“And the pageantry, the panoply, the sanctified decay —
But I knew the hour was coming that would sweep it all away.
Now time has me in a corner, and I’m moth-eared from the fray,
But Her Majesty is reigning still today.”
-Leon Rosselson, “On Her Silver Jubilee”
Science fiction fans joke that they are disappointed that the future has yet to produce flying cars. But my disappointment lies elsewhere. It lies in the fact that the society I expected to see when I was middle-aged is almost as distant as when I was coming of age – a fact that the recent Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II reinforces all too sharply.
The mood of the late 1970s was so different from today’s that I can barely remember it. Probably, anyone born after that time can’t conceive of it at all. But for a naïve, idealistic teenager like me, it seemed a time of infinite possibilities and constant progress.
Consider: Prosperity in North America was at an all-time high. So was income and social mobility. In recent memory, activism had helped to end the Vietnam War and to force Richard Nixon’s resignation. Based on the previous decade, it seemed self-evident that ethnic minorities were about to win their rights, and so were women and gays and lesbians. Probably, Canada would be a republic, without a monarch to remind us of a now non-functional past. Sure, problems like pollution and poverty remained, but once we focused on them a bit more, they would be solved.
In other words, we were still in the era in which Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. could write a book called The End of History and not be ridiculed. The problems that had haunted humanity for centuries were about to be solved, and all that would remain was the question of what to do afterwards – colonize the stars, most likely, or maybe begin a cultural Renaissance.
Ever since, each year has added to the progressive disillusion. Instead of the end of history, we got the Counter-Reformation of the reactionaries, who proved to be better organized and more tenacious than the rest of us could imagine. Year by year, living standards declined. We got Ronald Reagan in the United States, and a denial of the lessons that Vietnam should have taught. In Canada, we got Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien, who between them swept away any idea that politics could be about anything except pragmatism and the cold-blooded survival of career politicians. The promising beginnings for cause after cause turned out to be end points that were fiercely and – all too often — unsuccessfully defended.
Oh, not everything was reason for gloom. In Canada, abortion rights remained in legal limbo, permitting access in theory despite constant efforts to chip away at them in practice. Same sex marriage became legal. The Internet and cameras in mobile devices made organizing and calling authorities to account easy. But against the losses and the constant wallowing in the same old arguments, these gains mattered for little. If the losses didn’t outweight the gains, we believed that they did. We stopped believing that social progress was possible, although many of us kept on fighting or wistfully believing.
Against this background, the Diamond Jubilee is only a tawdry reminder of what hasn’t happened in recent decades. The occasion is not only a celebration of mediocrity, but also a celebration of how things have failed to change. For me, the fact that Leon Rosselson’s song remains as applicable today as when it was written in 1977 only adds to the irony. Seeing the media’s continuing attention to the non-story of someone whom Rosselson describes as “so commonplace a woman in her fuddy-duddy hat” makes me want to mourn, not celebrate. Do we really have nothing more to show for the last thirty-five years?
To all appearances, we don’t.
Science fiction readers have been known to cry, “Give us our flying cars!” But as I tried to avoid the coverage of the Diamond Jublilee the other week, what I wanted to do was to plead for a reason to believe in social progress – and then to go and find a quiet corner in which to mourn the unlikelihood of any answer.