In January 1990, various critics in the LA Weekly wrote about “the person, event, or thing that blew them away—for good or bad—in the last 10 years.” Here’s what G.M. submitted.
“That couldn’t happen here go the reassuring passwords,” Howard Hampton wrote on the U.S. press coverage of the events in Tiananmen Square: “the massacre or the uprising?” Our tyranny is bland, hard to find, hard to fight, fragmented, a morass of seemingly trivial, private humiliations and insults, nobody else’s business, no public speech for them. In the United Kingdom, the ruler privatizes industry and water; here the very ideas on which the country was founded—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—are privatized. We look in wonder, or we turn away as if from a conversation in a foreign language, at the story now being told on the other side of the world: in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Romania, the Soviet Union. But it’s not our story. As cultures these places may be much older than ours, but as countries, and as political entities, they are far younger, jerrybuilt out of a tyranny that was never bland, that never possessed a shred of the of-the-people legitimacy our kind of tyranny still feeds on. So these places are re-inventing themselves out of immediate desire and distant memory, the “mystic chords of memory” Lincoln spoke of; they are making history. We aren’t; we’re eating what history we’ve already made, the history that is no longer ours to make. “The Declaration of Independence makes a difference,” Herman Melville wrote; he was talking about the freedom of the mind, the freedom to invent, to create, to say what one meant without blinkers or even conscience. But today that difference has passed to other places.
There is no question that our example, as a people and as a polity, inspired those who in our time make history, from Tiananmen demonstrators justifying themselves with images of Woodstock to the constitutional details of the agreements being hammered out between Communists and New Forums as I write. But our example, put into practice, come to life and on the move, is now a foreign language. It’s a conversation that we, as a polity, as a society, as a country, can’t understand, and, finally, none of our business. The last decade promoted a nihilism we live out as if it were real life, which is to say that we are now a backwater, happy as a pig in shit and precisely as capable of saying what we mean.
L.A. Weekly, January 11, 1990