Thursday, June 4, 2009
Twenty years ago my dad woke me up in the middle of the night. We were living in Missouri, alone together in a dirty brown trailer. The trailer park was called, with that picturesque necessity, Blueridge Estates. It had room for maybe twenty trailers, but contained only six, the empty space given over to weeds and empty beer cans. Point being: American poverty bleak. And he woke me up and he said, You've got to come see this.
If I asked him now why he did it I'm sure he'd say something blahblah freedom democracy Ronald Reagan. But that's not how it was at the time. At the time I doubt he had any clear idea why he was waking up his almost eleven year old son and dragging him into the living room to watch the Chinese Army put down the Tiananmen Square revolt. What he said at the time was, It's history, you've got to see it. All-day all-night news that enabled you to see such a thing as it was happening was still a relatively new thing back then. We were all pretty impressed that it even existed.
So I got up, and I watched an army murder nonviolent protesters in a public place in full view of many cameras and a worldwide audience.
It's odd to think back on that period in history. There were a few years there were there was something like a revolution on TV every day, happening all over the world. I don't have the chronology straight in my head, can't remember what order it all happened in. Poland and Germany and Czechoslovakia and China and Romania and Russia and so on. Some of them alarmingly easy, in Germany they just tore the fucking wall down and there it was. Some of them incomprehensibly tangled, Russia with the attempted coup, Gorbachev under house arrest, the parliament building under siege and then Yeltsin, drunk on top of a tank, fist in the air. Some of them were violent, as in Romania where they shot Nikolai Ceausescu and his wife live on national television. And China, which was just a goddamn plain and simple tragedy. My dad woke me up every time and we watched every one of them on CNN.
This was when I first realized that there was such a thing as the world, the first time I really understood the reality of other countries as actual places. Before this the world had been basically what I could see, the places I'd been. It was also the first time I understood the idea of a government. Needless to say, these were decisive experiences for me, a redneck kid from Nowhere, Indiana living in Nowhere, Missouri.
As time has passed and my dad has settled into his Missouri Republican persona, he has come increasingly to see (or to say he sees) these events as the heroic actions of Ronald Reagan in defense of freedom democracy blahblahblah. Well, I watched the Berlin Wall come down on live TV and Ronald Reagan was not there. A lot of ordinary Germans were, and I'd imagine that they'd all be surprised to learn that they were merely agents of the star-spangled Reagan will.
The legacy of these events has hardly been as pure, free and heroic as my dad would like to think, anyway. To my knowledge there was nothing like the modern sex trade in Eastern Europe before Communism fell, for example. China, of course, has totally changed since Tiananmen Square, morphing from a classic Stalinist police state into a classic capitalist police state with Communist design tropes. Not long ago I saw an episode of Frontline where a reporter showed some Chinese college students in their early twenties the picture of the man standing down the tanks the morning after the army cleared the Square. None of them had ever seen it before. None of them will ever see this post or any other writing about that event. China has secret policemen in Tiananmen Square today opening umbrellas in front of news cameras.
That Frontline episode was called Tank Man, it was a history of/attempt to find out what happened to that guy in the picture. My money's on dead that same day. I can't even think about that guy without getting weepy. Fuck Ronald Reagan. Give me the Tank Man. Attaching the word "hero" to a guy like Reagan, who was a mass murderer, strips it of all meaning. So what do you call the Tank Man?
I don't know, but I do know that my dad has spent the last twenty years wondering why his son turned out to be such a godless commie liberal blahblahblah. Hey dad: it was all the revolutions on CNN late at night. It was the goddamn Tank Man. I wanted to be that guy when I grew up. I still do.