1. My first learning about apartheid in South Africa (circa 1986, when I was 16). I had heard The Specials' catchy song "Nelson Mandela" (and seen the video) years earlier, and the lyrics gave me some indication of what was going on -- that someone, somewhere had been unfairly imprisoned for a very long time -- but I really didn't know what they were singing about, what country it was taking place in and who Mandela was and why anyone would want to jail him. I was rather puzzled, but I had never heard anyone talk about Mandela in particular or South Africa in general, and so I was pretty frickin' shocked when I started reading about it when I was 16 or so. How the heck could people not be talking about this? How could they not have mentioned it in school? How could it not be on the news? How could our government condone it through inaction? I just couldn't believe it. It really changed the way I saw the world, because I'd always known there were injustices in the world ... but the fact that no one seemed to find an injustice this huge even worth mentioning was appalling. How could damn near everyone around me just not care?
3. The Chernobyl disaster (1986, when I was 16). One of the major boogeymen of my entire childhood was nuclear war, nuclear meltdown, nuclear fall-out, and everything that comes with it. I remember being deeply affected by tv movies like "The Day After" (1983) and "Testament" (1983), which vigorously fed my fears like the good propaganda they were. So Chernobyl was a bit like the ever-illusive monster under the bed finally reaching out and grabbing your foot, like suddenly the danger is no longer speculative: it's there. It frightened me terribly, as I couldn't imagine what was going to happen to all the people living in that huge affected area, or all the animals, or the agriculture, or the water, or pretty much everything. For a while, I watched and read all I could, but after a while I couldn't deal with it anymore and stopped. Too many stories about damage to the habitat and wildlife, especially, since they can't really evacuate the contaminated area like people can. Maybe I should look up what's happening in that area now, and maybe there might be more positive developments after 25 years. I'm sorta afraid to look, though.
4. The Tiananmen Square protests (1989, when I was 19). I remember watching some of this on tv (though not live, I don't think), and watching all these armed military guys aiming at the protesters, and I remember thinking that there was no way that any government would actually shoot peaceful protesters while the world was watching ... and then they started shooting. And all these young people were screaming, and many were dead, and it all happened while other international government leaders were perfectly aware -- it was all documented for posterity by the tv cameras -- and nothing came of it. Nothing. Some world leaders wagged their fingers and tsked, but there wasn't any real fall-out. You ever hear of this thing called "Favored Nation Status"? Yeah. Yeah, that thing China still had afterward and still has today. Fuck that. China certainly isn't favored by me.
5. The fall of the Berlin Wall (1990, when I was 19 or 20). I'd read and learned about pre-split Germany, of course, but the country had been seemingly permanently divided for my entire lifetime, and I'd always been led to believe (by Hollywood movies, by my history teachers in school, and/or by some other means I don't remember) that the relationship between the two resulting separate countries was exceedingly hostile, that desperate people wishing to escape that evil evil East Germany would be immediately shot by ever vigilant government soldiers as they tried to climb the barbed-wire-topped wall. So when the wall came down and the countries reunited, it was like the impossible had happened. What happened to the East German government being evil? What happened to the barbed wire? What happened to those trigger-happy border guards in their turrets? It was a joyous time for me, though, because this tremendous symbolic structure was being torn down, freeing some people, letting others visit family members they hadn't seen perhaps in decades, and uniting a country that had been severely wounded by its own government's long-ago actions. It was the kind of revolutionary change that gave me faith in the world, faith that we could move in a positive direction toward peace and unity, that people could come together in understanding and cooperation, even after trauma.
6. Nelson Mandela released from jail and subsequent election as President of South Africa (1990, 1994 -- when I was 20 to 24). A lot of the stuff on this list is bad, stuff that turned my worldview upside down in a bad way ... but this was the exact opposite. I was tremendously excited when Mandela was released (and in fact I went to hear him speak at the Oakland Coliseum later in 1990, when he was touring the world -- because who wouldn't want to do that after almost 30 years in a tiny prison cell?), but that didn't even remotely compare to how excited I was when the country held truly democratic elections (i.e., every adult person had a vote, and a black person's vote counted just as much as a white person's) and Mandela was elected president. In 4 years, he went from languishing in prison ... to president of the entire frickin' country. And a whole lot of white South Africans helped make this change possible and supported him in his efforts. It was one of the most amazing stories of triumph over racism, triumph over oppression that I'd ever heard. The day I heard he'd been elected may have been the most inspiring day of my entire life.
7. The dissolution of the U.S.S.R. (December 26, 1991, when I was 21). The U.S.S.R. had been THE Big Bad Villain pretty much my whole life at this point, the ultimate boogeyman. It was this huge, powerful, threatening, nuke-wielding force ... and then one day (pretty damn close to in one day, actually) ... poof! It was gone! The vanishing of the U.S.S.R. was the only thing in my life that prepared me in any way for September 11, 2001, as it had that same kind of sudden, instantaneous upside-down world effect on my brain, with everything changing in seemingly impossible ways before I could even really understand what was happening ... and then the world was different. Massively, globally different.
8. The Rodney King riots (April/May 1992, when I was 22). I actually wasn't in southern California when this went down in L.A., but of course I had tons of family and close friends not all that far away, and it was basically my hometown (given the fact that I was living in Scotland at the time), so I sought out news pretty desperately, though it was difficult to get on the BBC news and in the British papers. A friend from college (back in southern California) sent me much of the news, though. I couldn't believe what I was hearing, people attacking other people they didn't even know for no good reason except their skin was a different color. I saw Reginald Denny's attack (live footage of a white truck driver being pulled from his cab and beaten nearly to death while his young African-American attackers capered and mugged for their buddies and for the hovering helicopter news cameras) over and over again, and it made me just sob and sob every time. How could people do this to each other? They were literally bashing this guy's head in, and they didn't even know him! And they were acting like this was some kind of entertaining pastime, nearly killing this guy just for fun! I couldn't believe it. I still don't really believe it now. It's unreal. And yet ... though Reginald Denny ended up with very serious brain damage, the fact that he survived at all was thanks to some local guys (African-American local guys) who saw the attack live on tv and ran out there to help him. And maybe that's why I still find Denny's story compelling: in the end, it was a story of African-American men facing danger in order to save a white guy they didn't even know ... while a black/white race riot raged throughout the city around them. I choose to focus on the amazing bravery and kindness, rather than the cowardice and mindless cruelty.
9. Clinton's election (1993, when I was 23). There hadn't been a non-Republican president of the U.S. since I was a little kid (I was 10 when Reagan was first elected.), and so I'd just sort of unconsciously accepted that no one I agreed and/or identified with would ever be in any significant position of power in our government. The country had just been so incredibly Republican in the '80s, and I spent it all in the ultra-ultra-Republican enclave of Orange County, and so I'd just sorta gotten to feeling beaten down and alienated from pretty much the whole of our national government. I remember sitting in this little bar/cafe place (Bison Brewery, now long gone) in Berkeley on election night, and I was hanging out with Mike Wallace (a staunch Republican who I knew very distantly in high school), of all people, and we were watching the results come in on the tv, and even as things started to look promising, I never truly believed that Clinton might actually get elected. Because, you know, in my mental world at that time, it was just understood that Democrats don't get elected. And so when Clinton did, I felt this overwhelming joy, this feeling that finally one of "my people" had won something significant, that the country was no longer in the hands of someone I abhorred, that this was more "my" country than it ever had been before.
10. California's smoking ban (1995). I grew up just accepting that I had to breathe second-hand cigarette smoke darn close to every day. "Non-smoking" sections in restaurants were generally located only a few feet away from people smoking like chimneys in the "smoking" section, and so you were basically sharing the same air. I could get away from cigarette smoke to a certain extent by avoiding certain kinds of businesses, but if I wanted to go out dancing with my friends, I would just have to accept that I would come home with my hair, clothes, and skin absolutely reeking of smoke. When California passed this smoking ban, I thought it required such a drastic behavioral change on businesses' part (are bars really going to kick people out if they smoke like they always have?) that it most likely would not be enforced. I mean, there are lots of laws that aren't really enforced. But CA businesses have taken this very seriously, and I can now go to a restaurant or bar or dance club without getting much more than a whiff of someone else's cancerous habit (and that only when passing the smokers as they stand hunched against the wind, outcasts, smoking on the sidewalk in the open air and rain). I always felt like the entire culture was against me on this particular topic, and so I was really shocked when TPTB made a successful political effort to improve my individual life, and the lives of people like me.
11. Barack Obama elected President of the U.S. (November 4, 2008). When the campaigns first started narrowing down to only a few major candidates, I thought it was amazing and wonderful and encouraging that the American people were willing to even contemplate a black candidate, to take him seriously and listen to what he had to say and treat him as more than simply a member of a particular minority race ... but I definitely didn't think our country was ready to elect a black man President. I just thought that racism was too pervasive in our country, especially in the states with fewer big cities and less ethnic diversity, though I was heartened by how far Obama had gotten in the process and thought it boded well for the future. And then he kept going ... and going ... and going ... and by the time election night came around it was pretty obvious what was going to happen, but I still cried when the tv news anchors started calling it, and then when Obama and his wife and daughters came walking out on the stage at that huge party, and everyone in the audience there was crying with me, joyful crying, and Jesse Jackson was crying, and I just decided that I had been seriously underestimating my fellow Americans -- or, at least, a large percentage of them, because of course there are going to be bigots pretty much everywhere -- and it was a wonderful feeling to be proven wrong in such an incredible way.
What moments most affected your life? I'd be interested to know.