May 68 (plus 50)

may 68 1

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 . . . .

Jerks & A**holes

jerksThere are three kinds of people in the world: regular folks, (that would be us) jerks and assholes.  We all recognize jerks and assholes.  They’re those people whose decision-making and social behaviour ruins the quality of life for everyone around them.  Yet they haven’t got a clue just how annoying they are.  They can be the girl on the bus, the guy behind the counter, a neighbour, even a friend — but these days, they’re everywhere.

At first glance, jerks and assholes might look and act in a similar manner; however, they are two different species.  Here’s a quick guide to help you sort them out.  (Although I have used the masculine pronoun throughout, there are an equal number of male and female jerks and assholes.  In fact, jerks and assholes practice 100% gender equality.)

At a restaurant, a jerk always leaves a miniscule tip.
An asshole always brags about the size of the tip he left, and then bitches about the service — after he’s left the restaurant.

A jerk will answer texts while he’s talking to you.
An asshole will stop you in mid sentence to show you the text.

A jerk doesn’t care what you think of him.
An asshole believes you think about him all the time.

A jerk will loudly explain why he’s an atheist to any Christian who crosses his path.
An asshole wants to discuss the Vatican’s position on pedophilia with your great aunt’s friend, retired Father Donnelly, aged 82.

At a coffee shop, a jerk asks any number of stupid questions but always ends up ordering a regular coffee.
An asshole will ask for some ingredient nobody’s ever heard of, be surprised that nobody’s ever heard of it, explain its significance to the  barista and end up ordering a regular coffee.  Then, after it’s poured he remembers he wanted decaf.

A jerk never cleans up after his dog.
An asshole scoops poop but leaves the bag under a tree.

At lunch, a jerk is constantly checking his phone.
An asshole has extended conversations.

A jerk laughs at his own jokes.
An asshole never laughs at anybody’s jokes.

A jerk is always late.
An asshole is always late.

You’re always nervous introducing your jerky friend to everybody.
You try to avoid introducing your asshole friend to anybody.

Bill Hickok and my BFF

grouch1As you may have noticed, I spend a lot of time being grouchy in these pages.  It’s gotten so bad that a while ago one of my relatives said, “Hey, what’s the deal?  You’re not that crabby in real life.”  Actually, this is true — I’m not.  As Bill Hickok once said to Poker Jenny, “I am a man of comedy.”  (It should be noted that neither one of them saw the irony of the Navy Colt pistols stuck in Hickok’s sash.)  Unlike Hickok, though, I don’t have a quick temper.  Hickok did (which accounts for the pistols.)  However, like Wild Bill I enjoy my time.  I think the 21st century is tres cool, especially here in North America.  We live in a wonderful world   I might carp and bitch about it but that’s only ‘cause I’m worried we’re not going to “know what we got ‘til it’s gone.”

For example, right at this very moment (it’s after midnight) I can wheel on down to the local McDonald’s grab a couple of Happy Meals™ (Hey! Don’t forget my free toy!) come home and watch Dude! Where’s My Car? in HD.  Why?  Just because I want to.  This may sound frivolous because it is.  However (and this is the important bit) this is the very same society which will, if I choke on the extra pickles, send a couple of paramedics over to my house at top speed to save my life; with, I might add, enough time left over to watch Ashton Kutcher ride off into the sunset with… Demi Moore?  Not bad, considering there are some parts of this world where pickled anything is a luxury, Happy Meals™ are the stuff of legend, and the only time the paramedics show up is when the boys over at the UN finally get off their asses.  Life is good in our neighbourhood.

I don’t have enough time to list all the good stuff our society has on offer.  Nobody does; there’s far too much.  Suffice it to say that the operative word is benevolent.  Despite what out of power politicians and professional malcontent activigrouchsts tell you, our society is not the enemy.  In fact, it’s probably our best friend.  It allows us the freedom of choice to metaphorically indulge ourselves in Happy Meals™ any time of the day or night, and then, when they try to kill us at two o’clock in the morning, it comes running to the rescue.  We can be as fat, dumb and lazy as our minds and bodies will allow, squander our resources on techno-junk and even endlessly dis our social institutions – to their faces.  Our society doesn’t care.  It doesn’t get all pissed off and send in the jackboots like they do in other parts of the world.  It just keeps chugging away, fixing the street lights, repairing the sewers, trying to educate our young people and protecting us from ourselves and others who would do us harm.

I realize it’s a long way from this place to Utopia and our social, economic and political problems are multiplying faster than Norwegian rats in a New York sewer.  However, let’s be honest: what other time and place on this planet has what we’ve got?  For my money, our biggest problem is we’ve settled on the inconceivable (but very convenient) notion that society itself is the bogeyman.  We take all that we’ve built for ourselves for granted — as if it happened by accident.  We fail to understand that the institutions we ignore or malign, depending on our mood, are the very things which give us the time and leisure to do so.  But there I go being all grumpy again.  I suppose, like Hickok, Friend Cody, Texas Jack and the rest, I simply can’t abide a bunch of all-hat cowboys badmouthing my BFF.