As pot legalization shows, the path to social change is winding

Photo: GoToVan/flickr

Deep social change happens so slowly it looks like nothing is happening. Not just over years but decades, maybe longer. Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing. Then WHAM. The imminent legalization of (nonmedical) marijuana is a perfect example. Its perfectness even has a generational, father to son, symmetry.

Back in 1969 the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau appointed a royal commission to recommend policy on marijuana. Its head was a future Supreme Court justice. They heard hundreds of witnesses, including John Lennon, and in 1973 reported. Two of the three members recommended decriminalization for possession and cultivation; the third supported legalization. No one suggested keeping it criminal. It must have been what Trudeau wanted. You always select people knowing what they'll give you. Then nothing, nothing, nothing -- till the son.

Why finally now? Who knows? But that's how it goes: there is social ferment yet no official policy or law reflects it. You feel it's hopeless. Then it bursts forth whole. Too bad for devotees of the cause who died in the interim.

In the same era, the 1960s, came the sexual revolution. It questioned heteronormative sex. It was like the drugs, music and political revolutions. Anti-capitalist authorities, such as Herbert Marcuse, theorized about the possibility of "nonrepressive desublimation." Intellectual guru Norman O. Brown advocated "polymorphous perversity" versus uncomplicated (marital only) intercourse.

Then 30 years of nothing. Gary Hart dropped his 1988 Democratic run for president because he was spotted on a sailboat with not-his-wife. In 1998 Bill Clinton was caught having oral sex in the Oval Office (making every word in that phrase sound sexual) with an intern. The sole achievement of his eight years as president was resisting the stigmatization and staying in office. (It seems to me Donald Trump owes Bill Clinton for the fact that his tape didn't cost him victory.)

The official marker for change on this front was same-sex marriage, which became legal nationally in the U.S. in 2015. WHAM, finally.

What about Bill O'Reilly, the mighty mouth at Fox News, who this week was booted for harassment of women working there? Did the Murdochs just find out? I think it's unfortunate that O'Reilly's harassment history got intertwined with Fox's right-wing ideology -- because the very same things have happened for years at other media outlets of all stripes. Women's lives were blighted and careers destroyed at more "liberal" or progressive institutions by behaviour as ugly and sometimes far worse than his including, bien sur, the CBC.

But why now? Nobody knows. It seemed to coalesce at the time of the Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby cases two or three years ago. Then, why then? I don't think there's an answer. (Which should make people wary of declaring "causes" of anything, like wars and recessions.) But that's when women who had been fighting these battles for decades began saying they sensed a "sea-change." The lesson is obvious: don't fret about lack of results; just keep on battling.

Personally, I find it regrettable that the arrival of the cannabis legislation hasn't been more celebratory. I know laws are dry things and Parliament a dreary place. Besides, everyone can say they saw it coming. Still, people celebrate birthdays and anniversaries though they're inevitable. Since you never know the precise moment of a WHAM, it should be worth a cheer.

Maybe it's because fighting when the outcome is uncertain, or hopeless, is more fun. Pierre the dad had an insouciance in office that his son lacks. Even 10 years into power, he pirouetted for the cameras behind the Queen's back, as they went into a formal dinner. Meaning what exactly? Maybe: Believe me, all this prestige and rank means nothing, though I'm enjoying it while it lasts.

Justin had that before his political ascension: when he called Peter Kent "a piece of shit"; boxed, defying the odds, against Patrick Brazeau; or two years later, said nothing "f---ing matters" in the ring except who you truly are. I'm sure he has his reasons, including the dad he had, but now, over 10 years younger than Pierre was when he pirouetted, he sometimes seems older.

All the more reason to take pride in delivering the knockout blow in the case of pot. He should have learned how long it can take to finish something that's clearly right.

Maybe little Hadrien will get around to electoral reform.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: GoToVan/flickr

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