Mythologizing 1979

Reviewing Christian Caryl’s Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, Michael Kimmage notes the way the book challenges our understanding of history and the present:

The book’s temporal frame is intended to provoke. Caryl accords the Paris or Berkeley or Prague of 1968 no lasting political stature. Nor is 1989 the year in which everything happens. Those years imply a Eurocentric emphasis, too rooted in the socialist dream or too disconnected from the salience of modern religion. Caryl argues that market capitalism and political Islam were the primary forces shaping the past 34 years. Embodying these forces were Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, and the Ayatollah Khomeini. The successive collapse of Western-style modernization and of Soviet-style communism in Afghanistan completes Caryl’s story.

By amalgamating distinct geographic areas and seemingly disparate historical forces, Caryl uncovers new and vivid questions. Why is it that an enthusiasm for the market arose almost simultaneously in countries as dissimilar as the United Kingdom and China? Why did this enthusiasm appear at the end of the 1970s? And why did secularism wear so thin at this time? Why was it that the Shah’s Iran could not restrain a religious movement that seemed, to the Shah and his American backers, to have come from nowhere? Why was it John Paul II who undid the Soviet empire? These rich questions are made richer by their presentation as pieces of the same historical puzzle. Strange Rebels implies that the puzzle fits together.

Jonathan Karl hesitates just a bit:

“Strange Rebels,” though engagingly written, is occasionally repetitive, and Mr. Caryl’s effort to craft a coherent narrative out of a series of disparate and chaotic events is at times a bit forced. But the reader comes away convinced that the forces set in motion, for good and for ill, in 1979 set the stage for the world we see today, in ways that were hard to see at the time. We’ll no doubt face another turning point (maybe we already have?), and when we do, there is no guarantee that it will be any more obvious than it was in 1979.