Wednesday, December 21, 2011

1979: The year that yielded the modern world

By Rick Morris

NOTE: This column is the poster child for our new FDH Lounge eBook NOTHING IS OFF-TOPIC: THE BEST OF THE FDH LOUNGE MULTIMEDIA MAGAZINE. At 224 pages and with 126 columns by 10 columnists represented, it represents a half-decade of covering the world right here at this URL. This column specifically ties together a great many threads of The FDH Lounge, giving a true indication of our detailed way of looking at the world.

With the so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings, we have heard many comparisons lately to the momentous year of 1989, the one that saw authoritarianism toppled (Eastern Europe) and brutally reasserted (China). 1989 was a year of a great many world events and is regarded along with 1968 (Tet Offensive, MLK and RFK assassinations, riots, Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Richard Nixon’s presidential election) as one of the most earthshaking in the last century.

But there is one year that sits squarely between those two that had a fair amount of newsworthy events, but is not often regarded in the same breath historically. However, if we consider it an incubator of events yet to fully take shape in many aspects of society, it rates with the most significant ones for the past few centuries.

The year? 1979.

Anyone reading this is probably thinking back, not remembering a ton of historical events and dismissing this premise entirely. That’s fine, because it will make the impact of the events listed seem that much more important once the breathtaking list is fully digested.

A year such as this has to be divided into different categories of events, largely because I’m going to rank them for long-term impact and it’s frankly apples-and-oranges to compare sports to real-world events (much credit has to go to Wikipedia for helping me expand beyond my initial list).


1 The Iranian revolution and hostage crisis. 32 years later, we’re still feeling the shockwaves of the first dedicated, hostile-to-the-West Islamist state coming to power in a vital world region.

2 The “one child” policy is implemented in China. This one doesn’t seem huge, until you consider that experts have estimated that 400 million more people would have been born were it not for the evil of this selective abortion and infanticide.

3 The Soviets invade Afghanistan. The final collapse of d├ętente set the stage for the final, definitive era of confrontation between the Soviet Empire and the Free World.

4 Pope John Paul II visits his homeland of Poland. The final burst of oxygen necessary for Solidarity to strongly challenge Polish communism came from the pope’s wildly inspirational trip back home.

5 Margaret Thatcher brings the Conservatives to power in Britain. The year before her ideological soulmate Ronald Reagan won the US presidency (and at the time Reagan was starting his own historic rise to power), Thatcher established the other defining Western government of the 1980s.

6 Saddam Hussein consolidates power in Iraq. Culminating an 11-year rise, Saddam completed the consolidation of his control.

7 Three Mile Island changes the historical trajectory of American energy. Once regarded as the miracle cure for America’s energy needs, the chaotic events of a springtime week in Pennsylvania took nuclear energy from the perceived future to a downward spiral of fear and controversy.

8 The Sandinistas take over Nicaragua. After two decades of relative regional isolation, the Soviet client state of Cuba gained an ally for a full-blown expansion of the Cold War to Latin America.


1 Sony introduces a prototype for the compact disc. The digital technology revolution quietly took a leap the likes of which few could have imagined back in the day.

2 Michael Jackson becomes the solo star that so many believed he would become. Fulfilling the expectations that had been on his shoulders since the launch of the Jackson 5, Jacko took his initial (moonwalking?) steps towards becoming a global pop icon with the phenomenal smash “Off The Wall.”

3 The comedians’ strike at Mitzi Shore’s Comedy Store in LA. Author Rick Devlin proclaimed the bizarre scene (which ended the practice of unpaid “artists colony” performances) — which included the likes of Jay Leno and David Letterman walking a picket line — crucial in the national stand-up comedy boom of the 1980s.

4 McDonalds introduces the Happy Meal. A culinary masterpiece it wasn’t, but McDonalds invented the modern concepts of fast-food packaging and bundling with this kiddie delight.


1 ESPN hits the airwaves. The sports topics are the toughest to rank, but given the monolithic status of the “Worldwide Leader” in the decades to come, the launch of the first all-sports network has to take the top spot.

2 Nolan Ryan and Dave Parker become the first million-a-year athletes in American Big Four sports. It’s a matter of some dispute which one came first, but it’s indisputable that the escalating salaries that first took hold in this period changed pro sports like few other factors.

3 Bird and Magic clash in the NCAA hoops championship. In one fell swoop, these two megastars gave birth to the modern era of March Madness and revitalized an NBA that had fallen on brutally hard times. Additionally, elsewhere in college hoops, the Big East was formed this year.

4 Bill Walsh and Joe Montana come to San Francisco. The start of one of the game’s greatest dynasties, the first implementation of the West Coast offense with Walsh as a head coach and the roots of the vaunted Walsh “coaching tree” all trace back to developments not sufficiently appreciated at the time.

5 The WHA absorption puts major-league hockey under one roof again and brings in the “Great One.” Wayne Gretzky skated on NHL ice for the first time and it’s no understatement to say that the game would never be the same.

6 The Daytona 500 brawl sets the stage for the sport to go national. The Cale Yarborough-Donnie Allison fight following a thrilling finish got the attention of a bemused country and foreshadowed the sport’s coming breakout.

7 The “Miracle on Ice” team forms. Very quietly, Herb Brooks was beginning the work of shaping the greatest insurgent force in sports history.

8 The Yankees and Cowboys are unseated as world champions and enter a period of decline. Both of these signature franchises still had a few runs left in them, but each would encounter very dark times after being denied their returns to the top.

9 Seve Ballesteros starts his tenure as a global golf force with his memorable British Open win. The man who would go on to help Europe win multiple Ryder Cups (and make the event a modern sporting spectacle) after a decades-long drought took his place on the big stage with his breakthrough win.

10 The first “Breakfast at Wimbledon” telecast whets the appetite for the golden age of tennis in the 1980s. As with the aforementioned Daytona 500, the men’s title match at Centre Court was presented live in its entirety for the first time — and like the stock car race, it was a thriller that stoked further interest in a growing sport.

Are those big enough developments for you? While the year had its share of memorable events (Iran, Three Mile Island, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Bird-Magic, Thurman Munson’s plane crash, the Sid Vicious suicide, Disco Demolition Night), 1979 truly stands out for the ramifications of events that could not be fathomed at the time. When we contemplate the modern world that has evolved over the past few decades, so many of the defining elements trace themselves one way or another to the seemingly unremarkable 1979.

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