Tuesday, April 23, 2019

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AMERICANS MADE ME DO IT

Americans made me a writer. First it was the Chicago Seven. In the winter of 1970 I was sitting in a living room in a country house in England, chugging beer with some ex-pat Canadians, and watching the BBC television dramatisation of the (infamous) Trial of the Chicago Seven. The Seven were New Left radicals apprehended in the wake of the riots of 1968, police riots, against the demonstrators gathered in Chicago for the Democratic party convention in the hot, very hot, summer of Vietnam.

I had been living in England, writing no-account short stories that were rejected, one by one, by British magazines. Impasse.

But at the conclusion of the BBC drama I heaved myself out of my chair, tore up the stairs to my room and wrote in a feverish ejaculation what was to be my first published piece of prose – an example of the "gonzo journalism" that I had been assimilating from the pages of Rolling Stone magazine for years.

It was published in Saturday Night magazine, then under the editorship of Robert Fulford, when it was remarkably sympathetic to the New Journalism pouring forth from the pens of my generation. The article’s lacklustre title – "Canada’s No Place To Be A Guerrilla" – belied the burden of its message, which was brash (and I quote myself): "Watching Chicago and paying attention to my reactions proved something to me. Young Americans have been called up and we [Canadians] haven’t. It’s their show, baby, and we are the peanut gallery. Which is what makes Hoffman, Rubin, Hayden et al. [members of the Chicago Seven] as our culture heroes a bit disquieting. For both of us. For them, because they don’t need any well-meaning innocents mucking about with issues of real blood and guts. For us, because flashing the peace sign and yelling hooray from the safe side of the forty-ninth parallel is only a prop for our chagrin that we don’t have a revolution of our own to die for."

I never wrote fiction again. I was on to something else. In that Buckinghamshire cottage I had had an insightful flash not only of the urgency of the events of my own time but also of the rhetoric with which to engage them as a writer.

In the Spring of 1972, back in Canada, I boarded a Greyhound bus in Toronto and nervously made my way across the border, headed for the annual convention of SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] in Boston. I had been a member of SDS for one bucolic year in Seattle in 1965-66 and so the decision to attend the conference was based both on nostalgia for the Golden Age of student activism in North America and on my journalist’s instincts that there was a story here.

1972 on the bus: It’s all rather vague to me now what it was we did as SDS. We had meetings on campus, observing parliamentary procedure, and spoke reverently of factory workers and Seattle’s Blacks, never for one moment considering changing our place for theirs. We had a Vietnam literature table which we put up in the Quad and dared the uncommitted, the unconvinced, the hostile and fearful to challenge those brightly coloured photographs of shredded Vietnamese bodies and flaming villages which we clipped out of Life magazine. We marched through downtown, enduring with stoic expressions the epithets – "Commie chicken shit! Traitor sons of bitches!" – hurled at us just as they had been flung at Martin Luther King.

This was no longer the SDS of the 1960s, although it took me a couple of days to figure out what was the matter. I roamed through the conference as if I were saying beads: at the end of a thousand Progressive Labor aves I would know what I had to do. The borderlessness between Canadian and American desire of the 1960s political generation was only intensified by the extravagance of American events, especially of war, and the privileged positioning of their television and print images throughout the world.

1972 news clippings: Earlier in March, a hand-made pipe bomb had exploded in the Cambridge office of IBM (a building owned by Harvard) and a member of the United Black Underground Military Group for Black Justice claimed the dead as his. Twenty per cent of the non-university population of Cambridge earn less than $2000 a year and the two major outrages of their lives are the miserable housing and police brutality. Since December 1971 waitresses at a Harvard Square restaurant had been on strike for a raise to $1.35 an hour and sick pay, and twice the courts had slapped them with an injunction. The Pan-African Liberation Committee at Harvard had demanded the university corporation sell its shares in Gulf Oil which has been financing the Portuguese army’s war against Angolan guerrillas….Law professors have been questioned by the FBI on their opposition to Nixon’s Supreme Court nominees….Kathleen Cleaver announced at MIT the death of the Black Panther Party and the birth of new explosive communities in the army, the prisons, and the streets….Gay Liberation formed a chapter on campus calling on Harvard University to "examine its own sexuality."…Herbert Aptheker, professor of history at Bryn Mawr, said that American historiography was ‘predominantly racist,’ being written mostly from the perspective of white scholars and slaveowners.

When I first read SDS’s founding document, The Port Huron Statement, in 1964, I had felt no disjuncture as subject: the SDS "we" was inclusive if only because America had supplied all the content. "If we appear to seek the unattainable," they wrote of their social movement, "then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable." I knew exactly what SDS were talking about: the "unattainable" was justice in Mississippi and Harlem, and an end to the war in Vietnam; the "unimaginable" was nuclear incineration in New York and Moscow. At first I read myself into these scenarios and felt included.

When I reread The Port Huron Statement in 1972, I was still inside that "we" but rather nostalgically, as though I had already begun to separate. I wrote of the almost "unbearable" moral sweetness, political chastity and intellectual sobriety of that early 1960s vision of SDS; I wrote of my own now

aggrieved longing for that tribal past when the visions of the City of Man, all justice and peace, safety and enlightenment, could still move us to tears, when we could still insist that the future of our people already lay full-formed within our imaginations….[Look at] the nouns: community, participatory democracy, love, self-determination; the verbs: to organize, to labor, to analyze, to confront….If we had known then what was going to happen to us – assassination and war, Black Panthers and Hell’s Angels, overdoses and freak-outs, Jim Morrison and Kate Millett – we would have turned to salt.

But all these years later I see that something else was also about to happen. I was on the cusp of becoming a Canadian nationalist. Post-modernism would arrive still later to challenge that evocation of transnational, transracial "community of love" but perhaps it too is prefigured in that wistful letting go (at age 28!) of the romance of SDS, as though I sensed already that people who would name themselves as "Canadians" would have to locate themselves elsewhere. And for the first time I registered a moment of self-criticism that, if only I had been able to tear my imagination away from the lives of Americans I would have noted the intrusion of Canadian stories into the American dreamtime. I would have seen there was a war going on in my own backyard that I would have been honour-bound to attend:

1972 notebook: All that time that we had been gazing in wonder at the American spectacle, mouthing platitudes about our innocence, the war had been creeping up on us. The FLQ covering its tracks street to street, fishermen starving a little more each generation in Nova Scotia and women beating off strike-breakers, Indians dying under car wheels on the highway….A nation of disparate communities scattering in every direction with one or two lonely groups of national liberationists yelling after them: Hang in! Our struggle is collective. Our enemy is the same. The United States is eating us up for dessert. Death to General Motors!

I went to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and gawked at the portraits of the plain, dour, sour, grim and horse-faced Boston bourgeoisie. "The WASP face is a disaster," I wrote, as though in a displaced rage at my own Canadian colonial status on the continent.

Biliousness about the Boston Brahmins did not yet equate with unconditional love of my homeland – which I was still characterizing as a "fawning, feeble-hearted banana republic" – but as I settled into digs in Cambridge, waiting for the convention to begin, for the first time I acknowledged that I was scared in Amerika. Dislocated by the density of compacted violence, I confessed to culture shock and felt that perhaps I had crossed a real border in coming to Boston.

1972: The Drug Abuse posters and the Peace is Hell, Hire a Veteran posters and Vandalism is Dangerous posters staring down at me anytime I rode the subway: folkways of grief. And the newspaper items about the messed-up schools, the riot at Walpole prison ("I’m gonzo,’ thought Guarente, a man who had survived a score of bank robberies unscathed."), the Puerto Rican packing it in and going back home for a modicum of freedom from terror, the warnings from my friends to keep my doors locked, rumours of corruption and blackmail, forced sterilization and mutilation, not to mention the end of the world.

I had crossed zones to get here, something akin to the idea of the Medicine Line the Native Americans of the Great Plains had cleaved to in the nineteenth century in their furious, bloodied treks to the US/Canada border, desperate for sanctuary.

(I cross the Medicine Line on my way back home, but the relief is only temporary. At Niagara Falls there was a big sign: "Esso Welcomes You to Canada," and I think, shit, there is no sanctuary.)

In Boston, at the SDS convention, I stepped right into a crisis of authenticity.

The agenda of the first day was in fact set aside so 500 conventioneers could join a mass march through Cambridge, across the Charles River and onto the campus of Boston University. We were showing our solidarity with students there who had been protesting all week against a university administration snarled in an escalating series of miscalculations that had begun with the arrival of Marine Corps recruiters on campus. Initially, I felt right at home and marched along, and felt that old excitement at seeing just how many of us were stretched out along the street, the yearning to draw shopkeepers and taxi drivers and schoolchildren into our horde, and the cheerful, animating conviction that what we were doing here, witnessing against evil works, was part of the inevitable triumph of correct thinking.

But in my notes I recorded that I was sufficiently unmoved by the collective cheers – Students! Workers! Black and White! Men! Women! Unite! Fight! Hitler Rose, Hitler Fell, Racist Teachers Go To Hell! – that I felt "rather too old for this sort of thing" – which is how I explained my discomfort at the time. "When I was 18 they told me this would happen."

The discomfort deepened when it dawned on me over the next several days that this SDS of 1972 was no longer the Children’s Crusade of 1965-66. I should have known better, I scolded myself. Just the tone of New Left Notes should have forewarned me: "Come to the worker-student workshop and help plan ways to crush the racist ideology by allying with workers everywhere."

It hadn’t occurred to me from my ideological dreamland that there could be any feeling other than pure joy among the Left at the vision of a battalion of SDS descending full-throated and stout-hearted upon a trouble spot. Revolutionary Communist Youth accused SDS of being bogged down in bourgeois campus issues and neglecting U.S. capitalist-imperialist policies over the whole world. An editorial in The News blamed SDS for being "against life" and no longer speaking for the aspirations of the "rising student counter-culture," being in the main "irrelevant, obscure, obstructive and obnoxious." "’What is this, a ___ joke?’ demanded a laborer employed by Healy Bros., contractors, as SDS members surrounded the ditch he was digging on Magazine Street and shouted, ‘Workers and Students, Unite!’"

I felt an accumulating certainty that, alienated from the passions agitating the people around me, I was a poseur, a fake. I interpreted this at the time as class guilt – a kind of moral dyspepsia in considering my life in neo-Leninist terms as petit bourgeois revisionist, class enemy of the proletariat. How long would it take the Janisseries of SDS to sniff me out?

I was running the risk of being unmasked in front of the Yankee revolutionaries, but unmasked as what? There was also by 1972 a pointed ambivalence in my feelings about the meaning of American revolution wherein envy and resentment were masked as derision. I wandered around in a jaundiced mood, pretending insouciance when in fact struggling with a newly-emerging point of view – that of the outsider who, having imaginatively stepped outside the American patriotic myth, discovers the "we" no longer includes her. Little did I know that in abandoning the High Modernism of the worker-student alliance I was about to post-modernize my identity by embracing the unstable but unmistakably other forms of the "Canadian."

Here was an emerging struggle with a rhetoric and gestures that were not exactly foreign to me but which had come to me as a kind of second language. What then was my mother tongue? As I sat down to describe these American "others" in 1972, a gently derisive tone took over, what I think of now as the "nudge, nudge, wink, wink" of the incipient Canadian patriot who finally finds her opportunity in the botches of the international New Left.

The newspapers and arguments. The Bulletin, Challenge, Worker’s World, Young Socialist, Canadian Worker. Are unions tools of capitalism? Is deferential hiring prejudicial to the white worker? Is Mao a running dog of the imperialists? Is it Progressive Labor or Young Socialist Alliance which is revisionist? Or somebody else? Are national liberation and women’s liberation movements petit bourgeois? If they are, does it matter? Who exactly is the working class? Are you?

Feeling less and less like a participant and more and more like a foreign correspondent, I ran around with my notebook recording the various lunacies of the American scene – for instance, this communication from Youth Supporters of Hammer and Steel and the Republic of New Africa:

"Plans for the genocide of the Afro-American people on a massive scale are now being made. In the meantime, white workers and imperialists are collaborating in world domination, SDS is collaborating with Nixon and anti-racists are collaborating with anti-national liberationists."

Finally, in recording a series of resolutions that had come spewing out of convention workshops, on welfare, racism in the army, IQ tests, abortion, class struggle in Quebec, political strategy, black nationalism, I simply just let the whole thing go.

So many of us had already tried and lost, tried and faded away, in earlier experiments, from the failure to plug our private zombie’s wires into the supershow of International Capitalist Imperialism as it moved glacially over all our puny gestures of scornful rebellion. "Hey," we said, "you can’t do that." as it rolled right on over us.

And so I snuck out of America before I could be thrown out, fleeing the disapproval of internationalist "heavies" (read: Americans) who had tried to sell me pamphlets on American imperialism in Borneo and recruit me to the apocalypse raging in the belly of the Beast. I was hard on my generation about this. After all, I had written in Saturday Night that we Canadians had been committed to the idea of the revolution in America only after the event, flashing the peace sign and yelling Hooray! from the "safe side of the forty-ninth parallel," propping up our chagrin that we didn’t have a "revolution of our own to sign up for."

Fortunately, there was a revolution in Canada – several actually, all emerging from the fragmentation of the international New Left project. But in 1972 the future was still to be constructed. In fact, it felt like a gamble, this choosing of a Canadian contingency over the "actually existing" America. But there was also the chance that the collective experience of the thin stream of people flung across the country, their encounters with the Fenians and the whiskey traders, their hockey teams and guitar players, their Québécois charladies making bombs in the basement, would count for something the day we made our getaway from General Motors.

American Sixties culture, its politics and values, had been part of our revealed lives for so long that, had I not had the alternative of that other great adventure, the uncovering of the secret life of my generation in Canada, I might have collapsed then and there, on the bus back to Toronto, from atomization. Instead, I became a Canadian writer.

Some years later I was to write, of the difference between the American and Canadian "Sixties," that it had been a time when young Americans learned to hate their country, while we Canadians learned to love ours. But in Boston in 1972 I didn’t yet know I knew that.

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Myrna Kostash

Myrna Kostash

Myrna Kostash lives in Edmonton when she's not traveling in Eastern Europe.

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