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Protests in Iran reminiscent of China in ‘89

BY BEAU ELLIOT | JUNE 23, 2009 7:21 AM

Twenty years ago, I played a pretty mean shortstop.

(I still play a pretty mean shortstop — it’s just a lot more brutal to watch.)

Of course, 20 years ago I did a lot more than play shortstop, because, as it turns out in this life, you have to be very, very talented in order to do nothing but play shortstop. Think Alex Rodriguez.

(Actually, don’t think A-Rod. Even though he’s the best shortstop on the New York Yankees, he doesn’t make his living playing short, he makes his living playing third base. Life is like that more often than you might think. That’s why we have literature. And standup comics.)

1989 was quite the year — no doubt much more so than those of us who lived through it realized at the time. Though we did realize that something damn big was happening, even if we couldn’t quite grasp how big it was.

Poland held an election in June of that year, and Solidarity won. We didn’t know at the time, of course, but that was the beginning of the end for the Soviet-backed communist regimes in Eastern Europe, and, indeed, the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union itself.

Those of you too young to remember the Cold War have no idea how unimaginable it all was. For those of us still fairly young 20 years ago, the Soviet Union had always existed. The Iron Curtain had always existed. The Berlin Wall had always existed. They were facts of life.

And then they all, one after the other, cracked and disappeared under the swell of pro-democracy demonstrators (and, it must be noted, the refusal of Soviet leader Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev to use Soviet troops to prop up the Eastern European regimes). Czechoslovakia. Hungary. Romania. East Germany and the Berlin Wall. It was, to use my favorite simile, like watching the Sun come up in the West (which I owe to former NBA great Dr. J, Julius Erving).

I think of 1989 as I watch events unfold in Iran in the wake of what many are calling a rigged election. University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole and The Nation’s Robert Dreyfuss, independently, have noted a report by Chatham House, a UK think tank, that calls the Iranian vote totals seriously suspicious. As Dreyfuss writes, the report “ … shows, for instance, that in at least 10 provinces, in order to have amassed the vote totals given to him, [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad would have had to have won all the voters who backed him in 2005, all of the voters who, last time voted for the centrist candidacy of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, all of the voters who, last time, sat out the election and didn’t vote at all, and — on top of that — up to 44 percent of the voters who, in 2005, backed the reformist slate.”

Now, of course, there are many, many differences between the events of 1989 and what’s occurring in Iran today. But when I watch Iran, I am somewhat reminded of 1989’s other big event, the Chinese army crushing the pro-democracy demonstrations in the Tiananmen Square. (On the same day, June 4, that Solidarity won the Polish elections.)

I wouldn’t say I was obsessed with the pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing through the spring and early summer of ’89, but I was highly interested, because my then-girlfriend was in living Beijing, studying Chinese at what was then known as Peking University on a Ford Foundation grant.

And she attended the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and kept me updated through weekly letters (yeah, back in those Stone Age days, we wrote letters).

So my interest was more than a little bit piqued when the Chinese soldiers and tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square and, according to the rather hyper-frenetic TV news reports, chaos ensued. That started three days of more or less hell for me as I tried to phone my girlfriend. Which, like many things in life, such as playing shortstop for a living, proved impossible.

I wrote a little story about it, a fictionalized account. You may check it out by clicking here.


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