The world changed without our help
Maybe this will seem familiar. You went to high school and maybe university in the 60s and 70s. While the Americans were once again or still tearing themselves and far-away lands apart, you were living the good life.
Yes, there was music in the cafés at night and revolution in the air. Well, at least the former was true, the latter was often words strung together over a beer or scotch and a joint or two or three. It was the time of “Make Love, Not War,” and the pharmaceutical industries obliged by delivering contraception. And there was the gym, where you could work off over-active hormones at lunch and after school.
And, if you were male, you made a momentous discovery. Women liked sex, too. The secret was out and along with a town like Montreal, where the drinking age was 18, were club after club of live music, cover fee maybe a couple of bucks, maybe nothing. Beer was 50 cents and inevitably, outside the fire exit was a dark alley to indulge in weed and hash – the band’s sidemen – making the cymbals shimmer and sweet and the electric guitars soar and as delectable as the smile on the young woman sharing your table and the anticipation of what you hoped would follow.
Life was great for the white and privileged.
And that was often interspersed with night-long fests of wine and conversation that lasted until closing time, where the world’s problems were dissected and solved. We worried not about being conscripted to go bomb people. We worried not about affording university. Or junior college which, in Quebec, became a system of free CEGEPs, two years of lying around corridors, smoking cigarettes, drinking bad coffee and being certain that we were the magic generation. Sex and drugs and loud music were going to change the world. We had no ambition to make money or to “go into business.” How crass. No, with the help of Cat Sevens and Crosby, Stills and Nash, the ribald Rolling Stones and guitars of Muddy Waters and Duane Allman, the world would bloom flowers on the wrecked and wreckage of the Second World War.
Our parents’ implorations that we become doctors, lawyers and corporate chiefs were snickered at. Man, that was serious work. Doctors were respectable but spending year after year memorizing body parts and poking and prodding strangers' parts did not seem like the ticket to a good time. Lawyers were a joke even before popular fiction exposed them not as Perry Mason but blood sucking squids, their ethics for sale at anywhere from $250/hour on up, their raison d’etre billable hours.
And corporate chiefs, well … we saw them on TV, standing up in unison like the Rockettes and testifying nicotine was not addictive. In fact, there were doctors doing commercials promoting cigarettes as part of a healthy diet. And we believed them. Smoking was cool. The Marlboro Man, machismo on horseback, was a real man, until cancer killed him, too.
But, while some school friends went into Daddy’s business and others disappeared, new friends were made who also thought the planet could be saved if we talked about it enough and drank enough alcohol and smoked enough cannabis.
While we were busy saving the planet in bars and bedrooms, there was another species of humans who weren’t out to save the planet. Their ambition was to wring every cent out of it and keep German car companies in business.
Business schools began springing up and giving birth to careers in, well, business, where masters of the universe learned skills like union-busting and marketing, the art of creating a need for something for which there was no need. Remember Feminine Hygiene Spray? Paper towels? A thousand cleansers with ten thousand chemicals and cosmetics and hair products and sprays that could make you stop sweating or even smelling like a human. What a wonderful world. You and your wardrobe and even your vagina could smell like a bathroom deodorizer.
And the captains of industry knew not only how to lie – that’s what lawyers were there to abet – but they could scam with impunity. Soft drink and beer bottlers heralded recycling by switching from bottles to cans and the cans, they boasted, could be recycled and made into cans again. No more energy wasted in washing and collecting bottles. These corporations were with us to save the planet. They didn’t think you needed to know using cans meant drinks could be transported long distances and not break like bottles. Which meant local bottling plants could be shut, thousands of workers given pink slips, and the fact that recycling aluminum cans cost more energy than washing glass bottles would be their little secret. Took a lot of marketing degrees to sell that one.
Many of us who believed life should be fun found income and pleasure in radio, TV and print newsrooms. We could save the planet by telling stories. We could spend our days on the phone, scribbling notes and our nights doing what came naturally, maybe films from Bergman or Scorcese an appetizer.
Problem was, there were expanding armies of men and women gobbling up degrees in management and business which often translated into squeezing every last cent from a deteriorating planet and shipping well-paying jobs to far-away lands.
Henry Ford’s innovative, soul-killing assembly line paid enough so that its mind-deadened employees could afford to buy the products they built. It was a revolution that lasted until the mercenary class discovered sending jobs overseas meant you could starve the local population. Their role as consumers had been cancelled. The world had become a vast market. Even people earning $10 a day could buy iPhones and fast food and melamine furniture. It was no longer necessary to pay a living wage to the locals.
As the president of Caterpillar proclaimed when he wrestled wage concessions and benefits from the union after a protracted strike and record profits, ”There is no such thing as too much profit.” The same could not be said for salaries, of course. Unions everywhere began to face corporations that convinced employees unions were not in their best interest. There’s that marketing degree, again, the evolution of spin. Any lie could be sold and swallowed.
Yes, some of us naively thought we could make the world a better place while the rapacious we ignored plotted taking over the world, one way or another, and making profit their God. In modern Christianity, the money changers of the world were not cast from the temple, they built it, often on the backs of the people they were said to love – those people on the other side of the gates and highways they built to keep them in their place.
We’ve been somewhat spared in Canada, thanks, in no small part, to relatively free education. We have not been saddled with the Koch Brothers, whose 50 year-long conservative assault on the environment and the U.S. courts wrecked the planet and is about to destroy abortion rights, which translates into poor people losing abortion access and wealthy people climbing on planes.
But the Conservatives in Canada have torn a few pages from the Republican handbook and now use rancour and insult rather than discussion and debate. Not only are conflicting ideas wrong, those who espouse them are stupid and should be shot.
Those of us who thought salvation could be found in the Fourth Estate ended up on the sidelines. Not only didn’t we change the world, we couldn’t even change our own fates.