Countdown 2000

1000 days until the year 2000.

How should one punctuate this factoid? With a period? An exclamation point? A question mark? A groan at still another media hype of a silly (and misdated) phenomenon which, more than two years before its arrival has already outstayed its welcome? The tribulations of millennial hype have surely begun in earnest and, thank the Lord, they'll be over in little over 1000 days.

But there are other folks about: the religious cases go from obvious to surprising -- Christians of all stripes who really believe that 2000 will mark either the Rapture or the Parousia; Muslims who believe that Christians and Jews plan to build the Third Temple in 2000 (watch for the Temple Mount Faithful demonstration in Jerusalem this Passover, April 22); even some Jews who think that Christianity was only given 2000 years of dominion over their people; and now a sect of Hindus who anticipate the beginning of the Kalki avatar, the final avatar of Vishnu who will become the world ruler in 1999-2003. Beyond the denominational, we have readers of Nostradamus' prophecies, Aquarian New Agers, Hopi Prophets and UFOlogists, even, CEO's, government officials, and all those racing against the clock to render our computers "millennium compliant" before 2000. For them 1000 days is not time enough: they have screen savers that count the seconds remaining!

Much of this chronological apocalyptic is old hat (although even that may be news to most of us). Hopes for an imminent transformation of the world on a specific date go back at least as far as the pre-dawn of the Christian era (ca.-200 C.E.) and litter the landscape of European history with moments, movements, even generations, in a state of wild semiotic arousal, where every event is a sign, a portent, a meaningful marker on the road to the messianic kingdom. These millennial generations -- zealous, volatile, promiscuous, irrational --are nonetheless immensely creative, especially in social matters. Constructive, destructive, self-destructive, all three...whatever they are, millennial generations always do it on a grand scale.

But because they are always wrong --the End does not come, God always tarries -- later generations tend to forget their driving passions. Like the noise of a doppler effect, apocalyptic expectations fade more quickly than they arose; like the Emperor who has paraded naked, one would just as soon forget so passionate and so mistaken a belief. And we, latecomers, write our history backwards, recounting the rise of great and socially useful movements like science and democracy and civil society without acknowledging the strange crucibles of human passion in which they arose.

But ironically, while these true believers may be wrong, they are rarely inconsequential. One may scoff at Louis Farrakhan's tales of UFO encounters with the ascended masters who told him to call a march on Washington, but one cannot dismiss the march, the long-range consequences of which we, on the outside, have only begun to see. Almost every major religious movement -- and this is especially true of Christianity -- first made it into the permanent orbit of institutional longevity on an apocalyptic booster rocket. Post-facto, the motives may be embarrassing, even suspect; but few, especially in Western culture, argue with success. Ironically, while the Apocalypse they prophecy has never come, in more pedestrian terms, millennialists often succeed: the world is a different place after them. It really was the end of the world as we'd known it.

But then what of our own millennium? Will it produce a millennial generation? Are we not too secular, too rational, too mature, a culture to "fall" for such numerological nonsense. We all know that Jesus wasn't born in the year 0 or even 1, that we don't even know when he was born, that 2000 is an illusion of base-ten thinking, and that it is not even the beginning of a new millennium, that God, if He exists, doesn't "enter" history and "fix" everything, that we will muddle through this crisis the way we have all the others.

Even as I write out the string of reassuring platitudes, it rings hollow. On the one hand, our culture is far more religious and, still more important, susceptible to religious passions than we imagine; and on the other, secularism has not by any means rid us of apocalypticism, just transposed it into a different key. Mankind may have replaced God as the agent who brings about the messianic age, producing a Frankenstein's millennium with an apocalyptic menu ranging from totalitarian "utopia" to redemptionaless annihilation. But the hopes and terrors go on unabated. And in the shift, we have moved from the imagined to the real: technological Apocalypse is not a form of local or regional delusion, it threatens to engulf the entire globe with its fears and its consequences.

"All this has happened before!" hoots the owl to the rooster who crows of the dawning of redemption. "It is still mid-night, go back to sleep and wake not the faithful before their time." Say that to a Christian rooster and he will point to the State of Israel -- unprecedented, prophesied, at the heart of God's plans for humanity; say that to a New-Ager and he will point to technology's creation of a global community, bound by unimagined possibilities of annihilation and communion. And in an irony to die for, the most secular, the technological Apocalypse, is now specifically timed to go off at the stroke of midnight, December 31, 1999, with the potential breakdown of many of our largest mainframes. Any unmodified date-based system will seize up when, come midnight, it reads 1900 instead of 2000. We have created the first remorseless deadline in human history; and we are not doing too well in meeting it. Already the roosters have begun to crow about the Y2K problem.

What will actually happen? No one knows. The future is fact-free. That is the ultimate strength of the roosters. There are no proofs against them, only reassurances which work primarily with those who wish, above all, to be reassured.

Scientific, religious, new-age, macro-historical, political, chronological, social -- there are a thousand reasons to fall prey to the millennial Zeitgeist.

"Do not fear, it is a time for true hope," say the rooster-doves, those who yearn and strive for a new age of peace and human understanding, who see 2000 as the occasion to launch new paradigms of social and human interaction. On the cusp between media hypers and religious visionaries, these folks know that today, April 6, is really their day and they have, accordingly, planned events world-wide. For them the World Wide Web is a providential development at the dawn of the new millennium, a medium for salvation.

Consider their activities today the first major manifestations of a phenomenon we have already seen without recognizing, and will see more of, whether we like it or not -- the wave of millennial activity that will precede and follow the advent of 2000. This is the context in which to understand mass gatherings of people seeking, exploring, creating new identities in ever-more public venues. From the million-man march to the Promise Keepers to the Rainbow Coalition. Assembling in Washington by the million may become a characteristic element of our "turn-of-the-millennial" culture. (May they all be peace assemblies.)

Is the mayor's "Millennial Commission" aimed at using 2000 to give Boston an even greater international profile just hype? Or is it tapping into something far more powerful? Will the plans for First Night 2000 and 2001 produce evanescent fireworks or the kindling of hearths that will last well into the millennium?

If you think you've had it with this hype already more than two years in advance, be forewarned: it has only begun. The hype, media, soon commercial, is not the tail wagging the dog, but the tip of the tail of a very large dog, just now coming into view. Apocalyptic time is episodic, as powerful as it is brief.

And in the end, why not? We would be a paltry generation if, at this crucial juncture in our global civilization, with all the crises we face, we met the passing of a millennium with a skeptical shrug and a nose to the grindstone. It is not every generation that lives through a millennium, even if, with calendrical juggling there are about three every thousand years. Why not make it a time of reflection, of imagination, of daring to create new solutions not by command from above but by mobilization from below. Too dangerous, you think? After all, the dark side of the millennial force looks far more powerful than the light: the thunder of apocalyptic fundamentalists will drown out the cooing of doves.

But in a time of roosters, owls are helpless, like straws in the wind, like liberals when the Nazis took over. If someone is going to crow and stir the soul of a people, of a nation, of a globe, would we not prefer it be men and women of good heart and honest intentions? If you are hunkering down to survive this millennium, you not only risk great peril, you miss great opportunity.

Richard Landes is a professor of Medieval History at Boston University and is Director of the independent Center for Millennial Studies. He is currently working on a book about millennialism in European history entitled, While God Tarried.

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