Sunday, July 03, 2011

Not Much Love Here – a review of Lawrence Aronsen's "City of Love and Revolution – Vancouver in the Sixties"

This review appeared in Oystercatcher (oystercatcher@uniserve.com )

If you are looking for a history of the Vancouver counter culture, this is definitely not the book. "City of Love and Revolution" is little more than a compendium of glaring omissions, factual errors, mass media cliches with a belittling and condescending tone throughout. While there is much talk of love, the author seems to have little of that sentiment for his subject.

Let's start off with the omissions. Aronsen ignores the Simon Fraser University student movement, the most militant and well organized in the country. The administration occupation and student strike were all over the TV and newspapers, but he is not aware of this. Ignoring SFU is like writing about Black Power and not mentioning the Black Panthers. He says he lived in New Westminster in the late 1960's but does not once mention the New West Student Coop, the well known centre of counter cultural and student radicalism in that city.

The Point Grey Peace House is omitted from the discussion of Peace Movement as well as the Advance Mattress Coffee House where politicos and culturals met. Both of these institutions were key elements in the formation of the city's counter culture.

There is a groaning burden of factual errors.

Aronsen claims the Vancouver counter culture began with the first Easter Be-in of 1967, but it was around in 1965 and had roots going back to the 1950's. There is a ridiculous attempt at classifying “hippies” in four different categories - “fierce-looking” angries, heads who preferred LSD and speed, “cynical” beats and “the largest group” the "love hippies." Who ever used that latter term? Supposedly up to 1967 the counter culture and the peace movement “moved in separate circles.” This was untrue, at least in Vancouver, where "beats" were peace activists and peace activists helped form the counter-culture. He states there were only “several” Vietnam War demos in the late 60's, but they were an annual event from 1966 to 1972, making a total of seven, somewhat more than several.

He contends that the sixties counter culture was the first to try freeing itself of bourgeois morality, but in reality this something all previous bohemias and anarchist movements attempted with varying degrees of success. Has he not heard about Greenwich Village and "The Masses"?

A gap supposedly existed between "libertarianism and collectivism” and the Yippies sought to bridge this, but for anarchists this split has never existed. The Vancouver Yippies became increasingly influenced by anarchist theory. This gap only exists in the author's mind, as the real division is between the libertarian and the authoritarian.

The Blaine invaders were not driven out of the town in retreat by citizen violence as the author states. No one intended to occupy Blaine, since a part of the action was to bring war resistors across the border hidden in the marchers. The acts of violence within Blaine were few. The real brawl commenced after the invaders were back in Canada. Led by an ex-biker, they beat the crap out of some American neonazis.

Yippie leaders failed to understand that soft drug usage was now common among the middle class” - who smoked up without joining the Yippies. We knew this and were pleased by it. We were honest in wanting to change these laws which effected everyone. Demonstrating against the drug laws was not a ploy to get members.

After Yippie broke up, “many [Yippies] simply began working at regular jobs...” implying they disappeared from the movement. What is truly of interest is that virtually everyone in this group remained involved in progressive causes.

Most of the Yippies became anarchists, those that didn't, got involved in the women's, environmental or trade union movements. Some others worked in the alternative press.

The peace movement of the early 60's was supposedly split between "moderates" and Communists. Actually, there was a three way split. To the left of the CP stood the direct actionist Student Union for Peace Action and the anarchist-inspired League for Total Disarmament. Furtheremore, SUPA was formed in 1964 not 1965.

The growing opposition to the Viet Nam War and the formation of the Vancouver Viet Nam Day Committee did not represent a victory of the “moderates” over the Communist Party. The most active people in the VVDC, and its successor the Vancouver Coordinating Committee, were members of the trotskyist League For Socialist Action and its youth group, the Young Socialists. They were politically to the left of the CP. (I was associated with them for about 6 months in 1967, but not a member.) Aronsen does not understand that the LSA was committed to building a broad front campaign around the war and this meant involving liberals as well as radicals.

There is the photo of an alleged “strident and Anti-American” Yippie demonstration on page 146. The placards are of the Maoist CPC-ML, not Yippie. We hated CPC-ML and we were standing in the midst of them mocking their ludicrous slogans.

As for the Feb. 1969 meeting of VCC, (to which I was a delegate from SFU) the split was the result of SDU and the Progressive Workers Movement not SDU and the CPC-ML, which was not formed until more than a year later. The split was not between “moderates” and radicals, but between Trotskyists and Maoist/anarchist-leaning New Leftists. Aronsen claims the Young Socialists were “infiltrating” the presumably "moderate" VCC. They were always there, one might say they were the VCC.

Aronsen just can't resist a mass media cliche or stereotype. Take the term “hippie.” We only used it ironically, instead calling ourselves heads, freaks or revolutionaries. "Hippie", like the earlier "peacenik" and "beatnik", was a mass media creation – no one other than rubes used such terms seriously. He then claims there was “an expiration date” for the alternative lifestyle. The mass media will tell you it ended at Altamont in 1970, or at the latest, sputtered out two years later. Sorry, but we are still here.

What really happened to the 60's counter culture is the hangers-on jumped off, leaving a core of serious, capable people who went on to start organic farms, Coop Radio,Spartacus Books, Pulp Press, Press Gang Publishers, housing coops, food coops, the CEC credit union and many other projects. Some people moved to Commercial Drive and others to the Kootenays, the Gulf Islands, and the Sunshine Coast. And activism? The Anarchist Movement, Feminist Groups, Gay Liberation, Latin American solidarity groups, and the Green Party - all are outgrowths of this period. Many of our ideas went so mainstream their origin is almost forgotten, such as the act of protest itself, feminism, environmentalism, anti-consumerism, opposition to war and nuclear power, cooperative living, organic food, libertarian parenting and pedagogy. These are the ideas of the general progressive-minded public and no longer the "intellectual property" of a few thousand so-called "hippies" and "student radicals".

Must we be subjected again after 43 years, to the straw man argument that we tossed aside reason, went by feeling alone, and rejected “serious employment.” (ie were lazy) and what was “really meaningful” for the counter culture was the media image of sex, drugs and rock and roll? Must we endure the tabloid caricaturing of the beats as "cynical"?

Aronsen gives a hint of his underlying politics with his MacArthyite attack upon the Communist Party, which he claims was “calculatedly using innocent untutored children” in their peace protests and were not really for peace but “devoted to advancing the Soviet Union's strategic interest.” Then there is his characterization of the Communist Party as extreme, which for any 60's radical is a real knee slapper.

The 60's counter culture is accused of creating a situation that opened up the general population to the use of drugs, resulting in the present crack-meth horror. This is an element of right-wing propaganda – they still at war with the 1960's – the only problem is the counter culture was never in favour of dangerous drugs. We looked with despair upon junkies and speed freaks, wanting as little as possible to do with them. The dangerous drug epidemic only occurred in the late 1980's as a result of the CIA flying tons of cocaine into the US and creating the crack problem. Up till then, there was no real drug problem other than the one that had always existed since opiates were made illegal in 1914.

According to Aronsen, the sixties produced a "cult of youth" leading to "a decline in parental authority" and "a loss of respect for the wisdom of the elders", all familiar conservative cliches, some of which have been with us since the time of Socrates. It is not clear whether he is trying to blame the counter-culture for these, but I suspect so. If there was a "cult of youth" it was a creation of the media not us. Indeed, the counter culture would not have existed without the "wisdom of the elders", for it did not drop out of the sky, but came about through the influence of older people like Aldous Huxley, Allan Watts, Paul Goodman and Herbert Marcuse, not to mention the Beat Generation writers.

Most annoyingly of all, is his characterization throughout, that we were "anti-American". We, who received the Vietnam War resistors with open arms and revered Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Martin Luther King and a host of others, were anti-American? Absolutely insane. But perhaps not so. This is an example of the Big Lie Technique in action. In order to hide our criticisms of US foreign policy and corporatism, reactionaries like Aronsen deceitfully claim we hate the American people.

The author tends to minimize the effects of some actions and events as well as having a belittling and condescending manner.

In claiming that the mainstream media was “ambivalent” toward "hippies", he minimizes the impact of the Vancouver Sun's hate campaign against youthful dissidents dating back to at least 1965. The Yippies compared the “occasional acts of measured discrimination against longhairs” by Hudson Bay to that of Black People in the USA. In fact, the Bay's discrimination was only the symbol of the years of harrassment and vilification, and while we did make a comparison with African Americans, we did not think it was the same experience. Terms like "white niggers" are not to be taken literally, anymore than Mario Savio's "don't trust anyone over 30" or Jerry Rubin's "kill your parents." They were metaphors.

Canadian Yippies, it seems, were “not terribly original.” We certainly were for Vancouver. No one had seen or used those tactics before. What is really original anyway? Then again, how original are Aronsen's cliches?

After mentioning how the NDP and the BC Federation of Labour backed the anti-war movement, Aronsen then claims the “opposition to anti-war demonstrations was tainted with working class hostility.” His evidence? A dozen counter demonstrators of which one was a member of the Teamsters. This is of no surprise as the union was run by Nixon-loving gangsters. One Teamster vs organizations that represented hundreds of thousands of workers!

High school students participated en mass in the Amchitka Demonstration October 1971. The author sneers at these youth as, “students wishing to establish their own distinct boomer identity... realized that an anti-nuke stance was an easy way to seize the moral high ground.” What condescension! Did it ever occur to Aronsen that students might have a genuine concern, just like their older brothers and sisters? Anyone who has spent any time with young demonstrators knows they are earnest to the point that it is almost painful, rather than having some underhanded motivation.

In retrospect it is not clear what the peace movement accomplished.” Does he know anything about the subject? In the early 1960's you might get a hundred people out on a demo. By 1970 you were getting several thousand. In 1982, 115,000 demonstrated against the Cruise Missile. Today, opposition to war is a “motherhood issue.” Without the intervening stage of the late 60's -early 70's movement, this would not have happened.

The real history of Vancouver's counter culture waits to be written. If anything good comes out of this travesty of a book, it will be that it has inspired someone who actually understands the period to get to work.

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5 Comments:

Blogger Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

I don't know Larry. Your book review sounds like a lot of angry hippyism to me.

8:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This review is correct in many ways; City of Love has many factual errors, however, it is a highly opinionated book, and Mr Aronsen is welcome to his point of view.

My point of view is this is one book where the cover, the appendix, and the index are far more exciting than the text which is sandwiched between same.

Poorly written, poorly edited (a suprise, since New Star usually supplies great editing) and written in a condescending manner.

Not worth paying for.

11:01 AM  
Anonymous Stan Persky said...

Completely agree with your critique of this awful book. It's a manuscript that should not have been published. In addition to everything you've mentioned, the book has absolutely no reference to or understanding of the intellectual/literary sources of the 60s in Vancouver: 1963 UBC poetry conference organized by Warren Tallman, Tish magazine and the poets associated with it, such as George Bowering and Fred Wah, etc. No mention of any of this. The whole thing is a piece of junk.

12:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this.Now for sure I won't buy the book.Your observations,comments and corrections brought back a flood of wonderful memories of a time when it was still not difficult to make enough money to support a full time life of working for social change for the betterment of all while still thoroughly enjoying life to the max.
I particularily appreciated your non sectarian point of view while giving back a little dignity and validity to anarchism ;that favourite whipping boy of the truly ignorant.
In the main I think you are accurate about the various contending points of view in the Vietnam Day Commitee and the VCC.
The trots were there in large numbers and worked hard to build a broad based anti Vietnam war coaition.My recollection is of the tension between them on one side and more hard line New Leftists,SDU And Progressive Workers on the other.
Best of all you are bang on that many many of us have never abandoned that life or our ideals.

7:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Read about this book through another blog about Vancouver back in the day. Was initially curious about it, but with your comments (and Stan Persky's), I might have a look at the pix in the library in it if there's a copy, but will give it a miss as a purchase. Draft dodgers weren't welcomed into Vancouver? Hello! Was the author alive in the period about which he wrote? Sounds like perhaps not. And of course it did not start in the 60s. Anyone in the area prior to that remembers beatniks, bookstores, be ins, and dissidence much more clearly than he does. And i was too young and only a "teenybopper", word like "hippy" that was/is just STUPID and UNINFORMED. Thank you. :) (marched in every ONE of those marches, btw)

2:00 PM  

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