by Ray Deonandan
August 2, 1999
This original Podium article was reproduced on the Chowk website in December of 2000. The author retains all copyrights.
My parents often reminisce about standing around New York’s Central Park on a warm July night back in 1969. They dreamily recall a big-screen television set from which other-worldly scenes were broadcast upon the amassed onlookers. They were, of course, watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, and will always remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when it happened.
In a similar way, they associate events in their own lives with more dramatic happenings on the world stage. They remember, for example, their new apartment when President Kennedy was assassinated; or someone’s pregnancy when Nixon was caught red-handed at Watergate; or someone’s uncle’s career change during the waning days of the Vietnam war; or the colour of the living room wallpaper at the time of the Olympic terrorist attack at Munich.
Every generation has had a penchant for denoting the transitions in one’s own personal ontogeny by associating them with grander events in global history. It’s a natural tendency, perhaps, to want to link one’s own piddling existence to supposed milestones of human travail. It provides us with a certain continuity in human experience, tethers us all to the grand trunk of history.
For those of us who weren’t yet fully sentient at the time of Watergate, I suspect that there have been few such events to stand as milestones in our lives, not because history has not given us events of importance, but because media and other institutions have failed to inculcate those events into individuals impressions of personal importance. What have we who were born since Kennedy’s death had to mark the passage of our lives?
There was the marriage of Prince Charles to Lady Diana, of course. That promised to be a momentous occasion by which epochs and eras could be marked and assessed. But that memory soured early on, indicative of a grander trend in the changing aspects of inter-gender relationships, and has been completely overshadowed by Dianas death. The latter event, while historically less important than the initial wedding, is the one our society has chosen to revisit.
There was the Iranian Hostage Crisis –two full years of ongoing historic milestone. Thankfully, the hostages returned unharmed, but we as voyeurs were denied the drama and spectacle that characterized the Munich affair. There was no Raid on Entebbe, no unified voice of outrage, and no decisive finale that brought the perpetrators to justice. There was no obvious lesson made, no simple moral to carry through our lives.
There was, of course, the Gulf War. I certainly remember where I was when Desert Storm was declared: in a repertory cinema, watching a pretentious French film, blissfully unaware that thousands were about to die. But despite the searing of flesh, the maturation of CNN, the ascent of journalist Arthur Kent and the “Scud Studs”, the triumph of the West and the lingering effects of Gulf War Syndrome, Desert Storm was more of a prolonged military ad campaign than the profound human struggle that typically illustrates war. The social tumult fuelled by Vietnam, the face of that particular conflict that truly stokes our memories, was missing in Kuwait.
Even a thing as centrally disgusting and life-focussing as war has been tainted by the video generation, its horrors and social implications –its ability to truly anchor itself in our memories and thus affect the evolution of our society– diluted by a blatant consumerism and rampant superficiality.
What about space travel? In the past, North Americans revelled in the triumphs of the Cold War: the flights of Alan Sheppard and John Glenn, Neil Armstrong’s small step for a man, and even a dramatic deep space rescue of three stranded Apollo 13 astronauts.
We of the latter decades, on the other hand, have suffered through the disgrace of the Challenger disaster –a few seconds of heart-breaking tragedy, and two years of meaningless investigation. And what else? Well, we’ve experienced Glenns return to space, Sojourners P.R. campaign on the surface of Mars, a conspicuously under-exposed international space station, and the loss of the Mars Observer. It seems the mix does not include adventure anymore, but rather questionable science and public relations opportunities.
What about shamed sprinter Ben Johnson? I was in love and at Toronto’s Black Bull bar when good ol’ Ben left Carl Lewis in the dust, and forevermore those emotions will be mixed in my temporal lobes: Ben’s victory, the nauseating odours of spilled beer and the soft touch of my doting girlfriend. Surely, then, this is one event that inspires personal importance by virtue of its emotional appeal.
But does one man’s brief athletic glory compare to, say, a civilization’s thrust to the Moon, or the assassination of a beloved president? Johnson’s subsequent fall from grace was equally as disappointing, though not as much for the magnitude of the event as for the boundless layers of mind-dulling bureaucracy that Canadians seem able to load upon any process.
Western media, it appears, has perfected a method of rendering ardent landmarks into lifeless procedure, and of raising the pitifully titillating to the heights of the celestially important. For example: O.J. Simpson, John Wayne Bobbitt, Michael Jackson, the Royal Family and Tonya Harding.
Many have chosen to describe “Generation X” as individuals terrorized by the success of their predecessors, marginalized by a dwindling share of the social resource pie. Instead, I think, this generation is one tragically separated from the grand trunk of human continuity. The death of JFK Jr. was reported by American media outlets as an event that shocked and united a nation because of the poor fellows stature in the public consciousness. In truth, Camelot was of our parents generation; John-Johns death is no more tragic to us than anyone elses untimely demise. We, I fear, are more affected by Jesse Venturas rise to Minnesotas highest office than we are by the passing of one of historys most prominent scions.
With a few promising exceptions –the handshake between Rabin and Arafat, the fall of the Berlin Wall or the tanks of Tianneman Square– the decades thus far of this generation’s sentience have been devoid of milestones of historic consequence, inasmuch as such things are determined by medias ability to link them with events in our personal lives.
Shared global tragedies and triumphs have traditionally served to unite a people, if not in mind then at least in mood. As our world relies increasingly on infernal marketing forces to taint all events that we perceive, the most important things in our lives will increasingly be pop music, sports and the meaningless lives of celebrities.
Ray Deonandan is an owner of The Podium and a prolific freelance journalist. His personal website is at www.deonandan.com