‘The '60s are a decade on which people take sides’
Yesterday came suddenly
‘The '60s are a decade on which people take sides’
I t sounds farfetched, but it’s hard for me not to feel that the shot that killed John Lennon was fired at the heart of a decade—the 1960s. If the motives of Lennon’s attacker are obscure, the symbolic significance of the event is not. A backlash, a vociferous counter-attack against what that decade represented, is under way.
Take the religious talk shows on TV. Among their favorite guests are repentant Sixties-ites. On comes the former art editor of High Times, the drug magazine. She describes the depravity of her ex-associates. She is followed by a singer who once starred in Hair, that paean to the ’60s counterculture. Since 1971—the cursed decade having passed—he performs only in religious coffee houses. Like lapsed Catholics or ex-Communists, these people provide reassurance: I was there, they say, and if you think it was hell, you’re right.
Or take Toronto’s recent mayoral election. If there was a last gasp of the ’60s, it seemed to be incumbent mayor John Sewell, riding his bike to work at city hall. The two issues that beat him were vintage ’60s—in backlash. There was his conflict with the police, evocative of that antiauthoritarian time when cops were pigs; and there was his support of gay rights, transformed by a campaign of slander and innuendo, into charges and whispers that the mayor himself was gay. One alderman said,
“It was as though the sky opened and all the garbage in the world fell on Toronto.” Perhaps, but it had been rotting up there since the days of Woodstock.
A year ago, Marshall McLuhan’s colleagues at the University of Toronto voted to disband his Centre for Culture and Technology. McLuhanism had been another watchword of the ’60s, just as universities were its storm centres. In those days many academics ground their teeth while students “disrupted” lectures and demanded “relevance” instead of grades. Today the former activists are losing the teaching posts they had won, courses in native rights and women’s history are being dropped, and the academic establishment is starting to take its genteel revenge.
Author Myrna Kostash has written a book about the ’60s in Canada. Reviews have been more of the decade than of the book. Kostash went on phone-in shows across the country with the question: are you for or against the ’60s? “Layabouts and welfare bums,” roared radio and television personality Jack Webster in Vancouver. “Sounds like a right-on decade to me,” said a caller in Regina. Other decades receive characterizations, positive or negative. The ’60s are an object of controversy, a decade on which people take sides!
Not that resentment against the ’60s and what they represent is an invention of the ’80s. Animosity was planted at
the time and has grown steadily ever since. Richard Nixon, antithesis of all the era stood for, was elected twice during those years. In Canada, on the other hand, we chose a leader supposed to incarnate the era. In reality he was that stodgiest of types, an aging swinger. But the perception of Pierre Trudeau as one more emblem of the ’60s has played into the other sources creating frantic hostility against him in much of the country today. What has changed recently is not the deep resentment evoked by the ’60s; it is the degree to which this feeling has surfaced.
And what is this backlash about? What creates the anger over the ’60s? At bottom I would say it is about the threat of change, and the fear of change. The ’60s were the most recent period during which belief in radical change was widespread. But the ’60s were also unique. Other times— among the left of the 1930s, for example—the movement
for change took a fairly defined, rather strictly political form. The movement for change in the 1960s was all over the map. The politics were inchoate and fragmented and, as Kostash points out, there was an unprecedented admixture of culture and lifestyle questions, alongside the politics. It is precisely these cultural challenges—the hair, the drugs, the music, and so forth—that are most threatening to ordinary people contending with their lives. When connected to calls for political and
economic upheaval, the mix be¡2 comes volatile. It is not sur-
prising the reaction was strong uand lasting. During the ’50s,
those pressing for change, regardless of their actual political views, were subjected to red-baiting. Red-baiting still exists here in the dawn of the ’80s, but those advocating change are confronted with something new: ’60s-baiting.
John Lennon stood, as well as anyone could, for that combination of cultural experimentation and vague left-wing politics that marked the ’60s. Many of us who were shaped during those years were shaken more than we would have expected by his death. One friend said he even felt Lennon “died for all our sins”—a thought that would send a shudder of distaste through Lennon’s cremated remains. It was Lennon, after all, who once remarked in an offhand way that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ. But another friend was in a southern U.S. church that Sunday when the minister said, “This man’s widow has asked us to join a vigil for his departed soul at 2 p.m. today.” My friend felt grateful that her own sense of loss was shared until the minister added: “Poor woman. She doesn’t realize it’s too late to pray for that man—and all those like him.” Well, as Phil Ochs, a ’60s folk-singer and himself a tragic suicide, remarked in one of my favorite songs of those years, “Who’s next?”
Rick Salutin is a playwright ("1837, Les Canadiens and Nathan Cohen: A Review,) and author.
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