When I was in high school, I was sullen. I’m not sure what I was sullen about. I was the guy in the back of the class in the motorcycle jacket and cap, slouched in his seat, daring anyone to teach him anything.
Maybe it had something to do with my watching too many Marlon Brando and James Dean movies.Maybe it was because I didn’t know who I was and I was trying to create an identity.When my grandfather banned the speaking of Icelandic, German, Polish and Ukrainian in his house and said nothing but English would be spoken, he also banned the cultural roots that formed the basis of who we were.
When I was in downtown Victoria, the other day, I thought I recognized myself. Not because anyone was wearing a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back but because a lot of kids were wearing costumes, just like I’d worn a costume. There were Goths, guys with Iroquois cuts dyed bright red, babes in black leather with so many studs that if they fell into the harbour, they would drown head down.
This is who I am, the costumes said. This is me. This is me wearing surplus army fatigues and every inch of my exposed skin covered in tattoos pushing a baby carriage. This is me, her boyfriend/husband/partner, with my purple, green, orange spiked hair, my torn jeans and chains and black boots. It’s easy to condemn appearance, make all sorts of assumptions, but it wasn’t these people who bundled mortgages that proved to be fraudulent, who invented liar loans, who set up a system of irresponsibility so great that the United States of America still hasn’t recovered. No, the people who did that wore dark suits, silk ties and sported seventy-five dollar haircuts.
As I waited for the transit bus in front of McDonald’s, I thought that if Ronald appeared, he’d fit right in. Everything has a cause and I wondered what our generation’s role was in creating this daily parade.What did it mean, I wondered that there were no Stepford wives on the sidewalk.
In the 1940s and 50s, teenagers were still struggling to speak English without an accent. Parents were changing their foreign-sounding names to English-sounding names. Many of them deliberately didn’t teach their children the language of the country from which they came. No Icelandic, no German, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian. No saying “qvail” for whale. No saying “dis” and “dat”.
The problem is that our generation wasn’t just deprived of a second or third language. With the language went ethnic customs and history and with customs and history went social values. In some cases it was no loss. There were beliefs and prejudices that we were all better off without. However, the good went out with the bad.It left me and many like me wondering who we were, without a history, without a set of ethical rules founded on generations of culture.
If society had remained as it was in the 40s and 50s, rural, stable, small town, then once everyone got settled, there might have been a chance to re-introduce what had been disowned but Canada was changing in ways that few people could have imagined. Canada went from being rural to urban and then suburban. Farms and small towns with their ethnic life were abandoned. Television appeared. It was like a tsunami. We all went from listening to Superman on radio to watching real, live famous people. Ed Sullivan entered our lives and brought both the famous and notorious into our living rooms. People quit visiting. TV dinners, a completely preposterous idea only a short time before, became the norm.
The lost languages comprised not merely words but also a way of thinking, a way of seeing reality and reacting to it. With the loss of language also went a loss of customs and with them guidelines for behaviour. We grew up in a vacuum and when it was our turn to be parents, our values were taken from a society overwhelmed by advertising that promoted materialism. It’s unlikely that many of us read the sagas. We were too busy watching Gunsmoke or I Love Lucy. Even if you knew the sayings in Havamal, it would have been hard to get your kids to listen when they could be watching Captain Kangaroo or Mr. Dressup.
English has largely replaced the languages that immigrants brought with them. But it isn’t English manners and customs that have replaced immigrant culture. Instead, a vacuum was created, a loss of self and what replaced it was the culture of the media—and the major purpose of the media is to sell a product. It’s the advertising that matters. Immigrant culture spoke of proper behaviour, of morals, of religious beliefs. It said this is what it means to be Ukrainian or Russian or Polish or Icelandic. The media sells material, not spiritual or moral values. It doesn’t care about you. It cares about selling that TV, car, BBQ, or sofa. It doesn’t ask where or how you got the money.
Remember how exciting Sunday evenings were? How we couldn’t wait for The Rifleman, for Paladin, for Disney, or Perry Como. Remember how easily we accepted the advertising, never thought those ads were replacing our grandparents and parents values, were turning us into a consumer society. How could those old fashioned values compete with ads that told us that if we just bought the product they were selling, we’d be happy?
For a time, it was as if ethnic values, in our case, Icelandic traditions and customs, history, and beliefs would not survive in North America. That which survived did so because of a few stalwarts who held firm, who kept in operation the Icelandic clubs; that special holiday in August, Islindingadagurinn; the newspaper, Logberg-Heimskringla; the Icelandic National League; the Icelandic library and Icelandic department.
I know that my teenage years would have been easier, if I’d been taught about my ethnic background and its values. If my teachers had told us about Halldor Laxness, about the sagas, about Havamal, about the importance of reading and writing to the community, I wouldn’t have needed the black leather jacket with the eagle on the back. I’d have had an identity. I wouldn’t have had to try to make one up from the movies. I might not have bought into the consumer society in which things are more important than people. I think that’s true for a lot of other people.
If there had been no cultural vacuum, I doubt if the young people on Douglas Street would be in the position where they have to reject the business suits and the silk ties, the five hundred dollar shoes by making a statement with their skin, their hair and their worn and torn clothes. We wouldn’t have created a society where people could teach that greed is good, that you just look out for number one no matter what the cost to anyone else.
As I stood at the bus stop, I realized that all the young people around me had cell phones,I heard from their conversation that they all used twitter, overheard the girl in the pink tutu over a pair of jeans, the boy in the bright red silk shorts and sweat shirt that said something rude, talking about the need to use the internet to stop banks from the arrogant raising of user fees to cover up mistakes made by their high paid executives.
It has taken us generations–my grandparents, my parents, me–before big business and its advertisements to be been seen for what they are, and the creation of the new media to make it possible for people to fight back.
It’s always this way. The history of Iceland shows us that people had no way to stop being exploited by both the Danish traders and the rich farmers until English ships started to arrive to take sheep and horses back to Britain. Just because people are exploited doesn’t mean they’re stupid. The Icelanders soon realized that they, too, could leave for England and Scotland even if it meant traveling in the ships’ holds with the animals. From there they could take passage on ships to North America.
The new media has filled the same role as those ships. Except it isn’t necessary for anyone to travel to a distant continent. The social media can be used to create social justice here. Corporate advertising may have created a set of values, society may have floundered and gone down destructive paths following those values but now the ships of freedom are in the hands of young people who know how to use it. Your life may just become better because of someone with studs, a bunch of tattoos and a wardrobe of which Martha Stewart would never approve.