All the children born in 1989 turned a quarter century old this year. When they entered the world, the Soviet Union was coming apart at its seams. For most of their sentient lives, there has been no “Evil Empire.” The enemy of their youth turned on an axis that ran from Iran and Iraq to North Korea and lacked a unified ideological center.
1989 is the year the Berlin Wall fell. Many of us still remember televised images of men and women dancing in the streets waving champagne bottles, while others pounded at the graffiti-spattered cement with sledgehammers and pickaxes.
President Obama visited Poland in 2014 in an echo of a Bush Senior’s presidential visit to then-Soviet Warsaw 25 years earlier. Yet, it was one of many countries he could have chosen: 1989 was host to many lesser-known yet no-less-historic moments. On August 23, 1989, some two million people held hands across Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in a massive pro-independence demonstration they called the Baltic Way. Lithuania went on to be the first satellite state to formally declare independence from the Soviet Union.
The first nation to declare independence from America’s archenemy of the day, and most Americans couldn’t tell Lithuania from Lichtenstein, or Lesotho, for that matter. That was as true in 1989 as it is today.
Authoritarianism seemed to be under attack from all sides in 1989. Some of those struggles dominated headlines for days, while others barely rated a paragraph on the page six world briefs. A coup in Paraguay overthrew the 35-year dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. More than a million Chinese students took to Tiananmen Square in Beijing to demand freedom and democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi was put her under house arrest by the Burmese military junta in 1989. Her political party won the next year’s election, but the generals declined to hand over power. Though Suu Kyi was eventually freed and elected to parliament, but military still holds the reins of power in a country we now call Myanmar.
The Evil Empire was already beginning to turn on its axis in 1989. Thomas Friedman won the National Book Award for nonfiction that year for From Beirut to Jerusalem, a book that is as resonant today as it was then. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses climbed the New York Times bestseller list and became a cause célèbre when octogenarian Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death. Khomeini would die only a few months later.
Yesterday America formally ended its “combat mission” in Afghanistan, thirteen years after we first arrived. In 1989 it was Soviet tanks and Red Army troops that were marching out of Afghanistan after their own nine years of failed war. Back then the Soviets were fighting against the mujahedeen. The same mujahedeen that we armed back then, who went on to join merge with Taliban.
In fact, 1989 is the year a militant group was founded in the region that called itself “The Base,” or Al Qaeda in Arabic. At least one of its members is known to have attended a meeting in Oklahoma City in December that year.
Even as America’s official enemy abroad was in transition in 1989, here in the US young people ages 16 to 24 were participating in the labor market at their highest rate in history: nearly 76 percent of them either had a job or were looking for work. In 2014 the labor participation rate for that age group is almost the lowest in history, at only 60.5 percent.
About 13 percent of Americans lived below the poverty line back then. Today, it’s closing in on 15 percent. Median household income right now buys $4,417 less than what could back in 1989. A gallon of gas cost about $0.90 at the pump in 1989, which would be $1.71 in today’s money. The national average hit a high of $3.76 a gallon this past June, but after falling dramatically for weeks is around $2.30 right now.
Despite it all we were happy then, and we’re happy again today. In 1989, Bobby McFerrin’s upbeat ditty "Don't Worry Be Happy" took the Grammy for Song of the Year. Twenty-five years later, people around the world made fan videos for another “Happy” song by Pharrell Williams.
But were we all so happy? Also on the charts that year was a very different expression of the 1989 zeitgeist: N.W.A.’s groundbreaking gansta rap album, Straight Outta Compton. Twenty-five years later, Hollywood is ready to make the movie, starring... Paul Giamatti?
Just as N.W.A. was making waves across the radio dial, a little girl whose mother would call her Amethyst was conceived in Australia. She would grow up to be Iggy Azalea and have a number one rap hit on the Billboard charts in 2014.
A company called Time, Inc. merged with Warner Communications in 1989 to create the largest media company in the world at that time, becoming perhaps the most hated 25 years later. This year, Time Warner spun off the 91 year old eponymous magazine that started it all, leaving it to twist in the stock market winds.
History is a hall of mirrors where the precedent of one event is the antecedent of another. It’s easy to get lost in a maze of dates and references that cross-reference each other. A quick search online will give you list after list of events by year, but which dots should we connect? The Big Data evangelists might say they can build an algorithm to find the answer. But will their answer give us meaning?
When the organizers of the Baltic Way selected August 23 as the date for their 370-mile human chain in 1989, that wasn’t a random choice. They were reaching back fifty years to mark the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact where Stalin and Hitler quietly divided up Eastern Europe between themselves.
You’ve may never heard of the Baltic Way or the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, though both of them changed the world. As 2014 comes to a close, take a moment to remember what happened in 1989, the events you lived through and the ones you never knew. They tell us as much about the world we live in today as the one we will live in for the next 25 years.
Lately I've been making zines. For a limited time, you can see my first zine on exhibit at the Irvine Fine Arts Center. Read more.