The anniversary of the Berlin Wall's fall was a few weeks ago. I didn't comment on it at the time but conversations surrounding the commemoration set me to thinking. It seemed that there were two distinct groups having two entirely different conversations, two unrelated bodies of experience surrounding that fateful day in 1989. My niece, my girlfriend, and one handful of friends had one set of thoughts on the subject while Joker, Friendly Genius, Weatherman and I had a fundamentally different set. On reflection, I've realized that that divide goes much deeper than opinions and understanding of recent history and of international politics.
It's a matter of age. There is a distinct divide in life experience between the "Analog" generations, people like me who were born before 1983 and the "Digital" generation, those born since. In the space of a year or two the American experience changed. Anyone approximately my age and older has clear memories of a time when the world was a much different place in terms of geopolitics, as represented by the Berlin Wall and also in terms of how we in the United States construct our national identity and even how we live our day to day lives. Anyone more than a few years younger than I doesn't remember this era. Though they may have lived through part of it, they were too young for it to have shaped their understanding.
The most obvious division and the one that started me on this line of thinking is that Soviet communism fell apart in 1989; I was ten years old. We Analogs remember this and had some inkling of its significance as it happened. We watched dozens of movies in which the villains were Russians or the cronies of a communist client state. We remember when the words “The Free World” had a clear definition. We grew up hearing stories of how teenagers in Moscow would risk a lifetime in Siberia to own a Beatles record. The municipal buildings in our hometowns all sported the three inverted triangles indicating a fallout shelter.
As late as 1987, my elementary school made us practice nuclear attack drills. “Duck and Cover,” the idea that putting one's hands behind one's head and hiding under a desk might protect one from an atomic explosion seemed every bit as ridiculous then as it does now. The difference is that the possibility of the Red Giant's missiles soaring over the pole to vaporize legions of innocent American school children was very real
To the children of the Digital era, this is as much history as Vietnam and the Watts riots are to me. Sure, they know people who lived through it but it doesn't meaningfully inform their thinking; it isn't quite real. But, it was real. It was very real and it was very scary. Three generations literally spent sleepless nights wondering if the entire world might erupt in nuclear fire before the sun came up.
Even now, we think of this as being the stuff of the sixties but one has to remember that the height of the nuclear arms race was the winter of 1983-84. If you're younger than thirty or so, terms like “glasnost,” “Evil Empire” and “Iron Curtain” lack their full gravitas. “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” doesn't seem like a defiant, dangerous or war-provoking statement because, of course he's going to tear it down; how could he not? Digitals have a hard time imagining a world without a golden arches every few miles because they don't recall the capitalist revolution when McDonald's opened it's first store in Moscow and they probably don't get the jokes about how the Russian government would never allow Taco Bell to do likewise because their slogan at the time was “Run for the Border.”
It seems a bit silly in retrospect but the reality is that, as recently as twenty years ago, over a billion and a half people lived in countries that resembled today's North Korea and we all assumed that it was just a matter of time before we went to war with them.
Nowadays we grumble about how Google allows the Chinese government to censor websites without stopping to consider that, for more than half a century, one third of the world was effectively sealed off from the remainder. As a child I was taught that I would never be able to send a letter or make a phone call, let alone travel to somewhere like Moscow, East Berlin or Prague, the last of which I did visit in 1997.
To fully understand the implications of the Berlin Wall's fall, Digitals need to understand not only the context of the Cold War but also the events of earlier that same year in China. Everyone's spent half a class period on it in high school history, of course, but like most momentous events, high school history class can't communicate the essence of the time. For a full month in early summer of '89, millions of Chinese, inspired by the passing of a prominent pro-democracy agitator, took to the streets to protest the policies of the Communist Party. There were demonstrations in almost every major city culminating in a mass protest in Beijing that exceeded a million participants. Students erected a white “Goddess of Democracy” statue in the heart of the city square. American news reported that the Communist Party was in tatters, afraid to react. We were told that a military crackdown had been ordered and that China's army generals were refusing to comply.
For a week at the end of that May, it really did look like Chinese Communism was over. News outlets all over the western world, many operating unmolested in Beijing itself, were predicting that the Democracy movement in China had reached critical mass and that it was only a matter of days until the government of the PRC and acquiesced and dissolved itself. This would, of course, fuel such movements in Russia and in it's collection of subordinate nations. Democracy was about to triumph in the PRC, with the USSR, North Korea, Cuba and all of their inheritors closely to follow. Network broadcasts were preempted every night for half a month as the tide of pro-democracy sentiment swept China. Without any hyperbole, we were all thinking that we just might see true, lasting, world peace by Christmas.
It didn't happen, of course. The Communist party did crack down. The media was silenced. Tanks rolled into Beijing, hundreds of protesters were killed and the movement's leaders were imprisoned or executed. For a few weeks we all thought that Democracy had triumphed only to see it brutally crushed overnight. “Bloodbath,” was the headline on the cover of Newsweek.
In the west, we remember this as the Tiananmen Square massacre. Digitals know it by the image of the single unarmed protester facing off with a column of tanks. While it did ultimately prompt the liberalization of China that continues to this day, at the time it seemed like the ultimate Communist push-back. The Evil Empire was forever. We'd never win and the threat of a thousand mushroom clouds would loom over the world until someone pushed the button or until the stars burnt out.
Only a few months later, though, the wall came down and the Soviet government announced its own impending dissolution. I remember my grandmother tearing up a bit, which is funny because there's not a drop of Eastern European blood in my family. My fifth grade teacher predicted that there would be cheering in the streets akin to that at the end of World War II. Democracy had triumphed after all. Fifty years of animosity, paranoia and brinksmanship were over. The world, more importantly our perception of the world changed literally overnight.
None of it turned out quite the way anyone predicted it, of course. The world was not swept up in a wave of good will. Peace did not reign and I think all of us who were there for it feel a bit foolish for having expected such. There was financial turmoil, political unrest and mass migration. We exchanged one global Cold War for hundreds of ethnic and economic skirmishes.
Certainly, I'm over-simplifying and probably romanticizing. I was ten years old, after all. The important thing to remember is that these things happened. The social, political, military and economic consequences of the Second World War finally played themselves out and by 1991 we were left with a world that resembles the world of today, whereas the world of 1989 more resembled that of 1964. I am nearly as young as one can be and have understood these things as they occurred but it does not change the fact that I am still one of those who, as Freddy Mercury sang, "Grew up, tall and proud, in the shadow of the mushroom cloud."
Anyone younger is not. The defining geopolitical moment of their life involved a tragedy of twisted faith, skyscrapers and airliners. I say with some confidence that, despite this, the world is a much safer place now than in 1988.
It occurs to me that this post is already several times longer than I intended and the fall of the USSR is only one of several experiences that denote the line between the Digital and Analog Generations. I'll save the rest for another post.
Let me ask, then. Which generation are you? What aspect of history most informs your understanding of the modern world? What do you think is going to define the life experiences of our children and grandchildren that are only academic to us? What are you going to do to play a part in it?