Friday, November 13, 2009

Regret Over Missing November 9, 1989: The Whinge of History?

Professor Niall Ferguson
(Image from Wikipedia)

Professor Niall Ferguson, a Harvard historian who knows a lot more about money than I do, also knows a lot more about history than I, for he knows that the fall of the Berlin Wall, celebrated for its twentieth anniversary this past week, was not the world-shaking event that it's commonly thought to be:
Was the fall of the Berlin Wall not really History with a capital H, but just news with a lower-case n -- a wonderful story for journalists but, 20 years on, actually not that big a deal? Could it be that what happened 10 years earlier, in the annus mirabilis 1979, was the real historical turning point?
Ferguson may sound as though he's merely raising the question here, but he's already persuaded himself, or he wouldn't be writing this article, "The Year the World Really Changed" (November 16, 2009), for Time Magazine.

So when did the world really change? Ten years earlier:
[T]he events of 10 years earlier -- in 1979 -- surely have a better claim to being truly historic. Just think what was happening in the world 30 years ago. The Soviets began their policy of self-destruction by invading Afghanistan. The British started the revival of free-market economics in the West by electing Margaret Thatcher. Deng Xiaoping set China on a new economic course by visiting the United States and seeing for himself what the free market can achieve. And, of course, the Iranians ushered in the new era of clashing civilizations by overthrowing the shah and proclaiming an Islamic Republic.
He has a point -- or, more precisely, four of them, which he emphatically expounds upon:
Today it is the Americans who now find themselves in Afghanistan, fighting the sons of the people they once armed. It is the free-market model of Thatcher and Reagan that seems to lie in ruins, in the wake of the biggest financial crisis since the Depression. Meanwhile, Deng's heirs are rapidly gaining on a sluggish American hyperpower, with Goldman Sachs forecasting that China's GDP could be the biggest in the world by 2027. Finally, the most terrifying legacy of 1979 remains the radical Islamism that inspires not only Iran's leaders, but also a complex and only partly visible network of terrorists and terrorist sympathizers around the world.
Ferguson is obviously a pessimist, intent on proving that the world is far worse off today than twenty years ago and that it is worse because of watershed events thirty years ago. But I'm willing to consider his position for we have something in common. Both of us missed the breaching of the Berlin Wall, a gap in our life experiences that I, for my part, have long regretted and that Ferguson, for his part, initially admits to having regretted:
What exactly was the historical significance of Nov. 9, 1989? Having spent much of the summer of that year in Berlin, I have long bitterly regretted that I was not there to join in the party the night the wall came down. I mean, what kind of an aspirant historian misses history being made?
But rather than wallow in the mire of bottomless regret, he constructs a ladder of interlocking counterfactual questions and climbs out. I should perhaps borrow his ladder and climb out as well.

I can then stop kicking myself for going to bed instead of to Berlin that Tuebingen night of November 9, 1989, for like Ferguson, I didn't miss history after all.

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At 4:46 PM, Anonymous Phil said...

...Ferguson is obviously a pessimist, intent on proving that the world is far worse off today than twenty years ago and that it is worse because of watershed events thirty years ago.....

Is the world today really worse? For starters, thirty years ago billions of people lived under communism. Today they are free of it.

Think of the advances in medicine and technology. What would Ferguson do without his laptop, for instance?

He who wishes to speak of how good the good old days were, should first turn off his air conditioner.

At 7:51 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well . . . I think that Ferguson believes that things are worse. I'd agree that some things are worse, some things better.

But we did have air conditioners 30 years ago. Well, perhaps not in the Ozarks . . .

Thanks for the comment.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:11 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

When I read this post, I recognized Ferguson, but couldn't put my finger on where. I'm rereading some old post of mind and realized I had used an excerpt from a PBS show he did on economics, The Ascent of Money.

I guess when you get to be my age, you wont regret, because you wont remember.

At 9:13 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I reckon I've got something to look forward to, Hathor.

Jeffery Hodges

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