of the issues they raise was muted before 1970. Only one of the 264 Canadians elected to the House of Commons in 1968 was a woman, Grace McInnis (NDP--Vancouver Kingsway). Newspapers still ran separate "Help Wanted Male" and "Help Wanted Female" ads. Even radical groups were often forums for macho posturing.
But in an era in which questioning established institutions was the order of the day, the institution of patriarchy could not long escape scrutiny. Women's liberation and consciousness raising groups were formed in increasing numbers towards the end of the decade. In 1967, the federal government of Prime Minister Lester Pearson appointed a Royal Commission on the Status of Women, chaired by Florence Bird, but it would be 1970 before it issued its report, which documented systemic discrimination against women. Another dimension of the questioning of received notions of gender was opened up in 1969, when a riot in New York's Greenwich Village marked the beginning of the modern gay/lesbian movement.
The environmental movement, which also took hold in the early 1970s, likewise fed on Sixties skepticism about established institutions, and especially large corporations. Another movement that has had considerable impact in the last decades of the century traces its origins in Canada to 1969, when Native people reacted angrily to a white paper issued by the minister of Indian affairs of the time, Jean Chretien, suggesting that Indians should disappear into the mainstream of Canadian society. And of course, the modern, nationalist and nettlesome Quebec that became part of the Canadian scene in the 1960s has persisted through subsequent years.
Three decades on, the cracks in the synthesis called modernity that appeared in The Sixties have not been repaired. Instead, they have grown wider and deeper, to the point where many people doubt whether the synthesis can be sustained at all. And while it would be foolhardy to venture a prediction as to what a new synthesis would look like, it is a fair guess that the movements that have arisen out of The Sixties are signs of some of the conditions such a synthesis will need to fulfil if it is to work.
On my twenty-first birthday, in 1968, I was in Baltimore, temporarily separated from the Quebec that sustained me, pursuing a brief and spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to obtain an advanced degree in mathematics. Alone, I took a long walk to a movie theatre, where I saw one of the most popular films of the time, Mike Nichols's The Graduate. The protagonist of the film was, like me, a bored recent university graduate with little appetite for the standard options offered by the adult world. In the film's most memorable line, a family friend takes him aside and says, "I have just one word to say to you, my boy. Plastics. There's a great future in it!" The word summed up the spiritual emptiness of the world against which so many members of the generation of The Sixties were in revolt. Whatever else we would do with our lives, we weren't going to make plastics. And by and large, we haven't.…
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Publication information: Article title: Generation That Said No to Plastics (the Nineteen-Sixties Witnessed Youth's Rejection of the Phony and Artificial). Contributors: Chodos, Robert - Author. Magazine title: Compass: A Jesuit Journal. Volume: 14. Issue: 1 Publication date: March-April 1996. Page number: 6+. © 1996 Compass Foundation. COPYRIGHT 1996 Gale Group.
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