Saturday, August 8, 2009

How to Burn Bridges (Without Knowing That You Have Any Matches)

Back in 1995, my career as a journalist had hit a very hard wall. Suddenly, after 15 years of producing, co-hosting and movie reviewing in radio, I could not find work anywhere in the field. Some of my misery was caused by circumstances completely out of my control. Some of it was also caused by circumstances I set in motion. (In a couple of other cases, I ended up at the mercy of the control of others.) I became aware during that time of a different and disturbing climate emerging in the media. And it had little to do with the standards I encountered when I first came in. Most of what I was seeing now was a kind of survivalism. People spent more time trying to figure out what they needed to do to keep their job rather than continuing to develop their talents at their job. In that kind of environment, I knew my chances of continuing to make a living as a journalist and film critic were in peril.

When I found myself suddenly "unhirable," it was also a strange sensation. After all, it wasn't like the skills I had been developing over the years had suddenly vanished. So why was I suddenly persona non gratis? I decided that it might be a good idea to write an article about this survivalist mentality and use what had happened to me as an illustration of it. (Besides, I had to start thinking of other ways to make a living using what I knew.)

I quickly got an editor at Toronto Life magazine interested in publishing it. All I had to do now was write it and he'd take it from there. Unfortunately, during that time, I lost my apartment due to the running out of funds. Since there were no Internet cafes in which to compose copy in those days, I could write very little, and often it was sporadic. The process took longer than I originally planned. The other problem, of course, was my anger at the circumstances before me. But the last thing I wanted the piece to be was just an ugly rant. Unfortunately, everything I wrote became coloured by my growing displeasure at what happened. As a result, I kept delaying the finished product (while continuing to write sketches of where I wanted the piece to go).

Ultimately, the article never came to be because I went to Boston for a number of months and when I returned I began writing books. I even mananged to review movies at CBC Radio again for about six years until a regime change sent me back out on my ass. Recently, while moving some old files into my new computer, I came across some of the article's early sketches. I thought they held up pretty well and seemed darn relevant today. I had already used some of the unfinished article in a couple of my books because parts of the argument fit nicely into certain sections of Dangerous Kitchen and Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica. So here is a short portion of the piece that was once titled (to the Toronto Life editor's great amusement) "How to Burn Bridges (Without Knowing That You Have Any Matches)." In this section, I tried to describe the process that I felt lead to the Survivalist Culture emerging in the mid-'90s:

“During the ‘60s and ‘70s, the barriers between what was considered high and low culture had begun to wither. It was possible to be simultaneously open to the classical Indian sounds of Ravi Shankar and still be in tune with the driving force of The Rolling Stones – without being considered a snob or somebody lacking in taste. The prosperity of the time had brought a wealth of cultural alternatives into the mainstream. But when the affluence of the ‘60s turned into the severely pinched ‘70s, our culture began to move dangerously inward. Before long, our reality wasn’t shaped by the outside world that we once openly experienced. The self and our own well-being was now the only reality worth recognizing. Self-worth was also no longer determined by ideas, thoughts and abilities, but by our status within our social and working environment. Worthiness was earned, too, by emulating whatever (or whoever) was popular and smoking hot – and ignoring whatever and whoever wasn’t. A social amnesia (where something could be popular one minute and forgotten the next) evolved out of this stargazing. By the ‘80s, solipsism quickly became the yardstick by which politics, art and popular culture were measured.

The upheaval of the ‘60s and early ‘70s had sought alternatives to this kind of conformity by encouraging individual dissent within the boundaries of a collective culture. By the ‘80s, though, a desperate need in the middle-class to survive – at any cost – planted the seeds of what would soon become yuppie careerism. Driven by desperation, some of those individuals turned to the self-serving banalities of pop psychologists. The spoken goal of this was self-knowledge, but the hidden desire was to find ‘enlightened’ ways to regain lost prosperity and find social acceptance. What was sacrificed in this process was a more complex understanding of behaviour, provided to us by hundreds of years of literature, philosophy and psychology. A generosity of spirit that comprised a worldview wider than the contours of our own navel was also deemed expendable. Diversity of opinion began to dissolve as well, in favour of a bland homogeneity that welcomed received wisdom rather than intelligently thought through arguments. In this new age, it was more important to shape the public’s taste into something that could make dollars rather than sense. So when the latest fad stopped proving lucrative, it was abandoned. We soon saw how a crippling economic recession would not only narrow our pocket-books, but also the tolerance for intelligent and open debate about important issues.

The ‘80s and ‘90s would often be defined by the entrepreneurial phrase ‘Go For It!’ This particular kind of junk-bond philosophy, which ate away at our economic infrastructure, extended itself, as well, to how we thought. Pretty soon, even in the places where creativity was once encouraged, even nurtured, you could find yourself becoming obsolete. The first thing that I decided to do, when it was apparent that the sharks were out and there was blood in the water, was to find a new place to swim.”

And that was as far as I got in that section.

1 comment:

  1. strange days have found us:

    that was definitely a good chronicle
    of the dissonant dinergy of that decade...

    (sorry, but I love alliteration)

    jeff chandler