May 68 (plus 50)

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Fifty years ago is a long time: it sits in that twilight zone between living memory and history.  Old people can conjure it up — if they have to — but young people can only see it on YouTube.  And every year, the shadows those images cast get a little greyer, a little thinner and a little harder to recognize.

Fifty years ago (March 22, 1968) Daniel Cohn-Bendit and seven of his friends walked into the administration offices at the University of Nanterre in Paris and refused to leave.  Six weeks later, all hell broke loose!

May 1st, 1968 was the high-water mark of the 60s.  Television and the Tet Offensive had turned the world against the Vietnam War.  In America, that popular opinion was chasing Lyndon Johnson out of the White House, and when Bobby Kennedy announced he wanted to live there, it looked like the second coming of Camelot.  In Europe, Alexander Dubcek’s communist reforms in Czechoslovakia were cleverly outmaneuvering the Soviet Union in a warm and glorious Prague Spring.  Che had become the infallible martyr of the revolution, and Mao’s Red Guards hadn’t gone crazy yet.  The world was young and arrogant and optimistic and excited and on the verge of … nobody knew what … but it was Dany le Rouge and his buddies who lit the fuse.

The events of May 68 in Paris are well-documented.  Here’s the quick and dirty version.

On May 2nd, after a series of running battles between students and police, the French authorities closed the University of Nanterre.  On May 3rd, the students at The Sorbonne organized a sympathetic protest.  Somebody called the cops (les flics) who showed up and took charge.  On May 6th, 20,000 students (or more) marched on the Sorbonne to take back their university.  The police were waiting for them.  Shouts and threats, a push, an arrest, a bottle thrown and suddenly it was “Aux barricades!” and the war was on!

The narrow avenues of the Quartier Latin are ideal for urban conflict (In 1944, General Leclerc’s tanks carefully avoided the area) and the students took full advantage.  They blocked the streets with burning mattresses, furniture, trashcans and overturned cars.  They taunted the feared CRS riot police into chasing them and pelted them with rocks, bottles, flaming bags of dog merde and Molotov cocktails.  The cops responded with water cannons, teargas and bone-cracking batons to the head and groin.  Who controlled the streets?  The students or the police?  Night after night, the two sides battled it out in the alleys of the Rive Gauche.

On May 14th, workers at Renault in Rouen went out on strike in solidarity with the students.  Within a week, 100 factories were closed or occupied, and 10 million workers were on strike.  The government offered huge wage increases (35%) but the workers pushed their own leaders aside and refused to go back to work.  Many of them joined the students in the streets.  Shops closed, banks closed, even the ubiquitous Parisian cafes locked their doors.  Transportation ground to a halt, and government services ceased to exist.  France was on the verge of collapse.  On May 29th, worried that the mob might storm the Elysee Palace (shades of The Bastille in 1789) De Gaulle flew to a French military base in Germany to negotiate the loyalty of the army.  On the morning of May 30th, half a million people marched in the streets of Paris, chanting “Adieu, De Gaulle!”  That afternoon, De Gaulle addressed the nation.  Defiant as ever, his only concession to the seething chaos was to call an election — but he refused to resign, threatened to declare a State of Emergency, and hinted that the army was ready to march on Paris.  That night, a million people (or more) poured down the Champs-Elysees in support of the government.  They chanted “Vive La France!” and sang La Marseillaise.  The city, the country and French society were all divided neatly in two.  The next stop was civil war.

Luckily, it was the Communist Party leaders who blinked.  Painfully aware of the bloodbath that erupted the last time French troops entered the capital (Paris Commune 1871) and eager to take a chance on gaining real power in the coming election, they pulled their people off the streets.  A couple of days later, the student unions followed suit.  The cops backed off.  The crisis was over.

May 68 has entered the mythology of history.  Most historians will tell you that May 68 tossed the old order (which we’ve lately been calling ‘the greatest generation’) under the bus and brought about a seismic change to European society that eventually spread around the world.  I agree.  However, change is not, by definition, always beneficial.  Look around you!  In the 21st century, university students are content to click their dissatisfaction on Facebook, throw Twitter tantrums over cartoon characters and call each other “brave” and “awesome” for demanding “trigger warnings” on disagreeable discussions.  They’ve become just another demographic in the consumer society their grandparents desperately wanted to dismantle, and their only power is purchasing power.

And what ever happened to Daniel Cohn-Bendit (Dany le Rouge?)  He’s a pro-market, pro-European Euro MP, living large in Brussels — a minor company man of the political establishment.

But one other thing happened in France in 1968.  A politician was born and, these days, she’s having a bigger influence on the world than any of the soixante-huitards are.  Her name is Marine Le Pen . . . .

Social Media Makes Us Tribal

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Here at the shallow end of the 21st century, social evolution has stopped.  Having fallen short of Marshall McLuhan’s big idea of a Global Village (a long story for another time) we’ve unconsciously abandoned it, and now we’re reverting back to the comforts of our parochial tribal past.  This sounds preposterous (especially at a time when a guy in Indonesia can watch a YouTube girl in Belgium burp the alphabet in real time) but it’s absolutely true, and I can prove it.  First, the quick and dirty history lesson.

About five minutes after our ancestors dropped out of the trees, they made an interesting discovery.  Individually, humans are at the bottom of the food chain.  As animals go, we aren’t quiet enough, fast enough or strong enough to be anything more than dinner.  However, taken together, with these big brains of ours, we are the ultimate predator, capable of killing and eating everything in our path.  So, it made sense for humans to hang out in groups.  Originally these were 4 or 5 extended families who all knew each other and shared a common idea: let’s not get eaten, and let’s eat.  These early tribes, separated from each other by distance and geography, were naturally suspicious and even hostile to anybody outside the group.  As in: “This is my food chain.  Get your own!”

Now, throw in  half a million years of social evolution — agriculture, industry, art, religion, politics, etc. — and you end up here in 2017.  Our food chain stretches across the planet, and we don’t give a damn about distance and geography.

In our time, a billion people watched Pippa Middleton’s fine behind waltz into Westminster Abbey when her sister Kate married little Billy Windsor.  A year later, a chubby Korean pop star turned a silly dance called Gangham Style into a planetary phenom.  Half the world watches the Olympics, and more than that watch the World Cup.  Local disasters like hurricane Irma are heard around the world, and very few people on this planet don’t recognize Trump or Putin or Adele or Taylor Swift.  These are the shared ideas of an Internet-driven, One Click Universe.

However, the Internet also has an unexpected consequence — Social Media.  Social Media allows us to retreat behind our screens, surround ourselves with people who have similar ideas, and isolate ourselves from the people who don’t.  Sound familiar?  Take a look at your Facebook account.  I’ll bet (give or take some petty disagreements) everybody there basically shares your fundamental values.  This is your tribe (E-tribe?) and they’re only doing what tribes are supposed to do — keep the group cohesive and strong.  Instagram and Snapchat work the same way.  So do Tumblr, Pinterest and even the mighty Twitter.  Objectively, Twitter’s attacks on strangers are nothing more than a Cybertribe being very, very hostile to an outsider who doesn’t share their point of view.

Our Internet world may let us look far beyond the horizon to occasionally sneak a peek at Pippa’s bum or to cheer Götze’s World Cup winning goal, but on a daily basis, we’re using it to check Facebook (or Twitter etc.) ’cause that’s where our friends are.  And our friends, by definition, share our values and echo what we already know to be true.  The problem is that, as we spend more and more time in Cyberspace, we’re spending more and more time in the comfort and safety of our tribe.  Unfortunately, this means we have less and less time for ideas and attitudes we don’t agree with — and so they’re becoming more and more foreign to us.  As are the people who expound them.  Thus, the sophisticated ideal that there’s a universal core to human existence is slowly seeping away, and it’s being replaced by the more immediate and primitive “them and us” mentality.  Our ancestors gathered together in tribes for safety and as the nuances and complexities of our world threaten us we are doing the same.

Trending Now — AquaNots

waterThe question is, just who are these so-called AquaNots?  Apparently, AquaNots (media name: not mine) are people who refuse to use water in any form.  They believe that human consumption of water is not only killing our planet’s fish habitat, but, if left unchecked, will eventually destroy the Earth’s entire ecosystem.  Sounds legit.  However, based on the information I can find (which isn’t a lot) their practices including not washing their clothes, their dishes, their hair or themselves, not using flush toilets (according to their information sheet, American toilets alone consume 23 billion litres of water every day) not cooking with water, not using water-based products and, in some radical cases, not even drinking water.  Wow!  It sounds  pretty harsh to me, but before we rush to pass judgement, let’s see what the AquaNots have to say for themselves.

“We totally reject the accusation that we are extremist.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.  Our planet is in crisis, and if people are too stupid to understand that this is the only solution, then they need to be re-educated.

“We want to effect lifestyle change.  We need to end our dependency on the hydro-industrial complex.  Do you know the flush toilet is less than 200 years old?  Obviously, for the vast majority of human existence, people merely squatted in the woods.  We need to bring that natural experience into the 21st century and the urban environment.

“Fashions change so quickly these days it doesn’t make any sense to actually wash your clothes.  We just give our dirty ones to poor people and buy the newest, latest look.  This way, we’re always in style.”

“Eight glasses a day?  I’m laughin’.  People in desert countries don’t drink eight glasses of water a day.  They don’t have any water at all, and they’re always runnin’ around fightin’ and blowin’ shit up.  I seen them on TV all the time, and I’ve never seen them drinkin’ water.”

“It’s all about raising awareness.  An international Aquagarchy controls most of the world’s water, and their corporate profits are fueled by constant in-your-face advertising.  Look around!  Soap, soup, shampoo, tea, coffee, wine, organic gardening, outdoor recreation — I could go on and on — and their subliminal message is always “Use water.”

“Washing dishes is no problem for us.  Normally, we eat fast food and simply throw the wrappers away.  Of course, in the summer, we barbeque a lot and use paper plates.”

“We are definitely tolerant of other points of view, but we refuse to allow flushers and bathers to spread disingenuous information.  They clearly hate our planet and we must stand, as a group, to stop this kind of hate speech.

“We are a growing grassroots organization.  Yes, right now, our membership is mostly from private schools and universities, but we have followers –of all ages — on four continents, and we’re reaching out to get our message to people of less privileged economic backgrounds.”

“Our community has always faced discrimination.  Many of our followers have lost their jobs because of coworkers’ complaints about personal hygiene. We are all working very hard for the day when Mother Nature’s perfume will be accepted in the workplace.”

There you have it.  Make up your own mind.

* Disclaimer
It’s a sad commentary on our times that I have to even write this, but … so be it.
This is a satire.  It is meant to lampoon how genuinely good ideas get hijacked by idiots.  The AquaNots do not exist, and any relationship between them and any real activist group is purely coincidental.