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DC at Night

Saturday, May 11, 2013

1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century

Journalists and historians are always looking for time periods that serve as pivotal turning points. And Foreign Policy magazine editor Christian Caryl believes he has found one which he explores in his new book Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century.

In discussing his work at the National Archives, Caryl contended that 5 events began that year which led to the world we know today. They are:

  • the Iranian Islamic Revolution
  • the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan
  • the rise of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
  • Pope John Paul II's visit to Poland and
  • economic reforms in China
Caryl stressed that his book was the work of a journalist, not an historian. But it does deal with history, albeit relatively recent events. "We study history to know how we got to where we are. When we look at our world we say things like it's quite obvious or it's quite natural or it's always been that way. But there are crucial points of change in history where we find that what is now, was not that way that long ago," he said.

Caryl briefly explored the details of 2 events that he thinks supports labeling 1979 a time of revolutionary change. The 1st was Afghanistan. In the beginning of the 1970's, that country was not the Islamic fundamentalist nation we find today, but a nation appearing to be on the way to modernization. "Afghanistan was one of the hot spots on the hippie trail from Istanbul to Katmandu. In their VW vans, young travelers could mingle with the friendly people whom they described as laid-back, free and happy and they smoked hashish and ate cheap kabobs (with the locals)," Caryl said. 

Although poor and backward, Afghanistan was seen as moving ahead. However, by 1979, circumstances had conspired to force the Soviet Union to invade the country, which in turn, led to an Islamic rise to power  that rejected all contact with western powers and gave rise to terrorists such as Osama bin Laden.

The other example Caryl briefly explored was the drastic change in China. In the 1970's, the small group of Americans who did any business with the then-communist-nation had to follow strict rules. They could only enter the country through Hong Kong. Carrying their own bags, they finally crossed a wooden bridge to the one area where business with foreigners could be conducted. There they filled out endless forms. There was even a required nap period. However, on such a trip in 1979, the foreign businessmen encountered the 1st sign of a changing China - a private market. "A private market in China was like seeing a whale in the middle of the mall," Caryl said. The businessmen were also shown an area that their Chinese hosts said offered great investment opportunities. While the confounded westerners saw only rice paddies and duck ponds, the Chinese saw huge factories. "Today, that area has a population the size of New York City and your iPhone was probably built there," Caryl said.

Caryl maintains that while on 1st glance the 5 events he explores in his book appear unrelated, there is a connection. "There was a conjunction of the way people thought about politics and economics. The heroes of the book, if you can call them heroes, were all counter-revolutionaries, conservatives reacting against what existed before. It (1979) was the beginning of a conscious turn," Caryl said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
The book talk was the most recent in a series of special Archives programs being offered to augment the main exhibition now on display at the institution, Searching for the Seventies, the Documerica Photography Project.

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