Misinterpreting the past

In The Magic Mountain, his fictional masterpiece, Thomas Mann asks, “Is not the pastness of the past the more profound, the more legendary, the more immediately it falls before the present?” The events of the last decade underscore the truth of this insight. Even after the upheaval of the September 11 attacks, who could have foreseen the long war in Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, the global financial and European debt crises, the surge of rightwing nationalism in the world’s largest democracy, or the more recent fears of a renewed Cold War in Europe.

The 9/11 attacks are often spoken of as the day that “changed our lives forever” but it is likely that future historians will look to 1989 for tipping points of more enduring significance. Twenty-five years ago the collapse of the Berlin Wall set the stage for the formal end of the Cold War, a British scientist created the first iteration of the World Wide Web, and a protest in Tiananmen Square showed what threatened authoritarian governments could do to their own people. Free elections brought the Solidarity movement to power in Poland; F.W. de Klerk set about dismantling apartheid; Japan suffered a stock market crash and Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie.

Most early interpretations of these events now seem naive, or premature. The resurgence of Russian irredentism has shown that the tensions of the Cold War did not disappear with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In fact public opinion in Russia seems to favour Pres. Putin’s efforts to recoup the political, military and economic power his country has ceded since 1989. Putin recently told the Duma that “In people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia. This firm conviction is based on truth and justice and was passed from generation to generation… despite all the dramatic changes our country went through during the entire 20th century.” It is hard not to sense a quiet threat in the rest of his speech, a warning that if current sanctions prove ineffective, Russia will soon find other “inseparable” parts of of itself clamouring, in a similarly dubious fashion, for a return to the fold.

Twenty five years after the massacre in Tiananmen Square, the People’s Republic of China may have liberalized its economy, but it has proved stubbornly resistant to the democratic practices that were meant to accompany these reforms. As the June 4 anniversary approaches, activists are being rounded up and heavy censorship – online and off – remains in place. The pro-democracy Charter 08 movement has been silenced, and the Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo is all but forgotten in prison. Absent some intermittent political theatre over the renewal of its “most favoured nation” status in the US Congress, the PRC has far more to fear from its internal crises – political and economic – than anything in the wider world. For most of the last two decades, an impotent, envious West has watched China go from strength to strength – emerging from a global financial crisis unscathed, leveraging its economic might to outwit its trade rivals and scuttling inconvenient environmental treaties. Meanwhile, it has continued to shore up “soft” power throughout Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.

The skeletal Internet that Tim Berners Lee used in 1989 has mushroomed into a vast network that few could have imagined then. At every stage its growth has been accompanied by disruptive innovations. The explosion of user-generated data and social media – the so-called Internet 2.0 – is already morphing into “the internet of things” and it is hard to say whether we will have a “Balkanised” Internet in the future – as countries try to dodge foreign surveillance – or whether some new technology will displace the current infrastructure altogether. Either way, much of the inflated rhetoric about technology spreading democracy has been swept aside by Edward Snowden’s revelations about Western governments’ outrageous eavesdropping. Ironically, the most extensive surveillance has taken place in countries that religiously denounced the Soviet Union’s intrusions into its own citizens’ lives during the Cold War.

History, warns the narrator of T.S. Eliot’s Gerontion, “has many cunning passages, contrived corridors/ And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,/ Guides us by vanities.” As a handful of international crises play themselves out close to significant anniversaries of the historical turning points in 1989, it is safe to say that we are currently living through another of these labyrinthine moments.

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