ESSAY

LONGING FOR A SIMILER TIME

Pierre Berton December 31 1984
ESSAY

LONGING FOR A SIMILER TIME

Pierre Berton December 31 1984

LONGING FOR A SIMILER TIME

ESSAY

By Pierre Berton

When George Orwell wrote his landmark novel about the year 1984, he was, we are told, playing with numbers. His book could as easily have been called Nineteen Forty-Eight. And, in fact, when 1984 finally arrived, it was possible to note some parallels with that earlier year. It wasn’t 1948, of course, but a good many people wished it was. For this was a wistful and wishful year, a look-back year, a right-turn year. It was a year when, it seemed, almost everybody from Ronald Reagan to Germaine Greer looked longingly on a less turbulent time—an era in which the family reigned supreme and everybody believed in that oldtyme religion, when pornography was under the counter, prostitution hidden in the alley and abortions practised secretly in back rooms; a time when television was young and alive, when movies were wholesome, dirty magazines censored and murderers hanged, when every young person had a job and no one warned about the deficit. In 1984 politicians made hay, promising to return us to those days—or a reasonable facsimile thereof. But when the year ended, not much had changed.

In the Soviet Union one sick and tired old man was replaced by another sick and tired old man. In the United States another old man, certainly not sick but tired enough to snooze through cabinet meetings, scored a stunning victory by telling the voters what they wanted to hear: that everything was again as it once had been when the United States was powerful and respected, when children prayed in schools to a Christian God and everybody had a full lunch pail.

In Canada the voters opted for a change. But it was not so much a change that they wanted as a return to earlier times. 1984 saw the beginning of the end of Canadian nationalism. In Sri Lanka and in the Punjab people were dying and even murdering for the right to be independent. In Canada it was independence that was dead. We welcomed American investment and American culture back into the fold. Few voters worried about foreigners buying up the country; not many cared whether the cultural institutions lived or died. You could rent an American movie from a store around the corner for as little as $1 a night or you could buy a dish that would

bring in scores of American channels. What price Canadian content in 1984?

In Quebec, too, the nationalistic ferment was over. The Parti Québécois was almost as moribund as the Committee for an Independent Canada. Like their English-speaking neighbors, the voters cared more about jobs than independence. Here, too, the man of the hour was the man of yesterday—Robert Bourassa. And if the PQ, the party of the future, seemed to have no future, the Union Nationale, the party of the past, was showing surprising resilience.

The Baby Boomers were reduced to playing their own version of Trivial Pursuit—the great Canadian entrepreneurial triumph of 1984. What had happened to the Pepsi Generation with their talk of sexual freedom, their concerns for the environment and their slogan “Make love not war”? In 1984 we called them “Yuppies”—Young Urban Professionals. They voted for Reagan and Mulroney and mouthed a trendy new phrase, “Make my day!”—Clint Eastwood’s shorthand for good old law and order. Their man in Washington couldn’t care less about acid rain and their man in Ottawa was unconcerned about the $46-million cut from Environment Canada.

This was the year in which the high priestess of the feminist movement, the eloquent Germaine Greer, did a right-about-face and put motherhood and the family back in fashion. If The Female Eunuch was a call for sexual revolution, Sex and Destiny was a lament for the sterile decadence of Western values. In 1984 thousands of young people stopped living in sin and opted for a church wedding and children.

Drugs were out of fashion, too, having been pre-empted by an older generation (including, it was alleged, the premier of New Brunswick). And the greatest folk hero of the year, the direct descendant of the sensuous Presley and the outrageous Jagger, made a point of eschewing drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Michael Jackson was a practising Jehovah’s Witness—a symbol, yes, but hardly a sex symbol. Like his contemporaries, the campy Boy George and the mysterious Prince, he was, in looks, style and, perhaps, in private life, hopelessly androgynous.

More than ever before, in 1984 television was feeding on itself, as the dreadful “blooper” shows made clear. As reruns and copies of reruns dominated the screen, sophisti-

cated viewers turned to video cassettes, satellite dishes and pay TV in search of better fare. But even here there was disappointment. Sixty channels are no better than five if the programs are all the same. Who wants to pay if the movies are banal? Hollywood looked backward, too. The blockbuster hits —Indiana Jones, Gremlins, Star Trek III, Supergirl, 2010—were pale copies of past triumphs. The most appalling news from Hollywood in 1984 was that Sylvester Stallone was about to indulge himself with Rocky IV.

It was not the canned laughter of the sitcoms or the auto-smashing police shows that absorbed the viewers of 1984, it was the old-fashioned medium live television. From the Winter Olympics to the U.S. election, the screen came alive with the unexpected. One unknown, Gaétan Boucher, instantly became a Canadian hero. Live TV turned another hero, John Turner, into a bum. The Liberal party, too, had picked yesterday’s man and suffered the consequences. He belonged to an era in which fannies could be patted, when TV bloopers were excused, when Bryce Mackasey was respected. It wasn’t all Turner’s fault. But Jean Chrétien might have cut the Grits’ losses.

The events of 1984’s summer and fall drove television network reporters and commentators into states of nervous exhaustion. When you weren’t dashing about behind Turner, Mulroney or Broadbent you were on the road with the Pope or the Queen or on the sawdust trail trying to figure out whether Gary could overtake Fritz or how Geraldine’s finances would affect the campaign or whether Jesse would bolt the Democratic party.

The Pope’s visit exhausted almost everybody except the Pope, a classic example of media overkill. How many color supplements can you read? How often can anyone but the most devout Catholic watch the same mass celebrated on TV? The Pope’s own pink-cheeked stamina was astonishing. But the hottest story, scarcely alluded to, was that the crowds weren’t as big as expected.

The Pope overshadowed the Royal visit, which made such little impact that the scriveners were reduced to quarrelling over the fact that one of them had actually reported that Her Majesty looked her age. But the Pope was a puzzle. At times he seemed contemporary. But in other areas he too looked backward. In the papal lexicon women are second class and birth control is a sin. It was bitterly ironic that, even as these papal pro-

nouncements hit the front pages, hundreds of thousands were starving to death, largely because of the population explosion in black Africa.

The two nonissues of 1984, as a Gallup poll and a CROP survey made clear,were prostitution and pornography. Most respondents weren’t concerned. The shriller feminists bamboozled the politicians into a pro-censorship stand on the matter of sexual violence toward women (but not necessarily toward men) while the mayor of Toronto expressed himself as horrified that young women were actually selling their bodies on Yonge Street. But the matter of equal pay for the sexes got less attention.

Nor was the deficit the real issue of 1984, as the Canadian Gallup poll confirmed. The voters were more worried by unemployment figures—especially among the young. Half a million Canadians under 25 were jobless in 1984—a scandalous figure. Yet the politicians were more disturbed by the deficit. Michael Wilson’s cuts are going to cost jobs. The culture industry alone employs nearly a quarter of a million people —more than any manufacturer. But that is where the cuts sliced deepest.

The two hottest topics of 1984 were two of the oldest: capital punishment and abortion. This year the police joined the public outcry to bring back the noose for those who murder policemen. Less was said about policemen who shoot innocents; in Quebec two gunhappy cops got off scot-free. As for abortion, the year’s real hero, and also its villain, was Henry Morgentaler, forced to endure yet another trial because, as 12 jurors tried and true have found on four occasions, the law is an ass.

Yet there was one ray of hope that outshone those petty squabbles recycled from past decades. One abiding concern overshadowed even the tragedy of the flawed technology that brought death by fire and poison to thousands in Mexico and India. Indeed, those horrors underlined the truth that nothing is fail-safe. In 1984 the politicians were forced to listen to the people on the matter of nuclear madness. It was not lost on Brian Mulroney that Trudeau’s peace crusade had restored some of his bruised image. And even Reagan found it politic to sound like a dove. In 1984, if we looked back nostalgically at years long gone,we also looked forward, fearfully, to ask: how many more have we left?