Saturday, August 27, 2016

A cultural retrospective

How will our children and grandchildren see the kind of culture they inherit?

Academic pursuit seeks to analyse evidence from their respective points of view and build a framework for future scholars to deploy both in method and in content comparisons. Periods of history, for example, become known for their significant characteristics: the age of imperialism, the age of trade expansion, the age of religious upheaval, the age of industrialism, the age of social development, the age of space exploration.....

Depending on the tilt to the historian's world view, favouring a view that starts with the importance of economics, or politics, or of agriculture, or of religion, or of technology, or of militarism or the significance of individuals, (is history made by individuals, or does history make individuals?), the evidence gathered from multiple sources, written, spoken, gathered from museums and land digs (veering into anthropology) is then shaped into a theoretical framework that either withstands the test of peer review, thesis defense, and the longer test of time.

In a period characterized by the burgeoning of both the sources of human information and the sheer weight of that megadata, we are all trying to tread water keeping our heads from dipping under the weight of too much information, and trying to avoid drowning in its tide. At school, we read general text books, providing overviews, themes really, of the various historical periods. Significant treaties, wars, discoveries, plagues, and documents (Magna Carta for example) were painted in picasso-like pencil sketches, along with basic mathematical processes, scientific experiments, and the occasional hand-work in a "shop" or an "art" class, once again offering introductions to the students' interests, skills, talents and potential. We memorized, regurgitated for tests and basically forgot the fine print of each discipline, retaining glimpses of insight from a teacher, or a thinker's quote, a colleague and, more importantly, from those specific experiences that tend to shape our perception of how the world operates.

Our intellect retained faint if seemingly permanent markings of a line from a novel, ("Happiness is a brief relief in the general drama of pain," for example, from Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge) or a feeling generated by a piece of music or poetry or a game we watched or played in, or a trip organized by ambitious and imaginative teachers seeking to expand the "horizons" of their students.
However, it is those moments that left a deeper mark of grief perhaps, or of embarrassment, or of an award or even for some a small compliment that seemed to offer a shift in the perspective through our individual kaleidoscope.  And it is in our bodies, our visceral imprints that we store much of the foundational footings of our world view.

Did our parents have a pattern to their lives that included church attendance? Did they work at jobs valued and respected by the people in the town? Did they have friends who were more similar than different in their political or social or domestic views? How did they speak of and regard those of other churches, other ethnicities, other food choices? What did our parents and our teachers think of those who lived down the street, or in the big city, or in another province or state, and especially in another country? How were the people in our town considered who lived in large homes, and drove big cars? We they successful? Were they snobs? Were they to be emulated? Were they more educated? How did our neighbourhood view another neighbourhood from a different part of town, on the "other side of the river"?

While the specific answers to some of these questions were never explored overtly and in depth, for example, in any public or high school classroom (that would have been considered gossip by many, and far too dangerous for others), if we had been asked by people we trusted, we could have offered answers, many of them likely to offend us even as we related them to an outsider. We knew where the bootleggers lived; we knew where the 'beer parlours' were and who were those regulars, even though we were not among their number. We knew, for the most part, who were the local leaders in at least two political parties, Liberal and Conservative. (In my case, the province was governed by Conservatives, with Liberals in charge in Ottawa.) There was an inherent and deeply embedded theme of "us and them", those who were "like us" and those who were "different" and less worthy of our respect and our association. In a recent conversation with a middle aged dairy farmer, he recalled the different locations of the "smoking areas" in his high school: for the "jets" (the five-year, academic, upper class, the smoking area was 'inside' the quadrangle of the school building; for him and the four-year, tech, "less smart" and less likely to succeed, the smoking area was out on the street, away from the school building. Somebodies, already, and virtual nobodies already and forever, at least in a mind-imprint.

Athletics, art and music, even school "government" were sources of status, and inherently also of jealousy, dividing the 'insiders' from the outliers, those who chose to fit into the "establishment" from those who chose to criticize and to ridicule the upper class. In small towns, those who lived in big cities were automatically 'snobs' simply because they were perceived to be more wealthy, more educated, and more likely to inherit power. Conversely, those who lived in those same cities considered the small town kids, stereotypically as losers, as 'fags and as an underclass. And people from another country, especially the United States, all of whom seemed to drive new and very large cars with multicoloured license plate, were rich and invaded our town in summer to vacation in their cottages, which also seemed more like 'estates' than cabins.

Our world, following the second world war was almost like a middle-school history class: easily described, easily defined, and very easy to fit in to, lacking the kind of collision of competing forces, with the possible exception of the protestant versus Roman Catholic difference, the former with no Pope, and no Mass, and no idols, and no unmarried priest, while the latter had each of these features.
And even that dividing line was observed in the extreme only by those sectarian 'bigots' who likely believed that Rome was another name and site for Hell. We had never heard of the Black Panthers, for example, although we had a kind of rampant racism right on our own main street, only in our case, the target of our racism was First Nations young men and women who lived "outside" of town, on what were and still are reservations. We had never heard of the Ku Klux Klan, either, although our own brand of white supremacy restricted its "burnings" to the verbal kind without the crosses or the white robes. There were at least three "Chinese" restaurants, all of them frequented by all people in town, where both "Canadian" and "Chinese" offerings were on the menu. Only in the big city were these offerings separated by restaurants specializing in only Chinese, or other ethnic menus.

A few people in our town subscribed to a daily newspaper, like the Toronto Star (liberal), the Toronto Telegram (conservative) or the Globe and Mail (business focused), while many subscribed to the local weekly, The North Star, which featured coverage of the town council, the various historic and family celebrations, athletic results and examination results from the Royal Conservatory of Toronto, and the predictable "ladies" nights of the local service clubs. Rarely did the local crime scene merit the front pages, and when it did, the case was the most serious, a very rare murder. One local lawyer even appeared before the Supreme Court of Canada, in such a case, making his own and the town's history and reputation more complete and more legitimate.

Occasionally, a national figure, a singer, or a comedian or a public broadcaster would visit, making a kind of news "splash" and adding a shot of cultural "spice" and human interest to an otherwise quite "grey" cultural landscape. Yet, "grey" was predictable, dependable, reliable and very comfortable, infused by the occasional visit. Nothing, it seemed, could or would threaten the predictability and the reliability of our town's life and culture. The largest employer was the government, civil servants earning the largest portion of working income; just to the north, there was a small C-I-L plant making explosives for construction and demolition purposes now in peacetime. (During the war there was also a D-I-L operation, Defense Industries Limited, making munitions.) The only war we really heard about was the Cold War, between the capitalist and the communist blocs, and while the insertion of nuclear weapons and fallout shelters frightened us in the early sixties, except for the Cuban missile crisis, that conflict seemed to be symbolized by the soaring rhetoric of J.F. Kennedy and the shoe-pounding podium at the UN by Kruschev. Even Korea, a conflict that continues today, seemed so distant and out of reach of our grasp as to have very little impact on our consciousness and culture.

Television sets were creeping into the living rooms in our town in the late 50's, bringing in entertainment and news programming from the United States, and opening windows to the wider world. Appointment watching including the almost "sacred" Saturday nigh Hockey Night in Canada
broadcast from Maple Leaf Gardens. Canadian broadcast offerings differed significantly from those of the U.S. in their quaint, almost rural cultural ambience, especially compared with their New York/Los Angeles big city slick flavour. Commmercials, too, were immediately recognizeable with respect to their country of origin. Canada had for decades been able to watch American movies, and for most children, that meant Saturday afternoon matinees, and a steady diet of another staple of North American culture, the "western" or the occasional musical by Rogers and Hammerstein. Simplistic renditions of life in "Oklahoma" for example, or the "South Pacific" delivered in musical language were easily digestible and rarely socially or politically or theologically challenging.
There was one in the sixties, Pajama Game, that took on the issue of workplace  culture and worker pay, but also in a non-offensive and musically palatable style.

All of this is by way of comparison, neither hidden nor implicit, but exposed and explicit, of the differences in how we "grew up" and where and how we are bombarded by significantly different images today. The civility and simplicity of the fifties and sixties, at least from our perspective, has been replaced by a confluence of images of human rights vying for our attention, with images of conflict within and between religions, with debates over globalization versus nationalism, with political rhetoric that would have embarrassed even those vying for class rep in grade nine in the mid-fifties, and with a 24-7-365 news cycle and supporting cast of media moguls and narcissistic reporters, that has veered so far toward the gossip magazines of the entertainment industry (along with the ratings competitions for audience and advertising dollars) as to be virtually unrecognizeable in comparison with its long and honourable history.

Each of us, adult and youth, is now "in touch" with all of the events, and all of the analysis (most of it instant, making it all literally oxymoronic), many of the books through book reviews, most of the movies and television entertainment and documentary programs, from all of the various countries, (especially when compared with the available options in the fifties and sixties)....yet this ubiquitous access has many predictable impacts:

  • there is so much data that I have thrown up my arms and detached from the burden of considering its impact
  • I am having trouble keeping up with the 'news' and so stick to something I like, like the sports o fashion, or movies/entertainment choices
  • I find and read those pieces that agree with  my perspective and leave the opposition to itself
  • I peruse the headlines, while selecting the occasional issue for deeper reading and reflection
  • I have decided that the human values I espouse are under threat and so I read and reflect on their potential atrophy and decide on which stories best reflect the best of human angels
  • the access to information and opinion has turned each computer into a potential classroom, linking all people and all time, exploding the potential of human existence and I devour as much as I can of the opportunities/threats as part of my civic responsibility
  • I continue to perceive today through the lens of my yesterdays, reflecting on how my earlier views have, are and will continue to change as I continue this brief journey
  • I see the seeds of sectarianism back in my home town, exploding around the world, without a vigorous, penetrating and sustainable body of academic research and political will in support of the pursuit of international peace, security and environmental sustainability
  • cultural history is, or has, replaced the more focused perceptions of history like the economic, political, military, or even ideological for me and I find reading cultural history most inclusive and also most demanding and penetrating in our search for the roots of human behaviour both positive and negative
No doubt, there are many other emerging perspectives; however, the development of authenticity and human integrity remain high on the public agenda. Also the public discourse that either enhances or restricts that global pursuit, and even necessity, dominates both our media, and our increasing cynicism that we either do not have, or cannot not find the collective will to make the kinds of changes facing all of humanity. And we find ourselves joining forces, in mind and in spirit, if not in body, with those forces that support a public ethic of integrity, authenticity, compassion, and social justice all of us have experienced, along with its abandonment and exclusion, from our earliest years. We know the people we trusted when we were kids, and the people we found it hard, if not impossible, to trust. Those images and the desire to associate with those people (not necessarily like us in faith, or in language, or in ethnicity, or in geography) but who share a human spirit that is defined by its quality and capacity to enhance human existence, to seek justice for all, and to fight for those human rights and dignity that all humans have and warrant are more alive today, and more refined today than they were in our adolescence, and thereby more likely to find support and complement around the globe.

And such a global force for life, a life that is more abundant and more capable of giving life to forthcoming generation, cannot and will not be stopped, thwarted or defeated, although the daily diet of bombs and earthquakes and drugs and plagues and despondency often seems to cloud our perspective.

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