In 1990, the British band Jesus Jones released a rousing and upbeat song that captured the mood of a lot of my fellow young people.
“Right Here, Right Now,” spoke of amazement at the dizzying changes over the last two years, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the looming breakup of the Soviet Union, including the collapse of brutal communist regimes across Europe.
“I was alive and I waited, waited. I was alive and I waited for this.
“Right here, right now, there is no other place I want to be.
“Right here, right now. Watching the world wake up from history.”
People my age had started school having nightmares about nuclear war, watching the 1983 ABC film “The Day After” and reading depressing Cold War books like “The Third World War,” a faux history by British Gen. John Hackett describing a Soviet invasion of Europe in the mid-1980s (in the first edition, the Reds won, but publishers got squeamish and had him allow NATO to pull out a narrow win.)
We finished school with nuclear weapons on standby and the tantalizing possibility of peace and democracy ascendant across the world.
“A woman on the radio talks about revolution, when it’s already passed her by,” Jesus Jones sang. “Bob Dylan didn’t have this to sing about. You know it feels good to be alive.”
And it wasn’t just the youth who were caught up in the magical possibilities.
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“What we are witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history,” wrote political scientist Francis Fukuyama in a famous 1989 essay in the magazine The National Interest, “but the end of history as such: that is, the end of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of government.”
As we now know, 30 years later, our collective optimism was somewhat misplaced.
There were warning signs. In retrospect, the first one came just as Fukuyama’s essay, called “The End of History,” became the hottest topic in Washington. On June 4, 1989, the Chinese government decided it wasn’t so eager to be transformed into a Western-style liberal democracy and sent tanks and soldiers into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to massacre a crowd of protestors, mostly young people, who had been clamoring for their slice of the End of History.
But we slept through the 1990s, it seems, intoxicated by the seeming safety and security that came with being the only superpower left on the planet.
Meanwhile, an unexpected thing happened. History kept happening. Old rivalries and hatreds that had been suspended, or at least left on a low simmer, in the bi-polar world of the Cold War erupted anew. Questions that had been left unanswered after World War I began to demand answers: The violent breakup of Yugoslavia and the 1991 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq were direct outgrowths of messy territorial problems from 1919 and even before, yet they had largely been put on a shelf during the epic struggle between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.
The fight between the Turks and the Kurds and the Syrians that is going on right now as I write this can trace a direct line from the collapse of Ottoman Empire after World War I and the failure of the peace negotiations to address the question of a Kurdish homeland.
History didn’t end in 1989. In fact, if anything, it woke up, stretched, and resumed a course that it had been taking before the great ideological battles of the 20th century. I was 23 years old when Jesus Jones released their anthem. I can still feel the excitement of the era, the head-spinning exhilaration of watching the Soviet empire collapse and Russians, Poles, Romanians, Ukrainians, and so many other nations plunge into a heady experiment with democracy and freedom.
I heard the song the other day, on the cusp of my 52nd birthday, but instead of exhilaration, it brought me sadness. Sadness for the world that might have been, sadness for the world we imagined we lived in, and sadness for all that optimism that has curdled into disappointment and fear over three decades.
“I saw the decade end, when it seemed the world could change at the blink of an eye,” Jesus Jones sang. “And if anything, then there’s your sign of the times.”