There are banner years. Years that make all the difference. Years that somehow count more than others and, according to journalist, scholar and all around brainy guy Christian Caryl, 1979 was the nexus. “History has a way of playing tricks,” Caryl writes in Strange Rebels (Basic Books), pretty much undoing everything anyone ever learned in grade 11. “As events unfold around us, we interpret what we see through the prism of precedent, and then are amazed when it turns out that our actions never play out the same way twice.”
Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, is mind-blowing stuff. Writes Caryl:
Rarely has the oats proven a more deceptive guide to the future than at the end of the eighth decade of the twentieth century. If youtake a certain pleasure in seeing the experts confounded and the pundits dismayed, then 1979 is sure to hold your interest.
As Caryl points out, in 1979, after 37 years in his comfy chair, the Shah of Iran “got on a plane and left his country, never to return.” Also in 1979, Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister just a few months after Chinese Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping had “heaved himself into the top job” in China. These and other things combined to make an irreversible difference. As Caryl tells us, “Like it or not, we of the twenty-first century still live in the shadow of 1979.”
Strange Rebels is both dense and staggeringly eye-opening. It is no one’s idea of a beach read, but take it with you anyway. It’s possible that only surf and sand will be able to quell your pulse as you follow the connections Caryl brings his readers to. This is a deeply thoughtful and thought-provoking book. ◊
Jones Atwater is a contributing editor to January Magazine.