Something is happening here, But you don't know what it is, Do you, Mr. Jones? BOB DYLAN
YES INDEED, Mr. Dylan, something is happening — in our schools, our political systems, our churches, our cities — and at times it seems as though the entire North American continent, if not the entire industrialized world, is composed of two nations: the young and the others, the Mr. Jones-people who are uneasily aware that something, God alone, knows what, but something momentous, is moving beneath the plastic-smooth surface of Western civilization.
It isn’t just youthful rebellion (against what?). It isn't just the tidal wave of alienation and uncertainty that seems to afflict much of urban, 20th-century man. It isn’t only the fact that the world, as we perceive it, is increasingly being viewed through the distorting lens of the mass media. And it isn’t merely the fact that our more stable institutions, to say nothing of the moral values that lent certainty to other generations, seem to be dissolving before our eyes like overripe mushrooms.
No, it has to be something else, some unifying principle that will help explain all these things, suggest to all the Mr. Joneses among us exactly what is happening, and why. For the feeling is growing among millions of ordinary people that, in some new
and unexplained way, things are coming apart. Was there ever another time like this, so fearful, so violent, so uncertain? Has there ever been personal loneliness and mass insanity on so vast and frightening a scale?
For the first time in history, predictions of doom are beginning to sound plausible. Population explosion. Spasm war. Environmental breakdown. These things
are now actual possibilities. There are plenty of scientific authorities who seriously doubt the human race can survive another century. We’ll either strangle in our own wastes, they say, or perpetuate the species by murdering surplus populations. Truly, things are in a mess.
Please: we’re not writing this in an attempt to depress you. But this does happen to be the season when most people pause to reflect on where they’re supposed to be going. It also happens to be the first issue of Maclean’s in its new (and, we hope you’ll agree, improved) format. Both occasions, we felt,
justified some thinking about us and the world at large. And if our initial observations sound gloomy, our conclusions are pretty cheerful.
We say this not merely because it is, after all, the season to be jolly; but because, it seems to us, there are several widely overlooked aspects of our present situation that justify considerable optimism. Taken together these things add up to a working explanation of what, Mr. Jones, is actually happening in Western society.
The first of these is what critic Max Ways has called the “crisis in national perception.” Putting it as bluntly as possible, the idea is that things seem so dreadful mostly because we (or the media) choose to view them that way.
This isn’t as Pollyanna as it sounds. There have
been periods in our recent history — the Victorian era, the 1950s — when the conventional as well as the unconventional wisdom held that things in general were getting better nd better. Why did we need this belief? Mostly because people (especially media people) need a “scenario” to extract some sense from the contradictory events they observe. All of us, in other words, tend to view the public world as drama. We need a plot, a story-line; otherwise, how could anyone tell the good guys from the bad guys?
At the moment, however, the scenario has switched; we’re currently in a phase of “dark perception,” where we unconsciously tend to place the most pessimistic construction possible on events. The new scenario reads something like this: the world is getting worse because technology is crushing people. Institutions and power structures (the bad guys) are subjugating human beings (the good guys). Last year’s Democratic convention in the U.S., coupled with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, may have been the dénouement of this particular scenario; for it is hard to think of two events that lend themselves so aptly to a scenario of power triumphing over people.
But events alone don’t determine our perception of them. Hungary was a far worse rape than Czechoslovakia. But in 1956 — back when we still believed in “progress” — it was seen as an exception to the rule of progress, rather than as part of a global downward trend.
The media’s need for a story-line has sharpened this current mood of pessimism. So has the media’s increasing reach, efficiency and involvement. McLuhan’s global village is now more fact than prediction. The news has always consisted of reporting the follies and failures and cruelties of man, not his successes. But now we experience these events with the immediacy of a brawl in the apartment next door. Is it any wonder that so many people, all of them electronic-eye witnesses to Biafra, Chicago and Czechoslovakia, are beginning to conclude that change is leading us toward chaos, and not toward the stars?
The concern is not misplaced. But the conclusion, in our view, is not warranted. For what it fails to recognize — and this is what’s happening, Mr. Jones — is the birth of a totally new historical phenomenon: the emergence of the individual, and his right to selfdevelopment, as the determining factor in history.
It’s true. At any rate, it’s true enough to serve as a much more adequate scenario than the prevailing pessimism. In this story - line, Czechoslovakia takes on a different meaning; instead of the triumph of naked power over individual aspirations, we can see the event for what it was: the exposure and
humiliation of power by people acting as individuals.
And Chicago? Yes, the bullies and the has-beens won the battle. But in so doing they ensured that there will never be another American convention as flagrantly undemocratic as Chicago’s — if, indeed, the convention system survives at all. And the universities? Apart from the fringe that dreams of burning down the administration building, students have grievances that are mostly legitimate. In a word, they want relevance in their education. This is nothing new — except that the present generation is insisting on it. This isn’t chaos. This is progress of the most meaningful kind — in the direction of more self-determination for more people. If you insist on a slogan, call it People Power.
What about here at home, where issues are less urgent and positions less extreme? Again, if you’re plugged into the People Power scenario, you can spot the hopeful indicators. If Trudeaumania meant anything, it signified a demand by people for more involvement in the governing process. Despite certain mandarin tendencies, the new government has shown itself responsive to this demand. Remember last autumn when Ottawa decided to ignore the crisis in Biafra? It was People Power that forced the government to
reverse itself and act. Even Paul Hellyer’s recent junket across the country in search of grass-roots answers to the housing crisis is too hopeful a symptom to be dismissed as political window dressing. Anyone who witnessed all those sweet confrontations between the housing experts and the unhoused is aware of how potentially valuable such exchanges can be.
The fact is that People Power is rapidly making obsolete most of our notions about the almighty power of institutions. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for institutions to act against the interests of people, because institutions are people. The Roman Catholic Church, for instance, is no longer a remote entity unto itself, but is painfully transforming itself into a collection of people who agree with the Pope, disagree with the Pope, and try — with God’s help — to find their
own way. People Power also forced one American president out of office, and will severely limit the imperialist options of his successor. Even corporations are beginning to change. As John Kenneth Galbraith has pointed out in The New Industrial State, big companies are no longer the tools of a few men at the top. Instead, the best of them are beginning to resemble genuine participatory democracies, where goals and policies are determined not by fiat from on high, but by a sort of managerial consensus. This isn’t just a happy accident. Most large companies long ago discovered that dictatorships are remarkably inefficient.
People, in other words, are beginning to run their own show at last. And this is the real meaning of what’s happening in the chaotic, uncertain world of the 1960s. They’re less willing than ever before to accept structures that limit their potential for selfdevelopment. And so these structures will change, the world will go on and — dare we say it? — the world will get better. It’s a genuine revolution: a revolution in consciousness, a revolution in the way we try to get the most out of, and put the most into, our own lives.
This magazine has reported the changing Canadian scene for more than 60 years, and, as this issue demonstrates, has undergone some fairly dramatic changes itself. For the past half century or so, we’ve tried to tell Canadians how events affected people. Today our task is the same, but with a new emphasis: we’re also reporting how people are increasingly affecting events. That, Mr. Jones, is what’s happening. We approve. □
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