Monday, July 20, 2009


Earlier this month, Time Magazine had a special Double Issue entitled 1989: 20 Years ago, the World Changed. It featured some recollections from journalists present at some of the key events of that year, particularly Adi Ignatius at Tienanmen and Anne McElvoy in East Berlin when the Wall came down.

I endorse wholeheartedly the concept of the issue, and commend some additional inclusions less obviously centered around 1989: a profile of Gorbachev's state of play then (glasnost, two years before the Soviet Union's collapse), a key meeting of Nelson Mandela and South African President DeKlerk (a year before Mandela's release), the Dalai Lama winning the Nobel Peace Prize (announced or awarded that year?--doesn't say), key developments in Pakistan, the Internet, Japan's economic bubble about to burst, the debut of The Simpsons (the regular program, in December, not the shorts from Tracey Ullman Show). This wider view of "1989" is reasonable.

I feel the issue shortchanged all the other developments of Eastern Europe, though: Poland's successful challenge to the Soviets, the Velvet Revolution in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and the climax of the year's activities, the spectacular rebellion near year-end in Romania (one mention for each, really).

In terms of popular music, I thought the feature was weak: 1989 was during a bit of a pause as the British New Wave of the '80's receded and Seattle's grunge was just getting going. They would've done well to point out how Berlin's example provided inspiration to U2 for their greatest album, "Achtung, Baby!", which was written in post-Wallfall Berlin and released a year or two later. The point, to me, is that popular music both can inspire political change and feed off it: it doesn't need to be contemporaneous with it to be related in an important way.

'89 vs. '68?

The issue closed with a provocative piece by Martin Ivens, of Britain's Times. He made a Generation X-bssed argument for '89 being more important than 1968, the favored reference point for today's dominant Boomers. It included a cute graphic showing that '68' turned upside down is '89' and labeled each reading with "The Year that Changed the World".

A good, tendentious piece, that I would largely agree with: the changes of '89 were real, immediate, and long-lasting, whereas the movements of1968 (centered around anti-Vietnam protest and similar youthful rebellion in Paris, Italy, and London) never achieved most of their objectives, more far-reaching and profound though they may have been.

On the other hand, though '89 had some miraculous political developments and led directly to the end of the Cold War in a couple of years--a stunningly surprising outcome, like the end of apartheid which also followed soon after--the momentum was not sustained. Though it was such a surprise at the time, '89-91 didn't lead to any clear understanding of where we were or what we should do, though Saddam provided direction with his invasion of Kuwait.

So much for the "peace dividend" or change in the world as it should become.

As I've suggested above, '68 and '89 are each shorthand for a period of a few years in which dramatic events occurred in rapid succession, though not necessarily limited in duration to that single year. They each headed a period of crucial 20th-century changes ranking just under the World Wars in importance.

'68/'89 From a Middling Equidistance
As one who turned 18 in '74, I could experience both key dates at a safe distance, without too much generational bias or immediate pressure to throw myself into the fray(s). My youthful peak was more pacific, and the key event sequence of my times was Nixon/Watergate/Carter/Reagan/Worst Recession Since the Great Depression Before This One.

That 1974-82 period was Formative in a personal sense (turned me off to active political involvement, pushed me out into a career), 'and in contrast to the '68-'72 Tornado and the '89-'92 End of History not too significant in terms of world history.

Which leads me to the present, and the possibility that the biggest watershed year of our lifetimes might actually prove to be 2008. One can hope.

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