Thoughts on the Last Century and Millennium, Thoughts on the Next

 

* Secular millennialism had its disastrous successes (Communism, Nazism) and creative failures (Depression, Sixties). The forces of modernism (technological innovation, free-markets, human freedoms, secularism) and the forces of anti-modernism (community bonds and morality, religious commitments, conspiracy theory, technology in the service of order) have continued to clash over the past two centuries in what looks like ever-widening gyres. Post-modern exegetical exuberance has much to contribute to reducing the hostilities and increasing understanding between the two if it could find its way to becoming responsible, a way to leave behind the juvenile excitement of cultural terrorism. Historians have a major role to play in this process. It is to us to remember the past in ways that are both useful and honest. The ultimate iconoclastic act: to remember the many complex and often contradictory narratives well (as any parent can tell you).

* The World Wide Web will be to the 21st century what the printing press was to the 16th. First it will be the occasion of a wave of apocalyptic religious movements, the most successful of which will be remembered as either new religions, or great reforms. Second it will be the occasion of a new intellectual matrix that at once draws on, addresses the concerns of, and sidesteps academia, bringing fresh and often common-sense intelligence from the laity. The most powerful product of that latter dynamic in the 16th century, was the extraordinary marriage of science and technology we call "modern science." What the next century holds in communications technology is at once dazzling and daunting, and given our service economy, our communitarian needs, and our interpersonal creativity, the most important innovations may be social. We need a PhD program in webmastering, to prepare people to create and maintain sites that are at once imaginative and innovative, and, at the same time, responsible, honest, reliable. The best way to set standards is not by legislating but by meeting them.

* 2000-2033 will resemble some of the dynamics of 1000-1033 and 1500-1533 – new conversations, new social and interactive paradigms, new forms of political organization, many launched either by apocalyptic beliefs, or by the creative response to them. If we are lucky, the next century will hold the possibilities that the 11th did in terms of successful experimentation in new forms of sovereignty (urban and rural communes, new "textual" communities) and egalitarian religious expression (pilgrimage, apostolic spirituality). If the global millennium that is now dawning is to be one of civil society around the world, rather than one of a ever-greater and more rigid spilt between the haves above the social prime divider and the have-nots below, then we need to encourage such experiments in sovereignty on a wide variety of scales. And of course, they stand a better chance of success when the passion that drives them is informed by the lessons of history.

* Whatever happens – with Y2K, with globalization, with environmental degradation – the cultures where the elites and the commoners have the best, most fluid relations, where trust and cooperation are viable options between people below and above the prime divider – these will be the cultures that flourish in the new world of constant technologically- and socially-driven change. That was the lesson of the year 1000 where France, with her popular religious movements that embraced large numbers of the elite as well, rapidly outpaced Germany with her high apocalyptic political theater and her imperial "conversions" of pagan tribes. That will be the lesson again, but this time writ large, writ globally.

* In the Middle Ages the first half of this last millennium, when the Universities first came into being, "History" had no place in the curriculum. But in "modern" times, from the Renaissance throughout the second half of this millennium, the University has given "History" not only a place, but one of honor. In the next millennium, the university will begin to have departments of futurism. Any culture in which change is so fundamentally built-in, can ill afford not to develop such a specialty. Again, historians can play a key role in producing a field at once imaginative and responsible.

* The Chinese ideogram for crisis is a combination of danger and opportunity. Millennial moments, whether they are brought on by dates, or by the dynamics of a culture which has hit the limits of its prevailing paradigmatic approaches to problems and their solutions, are moments of such crisis. And the best way to handle the dangers may well be to take advantage of the opportunities, rather than sitting on one’s hands (crisis, after all, comes from the Greek "to decide", as in, "the moment at which one can no longer procrastinate"). Y2K is only the first of a whole series of future global and local threats, future global and local projects produced by procrastination. How we handle it, what we learn from it, will just be the first in a series of CSATs, Civil Society Aptitude Tests that will span the coming generations.

* "Doom" does not mean what our colloquial usage suggests: it is not catastrophe, but "judgment." Doomsday is Judgment Day, and our current usage suggests an archeology of bad conscience that any medievalist will tell you goes back over a thousand years. And while millennial moments have never proven to be the Last Judgment, they have always been a judgment. What will the next generations of historians have to say about how we handled ours? That’s up to us.

Richard Landes 12-20-99

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