1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century

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Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schachter: I'm Aaron Schachter and this is The World. The funeral for Margaret Thatcher took place in London today. The ceremony for the former British Prime Minister was almost at the level of a state funeral, but not quite. And as expected, her service attracted some protesters along the route. Journalists fond of clichÃ? ©s might say this was the end of an era. Itââ?¬â?¢s not, but a new book argues that the year of her election, 1979, was one of those epic turning points in history, like 1789, the year of the French Revolution. The book is called ââ?¬Å?Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century," and the author, Christian Caryl, joins us now. Christian, turning point in history seems a pretty strong claim. What makes 1979 so special?

Christian Caryl: I would argue that 1979 is special precisely because it's a really big turning point. It may not have seemed so obvious at the time, but when you consider the things that happened, I think it qualifies. My book covers several stories: the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, you mentioned Mrs. Thatcher. I also write about Pope John Paul's first visit as Pope to Poland and the start of economic reform in China. And I think if you take all of these things together, you can see that this really marks a very important turning point in twentieth-century history. I would argue that it marks the beginning of a kind of conservative era in global politics that's driven by markets on the one hand, and religion on the other.

Schachter: Since she was laid to rest today, we should spend a minute on Margaret Thatcher. How central was she to making 1979 a turning point?

Caryl: Well, of course, as we all know her legacy is still deeply divisive. That she changed Britain fundamentally, I think about that there can be no dispute. She played an enormous role. Britain today is a fundamentally different place. She played a very, very important role when it came to changing the way that the world talked and thought about economic issues. And this market-oriented world that we live in today I think owes quite a deal to her.

Schachter: Now, the remarkable thing, as you alluded to, is how unremarkable 1979 seems. There are years when one great thing happened and we remember those years. But so much went on in this one little year.

Caryl: That's exactly right. I think the start of Chinese economic reform is a great example, because at the time we understood that something was going on in China that was kind of important. You know, Mao had died, this new leader Deng Xiaoping had come to power and he clearly wanted to open China up and do a lot of things differently. But there was just no way you could have foreseen how dramatic the consequences of his economic reform plan were going to be. No one would have dared to think of China becoming a capitalist country.

Schachter: Now, with all due respect, Christian Caryl, how is it that you're the only guy who put this all together and made 1979 the big year that it is?

Caryl: That's a good question. I don't know the answer to that question.

Schachter: Well, in your book, so many things happened in that year, it seems only natural for people to put them together.

Caryl: Yeah, well, I think some other people have observed this. The historian Niall Ferguson, with whom I don't always agree about everything, has noted that 1979 was a very important year. Actually one of the people who influenced me most while I was writing this book was Karen Armstrong, the historian of religion, who pointed out that 1979 was not only the year that the Islamic revolution took place in Iran, but it was also the year when the Moral Majority was formed in the United States, right, the evangelical political action group that helped to elect Ronald Reagan in 1980. And it was also the year that one of the first religious parties was elected to parliament in Israel. So it's very striking when you consider that this revival of religion was not happening only in the Islamic world but in other parts of the world as well. And those are one of the things that got me very interested in the subject. So perhaps I put together a couple of things that other people noticed, but I don't think I'm the first one to come across this.

Schachter: Christian, we're wondering if there's a particular song you can think of that you might recommend from 1979 that you think sort of personifies that year.

Caryl: I think it would be Blondie.

Schachter: Which one?

Caryl: I think it's Heart of Glass, if I'm not mistaken that was 1979.

Schachter: And why that one?

Caryl: Just, it's great. It's the New Romantics, you know, it has that feel, that sort of new-wavey, post-punk feel, which is exactly the feeling of the period. And the other one you could take, if you really want to go for a, you know, because we're talking about religion, you could take The Bright Side of Life from Monty Python's Life of Brian, because that's a 1979 movie. But go with, I like Blondie a lot, and I think The Clash, I think their big, i think London Calling came out in 1979, and of course that's a great anthem for the Thatcherite period, this kind of gritty, confrontational political stuff that was in the air.

Schachter: Christian Caryl is author of ââ?¬Å?Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century." Christian, thank you for joining us.

Caryl: Thank you, Aaron.