Maybe I’m getting old, but watching the protests in Iran sends me back. I’ve been thinking a lot about another explosion of protest in the face of a tyrannical government (and I see that I’m not alone in seeing the similarities).
It was 1989, and history seemed to be calling from Tiananmen Square. From our observation deck on the other side of the planet, many of us thought we could hear the world changing — the sounds of a new China being born.
We were wrong, of course. What we were actually hearing was the sound of the tanks rolling in.
The Chinese government’s crackdown, unleashed in early June, found me in of all places a casino in Las Vegas. What had started as a business trip, a deposition in Los Angeles, had metamorphosed into a mini-vacation. My connecting flight home was through Vegas: single and footloose if not fancy-free in those days, I figured why not stay for a couple of days and score a small fortune at the craps table.
Dumb idea. I hated doing Vegas alone. With no one to run with, the glitz quickly turned pale. It didn’t help, of course, that the tables were running colder than a Minnesota nudist camp in February. Almost instantaneously I dropped the full $17.34 (give or take) I‘d set aside for gambling, leaving me with little to do but wander the Strip morosely.
Then the tanks rolled inside China — and suddenly I was spending my Vegas “getaway” glued to a hotel television, my petty grievances consigned to the dustbin. It would be hard for me to describe how much the atrocities that followed affected me, or for that matter why they affected me as much as they did. It was, after all, hardly a new transaction. For the 10,000th time in human history, humanity’s natural yearning for freedom (be it a yearning that often competes with other less noble impulses) was being crushed, at least for the moment, by brute force.
Yet what stood out was the yearning itself and the courage it inspired — that unforgettable image of the lone man standing in front of the advancing tanks.
I guess I was a sucker for that sort of thing back then.
So I wonder, which will win out this time in Iran, the yearning of much (though far from all) of the population for at least somewhat more personal and political freedom or the raw power that opposes it — the dream or the stick? Are we hearing the beginning of an earthquake of change, or just the rumbling of the crackdown to come?
Come what may, the eventual outcome is likely to disappoint Western eyes. The Mullahs remain extraordinarily powerful, and the current protests aren’t directly attacking that power (although such things can sometimes take on a life of their own). And let’s face facts: Mir Mirhossein Mousavi is no Thomas Jefferson. The real question, of course, is whether we’re seeing the seeds of something bigger — something that will grow in the years ahead.
That was the solace I found all those years ago, in Las Vegas, while thinking about the idealistic young people being crushed in China. It seemed to me that there was one certainty in what was happening, and it was that someday a monument would be built in Tiananmen Square honoring the memory of the protesters. The future, I believed, must surely belong to the yearnings.
It’s been 20-years and that day still seems far away in China. But I still believe.
And, yes, assuming the United States doesn’t stupidly play into the theocrats hands by bombing, I also believe that greater freedom lays ahead for the people of Iran, though the form it takes will meet their conception of freedom and not necessarily ours.
I guess I’m still a sucker for that sort of thing, even after all these years.