Ten Years After 1989: Marshall Berman

Ten Years After 1989: Marshall Berman

In 1989, my life was coming apart, and there wasn’t a thing I could do. It was hard to get through the day, and even harder to make it through the night. That year I really loved my TV set. I could turn it on at any weird hour—CNN, just come on line, felt specially made for me—and see what people around the world were doing. And in 1989 they were doing plenty! I could see students in Beijing, playing guitars, singing freedom songs, and marching around with their Statue of Liberty. I could see the Bucharest crowd, assembled by the state to back the Ceauescus, call instead for their downfall, and I could actually see the dictator on his balcony shake—CNN replayed that moment again and again. I could see Prague’s Velvet Revolution as it dawned. I could see the people of both sides of Berlin tear down their Wall. I could see the great modern dream of the Social Contract—of oppressed and alienated people coming together to create a new society—coming true in real places in real time.

Modern mass media played a crucial role in 1989: the people who were making history saw each other on television, and felt subliminal but real worldwide support. The media made it clear, too, how 1960s countercultural visions and sounds of freedom, so often pronounced dead, were alive and well around the world: Lou Reed and Frank Zappa as honored guests in Prague, Pink Floyd urged to play “The Wall” as the Wall came down, Bob Dylan’s and John Lennon’s songs sung in Beijing by kids who knew any day they could die. News television in 1989, especially on cable, suddenly found itself with blocks of air time to fill; it sought out “faces in the crowd”; without looking very hard, it found a multitude of ordinary people who had been out in the streets for days or weeks, who were sometimes silly but often smart and complex, ragged and drained but radiant, amazed that history was giving them a chance to act like human beings. What made 1989 so great is that it gave that chance to so many. Not to me: all year I was trapped in my cave. But it was a thrill to be able to see all those people, including so many who felt like kindred spirits, out in the sunlight. I could imagine that someday maybe I’d get a chance to act human, too.

Of course there was trouble soon, just as there was trouble after the people of Paris tore down the Bastille. In some ways it was the same trouble. The great French declaration of 1789 sanctifies various “inalienable rights of l’homme,” but also says that all power emanates from “la nation.” Before the end of the 1790s, it was clear that the idea of human rights had become a screen for French imperial ambitions and interests. No state, in the West or anywhere else, has resolved the dangerous ambiguities of 1789. The great popular movements of 1989 grew and thrived and brought people into the streets in the name of human rights, against communist regimes that travestied or simply crushed t...


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