Last night, as we were half-talking while we were falling asleep, I asked Chris what his earliest memories of politics were. He stopped, and started figuring out in which grade he probably learned about governments. I interrupted him and said no. I meant world events. When did he first notice what was going on in the world around him, politically speaking?
It turned out that he had mostly known about Saskatchewan's premier, and didn't really comprehend what was going on in the world around him until he was older.* (On the other hand, he doesn't remember not knowing about the atomic model, and he knows that he explained to someone how a nuclear submarine worked, back when he was in grade 3.)
I asked him this because last night I was finishing up yet another sweeping history book that came all the way up to the recent past, and I started coming to terms with my childhood remembrances of these world events, as I was forced to compare them with the written record.
And it has occurred to me that, for a child born at the end of 1980, I sure knew a lot of what was going on around me through the 1980s.** The first federal election I remember was 1988. My parents encouraged us kids to pick a favourite and cheer for him through the election. We watched the big debate between Brian Mulroney, John Turner and Ed Broadbent. I chose Mulroney (I confess), Janny chose Turner, and my brother cheered for Broadbent. I won, and was confused when I read a political cartoon that depicted the Prime Minister as a pig, waving a flag that read "Four More Years!" (My understanding of the world only went so far.)
I know that the reason why I cheered for the incumbent was that I had a pretty static understanding of the world. Mulroney, Reagan, Thatcher, Gorbachev, the Berlin Wall and the USSR just were. And they loomed pretty largely in my worldview. It's probably because we watched and listened to a lot of political satire on the CBC, because we watched the news a lot, and because I liked political cartoons so much.
I'm reminded of this as I read account after account of historians having been so suprised in 1989, and again in 1991, as everything that they thought was permanent fell away. I'm also reminded of this as I read Paul Kennedy's 1987 exhortation not to hope for the dissolution of the Soviet Union, even as it appeared to be in decline, because dissolution could only happen in the midst of a bloody war. As I read these, I find myself remembering watching TV as the Wall came down, amazed that it could really happen. And I remember reading a political cartoon in 1991, which depicted Gorbachev at a Lost and Found station (trying to find his lost country); I remember feeling a little sad and bewildered that something that seemed so permanent on my map and in my mind had now changed.
(On the other hand, I feel that same sadness and bewilderment when I read about political leaders now trying to recreate Cold War politics all over the globe. There's this part of me that wonders: didn't we leave this behind us when I was a child?)
* I'm not saying he wasn't exposed to current events as a child. He probably was. He also doesn't remember the names of any of his elementary school teachers, but can tell you in detail about the cool experiments he did, and can pretty much draw a map of every town where he ever lived. He's just like that.
** I apologise to anyone who's older than me, who now feels even older by that realisation.