A New Year’s Blast From the Past

Happy 2003, kids!

To celebrate, I’m posting something I wrote on this day three years ago, when we were all looking around and realizing that Y2K hadn’t melted everything down after all. If you were a reader of my old Web site you’ve probably already seen this, but I’m proud of it, I think it still holds up; so, well, tough 🙂 And the big news is that I’m presenting this essay under a new, liberal Creative Commons license, to make it easy for you to pass around and reuse as you see fit. (All you’re required to do is attribute the original version to me.)

And so, without further ado, I present 20th Century Man, a meditation on time, people, and how the two fit together.

20th Century Man, by Jason Lefkowitz

I’m writing these words on January 1, 2000, and for now, anyway, it looks as if the threatened computer apocalypse has been averted. The dreaded Y2K problem hasn’t yet reared its ugly head — our lights are still on, our water still runs, our phones still work; or at least they do where I am (your mileage may, of course, vary). The U.S. alone has spent over $300 billion to overcome the Y2K challenge, and it looks now like that was money well spent. There’s another kind of Y2K challenge, though — a challenge of the mind and spirit — and it’s way too early to tell whether we’ll meet that challenge with equal alacrity.

Much has been made of this date as the end of the 20th Century, as if somehow, when we wake in the morning, our lives will be radically transformed into something streamlined and futuristic. The plain fact is that this is balderdash. We will wake in the morning to a 21st Century world that looks an awful lot like the world of the 20th, with no George Jetson gizmos handy other than those we’ve already bought and paid for. This in itself may lead to a kind of millennial malaise, as the people of the world look around the landscape of the future that is now and mutter to themselves, “That’s it?”

It’s important to remember, though, that just because the present isn’t going to be different tomorrow doesn’t mean that it will be the same forever. We may have crossed over into the 21st Century of the calendar, but in the long run that means very little. What matters is when we cross over into the 21st Century of the mind, when the world that we’ve known and lived in all our lives breathes its last, and a new world rises from the ashes of the old. That date has absolutely nothing to do with the flipping of the page on a calendar, and in the long run it will have far more significance to our lives.

To understand what I mean, consider the 20th Century. Chronologically speaking, it was born on January 1, 1900 (or, if you want to be pedantic about something as arbitrary and basically meaningless as calendar dating, January 1, 1901), but the people thronging to New Year’s parties on December 31, 1899 were not 20th Century people. Their outlook was fundamentally different from our own — they lived in a world where social classes were stark and impermeable, where technology was an intriguing sideshow populated with wild-haired and socially marginalized tinkerers, where all the important decisions of state were made in London and Paris, with the rest of the world sitting at the knee of the globe-spanning empires of Europe. They lived in a world where wars were limited and economic might was tied to steam, steel and oil. They lived in a world that was fundamentally foreign to the one we occupy today.

If, around 1901, you’d asked those people from the foreign land of the past what century they lived in, they’d have answered without hesitation that they were proud citizens of the 20th Century. But they would have been wrong — because even though the calendar said 20th Century, the face of the world still said 19th. Their habits of life, their perceptions of right and wrong, strong and weak, up and down, had not changed. The only thing that had changed was the date on the calendar.

Historians generally agree that it took 14 more years for their 19th Century world to truly die. It met its end on the blood-soaked, apocalyptic battlefields of World War I, in the carnage of Verdun and the Somme. It was chewed to death by the relentless fire spitting from thousands of machine guns, chewed up by the same teeth that swallowed a generation of European youth and shattered forever the perception that Europe, wise and strong, was the center of the universe. When the survivors straggled out of the abattoirs of Flanders and Russia, their way of thinking had been forever altered. They had seen first-hand the destructive power made possible by the Industrial Revolution that had been at the heart of the 19th Century. They had seen their comrades lined up into the neat rows that characterized 19th Century military discipline by commanders who didn’t understand that the world had changed, that the machines finally had more power than the men. They had seen all this with their own eyes and brought it home with them, into a world which was suddenly brand new, where all the old authorities had been discredited — if they knew what they were doing, how could they have let such a war take place? — and where a thousand new voices were clamoring to take their place.

Will it take something equally calamitous to well and truly ring down the curtain on the 20th Century and propel us forward into the 21st? Perhaps — but if so, the consequences are almost too horrifying to consider. A global war between the leading powers of the last part of the 20th Century would almost certainly be a disaster for humankind, with nuclear weaponry a part of the combatants’ arsenals. It is possible to think up other events that could serve to discredit the institutions of the 20th Century — a global economic depression or killer plague being two of the more obvious possibilities — and none of them are appetizing in the slightest.

But even if the change takes place gracefully, if the old order comes tumbling down slowly and peacefully, dying in its sleep, there will be consequences. These consequences will fall heavily on the shoulders of my generation — the twentysomethings of today. If history is our guide, we can presume that, when the change happens, when the old world dies and the new one is born, we will be in the most awkward position imaginable; having come of age in the old world, we will be in our middle age marooned in the 20th Century, even as our parents and our children adapt to the new realities of the 21st.

It happened when the 19th Century died, after all. Their contemporaries called them the Lost Generation — young people who’d been fed into the hungry maw of the war machine and came out disillusioned and broken, their faith in all the things that made up their world forever discarded. Their elders, their parents and grandparents, felt the same things, but they were at a place in their lives when they expected to see the world race ahead without them. They were happy to fade into obsolescence along with the institutions they had built. But these younger people, these Lost, weren’t happy to do this — they were still vital and wanting to be a part of the world. Unfortunately for them, though, they weren’t quite young enough — having grown up in the old regime, attended its schools and churches, had their consciousness shaped by it for twenty years or more, they couldn’t quite shake it, couldn’t make the leap into the 20th Century. The world that was born in the 1920s and 30s, the world of Franklin Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler and Albert Einstein, of tanks and moon rockets and computers, wasn’t comfortable for them either; they shied away from the new faith in the Mass Man and the machines he used to amplify his mind and muscles. They grew old shunned and derided by both their elders and their children, unable to find a place in time where they belonged.

It’s not inconceivable that this could be our fate as well, we who are coming of age as the 20th Century starts to breathe its last. If, in twenty years, the world were to be engulfed in the conflagration of atomic war, and out of this war were to come a movement to dissolve nation-states in favor of a peacefully unified Earth, could we do it? Could we surrender our identity as Americans, or Chinese, or Russians, when our whole lives have drawn their meaning from this identification? If a new Black Death were to sweep the earth, striking down billions and leading to a movement for the complete abrogation of privacy rights to forever safeguard public health, could we accept it? Could we give up the individualist values we hold sacred to fit the realities of a new world? Our children could — they will have grown up knowing only the new world, and would see our old nationalisms or declarations of individual rights as hopelessly antique. Our parents could — they will take the old values with them as they recede alongside them into the shadowy spaces of memory. But could we?

This is the cruel paradox that we may face. The 20th Century has been an age of unprecedented accomplishment for humankind. It has also been extraordinarily violent and murderous. For better or worse, though, we are its children. More than that, we may well be its last children, the last to grow to mature adulthood in the old regime. We are as much of it as it is of us; we have it in our brains and bones as much as we have our families and nationalities. As much as I am a Lefkowitz man or an American man, I am a 20th Century man, a man whose outlook is based on the idea of progress through technology and industry, on the principle that man is both clever enough to devise powerful tools to remake the world and wise enough to wield these tools safely and judiciously. This way of thinking put men on the moon and incinerated entire cities whole; it made some people wealthier and more comfortable than humans have ever been and fed others headfirst into the interlocking teeth of the machinery that drives our prosperity.

Whether you think that this outlook is a good one or not, it’s inside you too; we’ve all been steeping in it since the old order died, so many decades ago. But someday, not too far away, this outlook will seem as hopelessly outdated as the idea that some men are born noble and should rule over the rest, or that all human progress springs from the divine gifts of a host of squabbling gods and goddesses. When that day comes, we, the 20th Century men and women, will face our greatest challenge: the challenge of adapting to the new world that fate will present to us. If we are wise and fortunate, we can distill the best of the 20th Century — the genius of our invention, the democratizing impulse that has swept the globe — and present it as a gift to our children, to be incorporated into whatever their new world becomes. If we are not so wise, if we cling desperately to the worst parts of our time — our violence and hate, our prides and prejudices — we will be condemned and discarded as relics of history, no more relevant to modern life than a plumed knight in armor is today.

All that is certain is that someday the change will come, the 21st Century of the mind will catch up with the 21st Century of the calendar; and we will straddle the fault line, we will be the link between the familiar country of the past and the undiscovered country of the future. With luck, we’ll make the best of this responsibility and send off the 20th Century, our home, with grace and dignity, making way for a new and better world to come. When our children start to build this world, their new home, they will expect no less.

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