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Date of Inversion

By David Warren

The question, at what precise moment did Western Civilization capsize, continues to interest me. (It is still floating, but upside down in the water.) I've brought it up before. Once, for instance, I called attention to a fine book by the historian, John Lukacs, A Thread of Years, in which, through a series of anecdotes, one for each year from 1901 to 1969, he reviews the decline, fall, and final extinction of "the idea of a gentleman." Note the terminal year.

For long I've mentioned August 10th, 1969, as my own estimate for the date of the "great rotation." Why? Nothing of world importance happened that day. The sun did not stop in the sky; the moon, in waning crescent, did not occult; nor were there other memorable cosmic events, of which I am aware. That was part of my point. Nobody could have noticed the precise moment when what was pointed more up, became pointed more down. It does take a bit of time for a ship to roll like that. It had been tilting for quite a while.

It was the summer of the first manned lunar landing: I wanted to locate that unfruitful but impressive event before the inversion. I counted it as a Good Thing. But I could count any number of good things that happened, After, and bad things that happened, Before. For once again, I am not recalling the loss of a ship with all aboard. Only the moment after which the linoleum tended to be tacked to the ceilings, and the chandeliers tethered to the floors.

I tell younger people sometimes that "I was there at the fall" -- that I can remember a time before the Western world finished going crazy. They don't believe me. They think everyone remembers the end of his childhood that way. But no: they are wrong and I am right. The nadir was achieved around 1969, when all the gulls of the 'sixties came home to roost. On the exposed hull of the ship, as it were.

The proof came to hand, recently, when a friend since early childhood sent me the link to a website where my high school yearbooks were stored: including the entire contents for my Grade IX year of 1967-68, and ditto for my drop-out year of 1969-70. (You will have to take this on faith, I won't supply the link. I don't need some blogger in Saskatchewan re-posting pictures of me as a young dweeb.)

The difference is dramatic. The teachers in the earlier yearbook are, when male, invariably in boring suits with narrow ties; and when female, regardless of age, dressed as school marms. The kids themselves, though not uniformed, are almost uniformly wholesome-looking. The photographer has obviously told them how to pose, they haven't been left to smirk and look ridiculous. The boys look as if they had slide-rules in their pockets. None of the girls look like sluts. (Even the ones who, as I recall, were sluts.)

Just two years later, and the teachers are a mess. The ties are disappearing, and some of the men are growing beards. One is actually wearing sunglasses. The younger female teachers are dressing to kill. Longhairs have started to roam the corridors; several of the kids look drugged. Group photos are chaotic, and the photographers should have been sued for half the mug shots. Hippie-dippie graphics have invaded the yearbook itself. The comments with the graduates' pictures have become dangerously risqué and smartass.

This corresponds precisely to what I remember. At the end of the earlier school year, the old principal had been fired: he was a drill sergeant (literally, ex-military). The new principal was a "reformer": a nice guy, a sensitive guy. Overnight, Ontario's Hall-Dennis Report had also swept through, with its smug title, "Living and Learning." Half the subjects had become "electives": 300 pupils in Grade IX Latin, became four pupils in Grade X. The bottom had fallen out of educational standards that had already been slung very low.

All these changes happened (not quite literally) overnight. Yet within a year or two, nobody could remember that anything had ever been any different. Or rather, nobody would dare remember. For suddenly we were living in that brave new world, and anyone who doubted it was marked as irredeemably "square."

Well, I was kidding about the date. The poet Philip Larkin said the annus mirabilis was 1963. Almost any year could be argued "after the Beatles' first LP." The point is that something happened, and a ship, long listing, finished going over.

otiosus@sympatico.ca

© Ottawa Citizen


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