(Originally published by The Sacramento Gazette on 12/31/99)
As the days and now the hours remaining in 1999 dwindle down to but a precious few, one with an eye to history is likely to be perplexed, especially if one’s editor has requested an appropriate column marking the occasion. The difficulty begins with the question of on just which occasion one is focused. Are we about to celebrate the end of the millennium, the end of the century, the end of the decade or just the end of the year? Depending on your perspective, any or all of the above are about to occur.
Okay, let me say at the outset, that I am aware of the millennial fever that seems to be sweeping the nation, if not the world. The difference between 1999 and 2000 is much more than one year, at least in the eyes of those who aren’t troubled by math. However, since there was likely never a year “0,” the logical deficiency inherent in a premature millennial ascension is apparent, and some purists will insist that only with the actual completion of the second thousand years (anno Domini) can we really celebrate the beginning of the new millennium.
Others who spend time contemplating such issues are more facile in their thinking. Stephen Jay Gould, the brilliant historian/essayist, has simplified the problem by suggesting that we should all just accept that the first millennium was only 999 years long. Yes, that would tend to solve everyone’s concerns, I’m sure.
I am not such a traditionalist that I harbor strong resentments against those who would dare to push the millennial envelope by a full year, but I tend to think we are doing a disservice to the only century we have ever known if we ignore this opportunity to consider, however briefly, what we (and our parents and their parents) have witnessed in the hundred years just now ending. (I’ll ignore, in the belief that no one wants me to raise it, the thought that the same argument for postponing new-millennium discussions should also apply to new-century, and even to new-decade, considerations as well.) And too, I will readily admit that I have had a hard time adjusting to this idea of a new millennium. So give me another year, and maybe then I’ll be able to provide some coherent thoughts on the passing of a thousand years.
In the meantime, I’m more than happy to review the events and developments that have made living in the twentieth century an adventure as great as any our species has probably ever known. Others, indeed many others, have performed and are performing this same exercise, but each of us has our own perspective and our own sense of history. Here is mine.
It was, first and foremost, a century in which the standard of living for the average American, and quite probably the average citizen of every land in the world, improved immeasurably. To cite just a few examples, in 1900 the most common mode of transportation involved horses, the most probable means of communication was by what we now refer to as snail mail, health concerns were the province of a family doctor who may not have had much in his (never her) medicine bag other than laudanum and castor oil, and a child’s education, usually ending somewhere around the age of 15 or 16, consisted of little more than the three R’s (readin’, ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic).
It was also the case in 1900 that wars were still very much an accepted, if not exalted, part of everyday life. The Spanish-American War, a silly jingoistic result of yellow journalism, was just winding down as the century began. Overseas, the Boer War (in South Africa) and the Boxer Rebellion (in China) were in full bloom and much of Europe was in a state of unrest as nations jockeyed for position before the breakout of what would become World War I. Wars were fought to gain or protect land, to secure economic advantages, to resolve religious or cultural differences or, sometimes, solely to provide a ready means for ruling despots to express their hostility for each other. The cost in human lives in these conflicts was less severe, if that is the right phrase, because the nature of weaponry was still somewhat archaic. Soldiers were only killed singly or perhaps, with the advent of the Gatling gun, in groups of up to ten or so, but bombs and other munitions capable of wiping out single regiments in one fell swoop were still undeveloped. Hence, war existed as a common strategic device, with service and sacrifice heralded as the ultimate patriotic act.
There was a relative paucity of information available in 1900, there being no radio, no television and, of course, no Internet at the last turn of the century. Instead, what news there was came from newspapers which gathered their information from wire services (back then the term applied literally) which were fed by the few field reporters who happened to be on the scene of a story. The telegraph (remember Morse Code?) functioned as the principal means of passing information instantaneously from one community to another, but it was hardly the most efficient of carriers, especially in smaller communities where the sole office might be staffed by one or two individuals who may or may not be available when they were needed.
With news rarely available in real time or in great detail, the waging of war likely was left to a circle of leaders in each nation, often without regard for public opinion. That these wars brought death and destruction to the populace may have been regarded in much the same way as were the epidemics that often claimed many lives. And those plagues, as was the case with the great flu epidemic of 1918 (resulting in 20 million deaths), were often far more destructive than any war.
Life, it seems fair to say, was harder, much harder, in 1900 than it is today. People generally lived shorter lives, working longer and more arduously for less comfort and basic sustenance. Such leisure time as there may have been probably wasn’t appreciated as such, and the images we have now of idyllic scenes with couples strolling hand-in-hand in pastoral settings were most likely the rare exception rather than the rule. It was, in other words, a crueler world with far more ignorance and far less civility than we enjoy today, and in making that statement, I do not intend to slight the horrors (crime and terrorism, AIDS, heart disease and cancer, pollution and global warming) that have become so much more a part of life today than they were one hundred years ago. If we have become a more advanced civilization, it has, most assuredly, not been on a straight line progression.
The century has seen far too many momentous events to attempt to recount even the most extraordinary of them. Here, though, are a few that led to the changes we now know have occurred in the last hundred years.
In a poll conducted by a national magazine this year, Americans picked the dropping of the first atomic bomb as the top news story of the century. That single event has my vote as well, since it not only had the immediate effect of ending the second world war but also introduced the world, at least as we know it, to the possibility of its own destruction. And, I would submit, we have never been the same. The Bomb is probably the only thing that kept the West from waging World War III against a fragile alliance of the Soviet Union and China. The threat of nuclear annihilation has also created a perceptible, if gradual, evolution away from warfare as the means of resolving disputes between nations. True, we still have wars, but the reality is that we are more inclined to seek peaceful, or at least non-hostile, resolutions than we were before the development of nuclear weaponry.
The second most significant development in the century has to be the explosion of our information media, beginning with the first radio broadcasts, continuing with the advent of television, accelerating with the introduction of cable systems and now, in the last decade, culminating with the invention (if that is the right word) of the Internet. No longer can anything happen in an information vacuum. Governments’ actions, businesses’ decisions and all manner of human affairs are now as likely to be known, or at least knowable, as are the schedule of appointments one has for a day. In fact, the World Wide Web is as dramatic an advance in civilization as the printing press was in the 1400’s, and one can only begin to ponder (as I will next week) the implications of this most dramatic advance in the development of human intelligence.
The world in the twentieth century struggled mightily over the “ism” issue, and there are some who consider the end of the Cold War as the most significant event of the past hundred years. The emergence of capitalism as the best model for economic growth and prosperity is undoubtedly a major result of the twentieth century. As we moved from a largely agrarian society at the beginning of the century to and through an era of industrialization into what is now clearly the dawning of a technological age, systems that encourage entrepreneurial ventures are assuredly preferable to those that seek to “level the playing field.” That this realization has become accepted in even the former bastions of socialism (those Marxists who vowed to “bury us”) seems to coincide with our greater understanding of human nature. True, we are innately selfish, interested primarily in our own welfare, but we are not only selfish, and it is perhaps our desire to know, to create and to achieve to which capitalism most appeals.
Likewise, there seems to have been a veritable re-birth of spiritualism in the twentieth century. At the same time that religious scholars in mid-century were exploring the possibility that God was indeed dead, others were developing New Age methods for seeking a link to their spiritual side. Some of these methods, as in the case of Jim Jones’ Jonestown, David Koresh’s Waco and the followers of Heaven’s Gate, have gone beyond the pale if you will, but others seem intent on discovering on a very personal level a relationship with something that exists outside of and beyond themselves. And it seems that whether that something is called God or not, it is most certainly not dead as the century comes to a close.
Human rights have flourished in the twentieth century. In the U.S. women have achieved much, as have other minorities. It was the century of pioneers like Betty Friedan and Jackie Robinson and a south that revered the Ku Klux Klan in 1900 now accepts racial integration in all but its most backward communities. Ethnic and racial homogeneity is ever-more the emerging trend, and one senses that the current generation of under 20’s lacks much interest, let alone attachment, to old-country identities.
Elsewhere in the world, old racial and ethnic hatreds continue to flourish, as we have seen most recently in the Balkans. Much of Africa seems lost in tribal and ethnic hostility. Parts of Asia too are still rife with these problems, but less so, one perceives, than was probably the case a hundred years ago. Here too, perhaps the spread of wealth and information (or at least the awareness that these things are available) is opening new doors to acceptance and reconciliation.
And so it goes. A century ends, another begins. Time marches on. Next week, in part two of this essay, I’ll look ahead and suggest some possible developments that will likely make the year 2100 as unrecognizable to us as the year 2000 undoubtedly would have been to those alive at the dawn of the twentieth century.