Spinning Out Of Control

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I’m sure some of you reading this were born in the late 1980s and 1990s. The era of which I write about in the novels is therefore in a real sense “history” to you. It pre-dates either your consciousness of the wider world…. or even your birth itself! 😉

Strasbourg, France. Home of the European Parliament. [Photo by me, 1996.]
Strasbourg, France. Home of the European Parliament. [Photo by me, 1996.]

It’s trite to point out that one can’t hope to begin to understand the present without understanding the past; yet it’s absolutely true. And trying to appreciate the human outlook of any “past” is a vital aspect of that effort. This article in Die Zeit about Germany’s attitude and approach to the world since 1989 could in large measure apply elsewhere in Europe as well as to the U.S.A.:

A quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall … we’ve woken up and it feels like a bad dream….

….Crisis has become the new normal. The years between 1990 and now were the exception.

The psychological repercussions of this fundamentally new situation on Europe’s political elites are both brutal and curious at the same time. Those aged 45 to 65 currently in positions of power have only known growing prosperity, freedom and cultural sophistication. They were, and to a large extent still are, predisposed to exert themselves only modestly, act responsibly and expect that they could enjoy the fruits of their labor. And suddenly history has unceremoniously grabbed them by the scruff of the neck. Do we really need to fight now? More than ever? And what does our cardiologist have to say?

I’m sharing that article and writing this post because that piece hit me hard. I fall into the “early part” of that age group; but I was certainly not “powerful” in 1989. (Nor am I now!) Speaking here only for myself, of course, I also vividly recall the post-fall of the Berlin Wall atmosphere: it fills my novels and is meant to do so.

Indeed on December 26, 1991, there even ceased to be a Soviet Union at all. Yes, there were also worries voiced by some about “instability.” However, a broad optimism about global affairs also appeared in Europe and America from 1989 through a good part of the decade that followed. (While important, “bread and butter” local issues like the recession the U.S. was in during 1991-1992, and which would help elect Bill Clinton president in 1992, were not seen by most as threatening “world peace.”)

For Americans in our twenties back then, our parents had had the Cold War, civil rights, and Vietnam. Our grandparents had had the Great Depression and World War II. Our great-grandparents had faced World War I (I’m told a member of one of my great-grandparents’ families had been sent off to Europe to fight in 1918 and never returned), and the widespread disillusionment that had followed it, sometimes intellectually styled “The Lost Generation.”

Those of us born in the 1960s and early 1970s hadn’t had anything so dramatic to define our youthful lives. We’d been blessed. We weren’t really “lost” at all.

It looked as if we could be the ones to capstone the century. The 20th century could make sense after all. We’d seal the deal.

Free Stock Photo: Russian flag.
Free Stock Photo: Russian flag.

Trying to convey the feel of any era to those who did not experience it is always among any historian’s or writer’s most daunting challenges. One example I might relate about ours. During the early 1990s, we (those in our twenties, in the U.S. especially) began encountering individual Russians in our universities and in our lives.

These were people we had never known before – from a country almost as alien to us as the Moon. Indeed, our parents and grandparents didn’t know them either. Few Soviets could travel freely, and we outsiders rarely could travel there except under the most controlled of circumstances.

The Russians of the Soviet Union hadn’t really been “people” to us. They had been mostly a frightening political abstraction (and James Bond bad guys). Or they were (as a means of channeling that fear) made fun of in fast-food ads:

So unsurprisingly as we actually met some, we were intrigued by them; and they by us. As their country opened up to Western Europe and America, as individuals they joined a world that was already becoming more global. Long before “social media,” many more of us than ever before were already getting to know each other better in person, international borders be damned:

Looking at Isabelle, Lena screeched, laughing, “Aristotle, you want trouble! If she tells him you want his mademoiselle, James will send a work crew to bury you in cement!”

Hearing Vail mentioned on the [TV] program, Isabelle asked, “I know Vail is where rich Americans like to ski. I would like to go there sometime. Is it like Courchevel?”

“I hear rich Russians love Vail also,” Maki commented. “They will probably buy it.”

Petros got into the act. “Lena’s father probably owns it already.”

Lena surprised Petros by abruptly throwing both her legs across his lap. He looked at her as if unsure what to do next. From her stretched out, half-reclined position, seconds later she launched another crumpled piece of paper at Maki, again hitting her.

Isabelle poked Maki also. “You’re lucky I am a sophisticated Frenchwoman and not a paper thrower Russian.”

Maki promised vengeance was coming. “Are you two ganging up on me? Astamirova, you want to be hit with a bowl of goulash!”

“Hasegawa,” Lena laughed, “that’s Hungarian!”

The fall of the Berlin Wall had been heavy with symbolism, and seemed to reflect – or encouraged – a global shift. Apartheid South Africa would soon be giving way. There were glimmers of agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Northern Ireland’s “troubles” remained, yet there would be negotiations there, too. There had been the Tiananmen Square protest in China (pre-the fall of the Wall, but at the same time the former Soviet Union and much of communist Europe had already been “teetering”), and although crushed it seemed that, as with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, in communist China it was only a matter of time, too….

Yes, there were setbacks and obscenities all around us still. The war in the former Yugoslavia would begin in 1991-1992; the genocide in Rwanda would occur in 1994; a group of terrorists would plant a car bomb in the parking garage of New York’s World Trade Center in 1993; Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in mid-1990 surprised us; but he was ejected in short order by a massive international coalition spearheaded by a U.S. military that had become so strong it hardly broke a sweat. (We learned where all those billions the Reagan administration had lavished on the military had gone.)

The likes of those seemed merely the inevitable ripples on the quieting lake. Europe’s new upwards trajectory seemed to be continuing. Surely it would show the rest of the world how it was supposed to be done?

Looking toward Notre-Dame. Paris, France. [Photo by me, 1995.]
Looking toward Notre-Dame. Paris, France. [Photo by me, 1995.]

Looking back, 1989 and the years right after resembled a gorgeous sunrise after a long period of misty gloom. But towards the later part of the 1990s ominous clouds returned. The Al Qaeda bombings (who were these people?) of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 were unfathomable. Russia was sliding into a brutal, bumbling war against secessionist Chechnya. Suddenly NATO was also bombing Kosovo. And more.

Midnight struck on September 11, 2001. The Soviet Union and its entire nuclear arsenal had never inflicted the damage on the West that those 19 Al Qaeda suicidal hijackers had managed in a few fateful minutes. Its mental toll has been incalculable as well; we all live crushed down by it today. Whatever remained of the “optimism” of a decade earlier died as well amidst the rubble of lower Manhattan.

For a few years in the early 1990s, dictators and fanatics had seemed on the run. We had begun to believe international conflicts could now always be managed calmly and resolved neatly across a negotiating table. There would be international tribunals, treaties, handshakes, and smiles, and promises kept.

Now we sit here in 2015 and the global mess almost defies comprehension. Russia is alarming and unpredictable in a way the Soviet Union never was. Much of the Middle East is aflame. Thousands are drowning trying to reach Europe. The appalling list goes on.

Screen capture of Twitter.
Screen capture of Twitter.

Guns seem drawn everywhere. How horribly mistaken, or naive, or heads in the clouds, or all three, we were. Based on how I recall I had felt in “1995,” we are currently not living through anything approaching what my generation had imagined “2015” could, or would, be.

On that not exactly happy note, try to have a good day, wherever you are in the world….

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