The Turn of the Millennium

 

Robert Cohen and Diana Turk

On the eve of the new millennium there is something missing in America. As the new century dawns, one can hardly find a glimmer of introspection or reflection about our national purpose. Immersed in an Internet-driven economic boom, Americans fret about what will happen in the first fifteen minutes of the new millennium if the Y2K problem freezes their computers, but not about the state of American democracy. There seems hardly a moment for worried concern about the future when the present is so pleasant: the U.S.A.’s economic indicators are rosier than at any point in the past thirty years, with the unemployment rate at 4.5% (half that of Germany and other leading industrial nations), the stock market soaring, and the American economy yielding record numbers of millionaires and even billionaires.

With this economic backdrop, it is not surprising that Americans are—to the extent that they talk about the new millennium at al#151;viewing it as a time for celebration rather than contemplation. This year rumors have abounded that the partying for 2000 would be so intense that champagne supplies will be exhausted, so, according to news reports, Americans have been stocking up. And like the bicentennial of the American Revolution back in 1976, an element of hucksterism has entered the pre-millennium discourse, with even McDonald’s inviting the American public in for a new millennium meal.

Perhaps, however, there is more than economics at work here. Americans may have been inoculated against any serious reflection in connection with the new millennium after hearing President Clinton sell his re-election campaign with rhetoric about how his administration would serve as “a bridge to the 21st century.” Or it may just be that, like the Whiggish history textbooks in which they were schooled, most Americans have a basically self-satisfied view of their society and see little need to consider the ways in which the promise of America has gone unfulfilled, or to formulate an agenda for eliminating in the next century the social and economic inequities that have endured since America’s republican experiment began.

This poverty of discourse concerning the new millennium is linked to a missing element in American politics. For some time, the United States has not produced mass movements of any consequence that strive for social justice. During the first two-thirds of the 20th century, liberal reformers and leftists served as irritants upon the conscience of the nation, demanding egalitarian change to aid those hurt by class, racial, and gender inequities, promoting freer cultural and political expression, and building peace movements which opposed America’s expansionist tendencies. Progressives challenged American democracy to face and fight its flaws during the heydays of the Progressive and feminist movements and the Lyrical Left of the early 20th century. During the New Deal era, the country witnessed the labor and Old Left movements of the 1930s; about a generation later, the civil rights movements of the 1960s, the rise of the New Left, and the second wave of feminism in the late ‘60s and ‘70s all had a major impact on the political scene.

Looking back, if it had not been for liberal and radical agitators, the end of this century might look as grim as its dawn, with an American democracy marred by child labor, legally sanctioned racial segregation, poll taxes, voteless women, the jailing of government critics and birth control advocates, workers without any protection from unemployment, anti-labor violence and hazardous working conditions, and impoverished children and seniors with no government to keep them from starving.

The list could go on for pages. Indeed, the mere existence of this list is comforting, as it tells us that we have moved forward and made significant progress on the road to greater equity and justice during this century. It is that sense of progress, along with the pride in American technological achievement, economic leadership, and military might—connected to a pride in America’s recent “victory” over the Soviets in the Cold War—which makes our politicians so proud and boastful to have been Americans in this “American Century.” Lest we be tempted to break out the champagne and join in this eve-of-the millennium reveling, it might be well to pause first to listen to some more sober voices from Europe.

At the start of his majestic history of the 20th century, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991, the great British radical historian Eric Hobsbawm offers reflections on this century by a dozen prominent Europeans, most of whom were gloomy.1 These included British Philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who wrote: “I have lived through most of the twentieth century without, I must add, suffering personal hardship. I remember it only as the most terrible century in western history.” French ecologist Rene Dumont pronounced it “a century of massacres and wars,” and British Nobel Laureate William Golding agreed, terming this “the most violent century in human history.” Such comments reflect the fact that unlike Americans, who are buffered by oceans on both sides, those who live on the other side of the Atlantic—where our century’s two world wars began—have had their sense of optimism tempered by this century’s central tragedies: war, imperialism, and holocaust. This century took humans to the moon, but it also took them to the death camps of Hitler’s Europe and the gulags of Stalin’s U.S.S.R. It may not be too much, then, to see violence and the irresponsible use of power as the dominant themes of our own century and to read them as a cautionary tale as we enter a new century.

One could argue that this pessimistic view is appropriate for the fading powers of the Old World but not for the United States, which first rose to world power at the start of the century and enters the coming century as the world’s only superpower. It was just this kind of arrogance that led Americans to ignore the French fiasco in Vietnam, and to delude themselves into believing that unlike that decadent old empire, the United States could impose its will on the Vietnamese—a mistake that gave America its longest and most futile war.

So this time, as we begin a new millennium, we might be better served if we heed Europe’s pessimism and ambivalence about American power. An honest self-examination might well lead us to see that the United States has often behaved irresponsibly on the global stage, whether it be the isolationism which kept America from standing up to Nazism until Europe had fallen, the coups we fomented against democratically elected leaders in such places as Guatemala and Chile during the Cold War years, the assassination plots against Castro, the nuclear incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the aid rendered to murderous right wing regimes in El Salvador and other Third World states, the do-nothing approach to Africa which allowed the recent genocide in Rwanda to proceed unabated, and the uneven response to “ethnic cleansing” in Europe that came too late to prevent tragedy in Bosnia.

We must search in the next century to find a better way of determining where legitimate American interests end and imperialism begins, where human rights concerns are compelling and where they are merely window dressing for a profit-driven foreign policy. We must develop an ability to respect debates about American power, and not condemn critics as un-American, or even to gag them, as occurred earlier in this decade when the
Smithsonian exhibit on the Enola Gay was censored. We are, as Desert Storm demonstrated, a nation whose technology allows us to wage wars by remote contro#151;with smart bombs and live footage paraded on TV—so quickly and powerfully that the American public can have the illusion of a bloodless video game though many thousands on the other side are killed. A nation which can wage war at such speed, too rapidly for public opinion or anti-war critics to coalesce, is potentially dangerous, and we would do well to reflect upon this unflattering fact as we enter the new century.

We want to believe that the America of today is better than yesterday’s and that tomorrow–and in the new millennium certainly–it will be better still. Our computers are getting faster, our Gross Domestic Product improves, but, as alluded to before, the commitment to social justice is way down. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in his book The Cycles of American History, has aptly noted that from the time of Teddy Roosevelt through the 1960s, America generated new waves of reformist idealism every third decade.2 But three decades after the 1960s, at the century’s end, there is no new wave in sight. The perennial question many students of history have tried to answer about the 20th century was posed by Werner Sombart: Why is there no socialism in the United States? Could it be that, in the coming century, the new question may be: Why is there no liberalism? Or, why have egalitarian protest movements become extinct in the United States?

It may seem premature to raise such questions, let alone to begin answering them. To presume that the status quo of 1999 will hold is certainly not a safe assumption. Liberalism, the Left, and mass protest movements may revive almost as quickly as they collapsed, given the right circumstances and crises. But they have not yet done so, and as we enter the new millennium, we need to question the reasons for this decline in reformist idealism. It may be that America is presently too focused on its affluence, too jaded by the political scandals in Washington, or too taken in by the right’s demonization of liberalism to generate a new wave of progressive reform. Or, it may be that something structural and potentially permanent has changed in America.

Can it be that the middle class, which once played a central role in reform movements, has become isolated in the privatized world of cyberspace, and is too fixated on virtual reality to concern itself with the unpleasant side of political reality? Can it be that our society has become so hi-tech that the very idea of politics in the streets has come to seem as outdated as live telephone operators? The idea of painting a picket sign or marching on Washington already seems quaint, the kind of thing historians study and not the kind of activity that millions of Americans ever consider. Will the antique dealers of the coming centuries treasure those hand-painted artifacts of mass activism the way they currently treasure hand-carved furniture from the distant past?

We raise these questions and voice concern over them because the statistics of our own era attest that though mass protest has faded, serious social inequities endure. The wealthiest 0.5% of households still hold close to one third of the wealth in the United States, the same disproportionate amount they owned at the start of the twentieth century. Gender and racial inequalities continue to abound, with women still earning on average 74.4 cents for every dollar earned by men, and Asian women earning 67 cents, African American women 58 cents, and Hispanic women 48 cents for every dollar earned by white males. Recent statistics on poverty also suggest that, as in earlier booms, America has proven itself far more adept at generating new wealth than at distributing it equitably. Roughly a quarter of the residents of America’s major urban settings live below the poverty line. For example, the poverty rate is 22% in Los Angeles, 24.3% in New York, and 28.1% in Houston. While the country’s middle class has remained relatively stable in recent years after declining in the 1980s, the percentage of poor families has increased to 30%. More than a third of the poor live without health insurance, including 11.1 million children. Blacks are twice as likely as whites to be living without health insurance, and Hispanics are three times more likely.

There is, then, in the realm of socio-economic equity, much left to protest. And though one can easily imagine earlier generations of Americans mobilizing over injustices of this magnitude, today they breed nothing but apathy. Ronald Reagan used to love to say that liberals waged a war on poverty and poverty won. Today, with no old-style liberals to wage such a war (and at a time when a Democratic President unites with a Republican-dominated Congress to deny welfare assistance to the poor), poverty has proven that it conquers even more territory when both major political parties pretend it does not exist. Even more shameful is the fact that in a time of economic gain, when Congress can afford to be more generous to the poor, it has instead moved in the opposite direction, cutting public assistance to the needy by 16.6% in the 1990s.

During the last presidential campaign, the candidates spoke almost exclusively to and about the middle class, as if there were no working class or impoverished Americans. We have descended far from the social realism of the New Deal era, when President Roosevelt spoke frankly about the third of a nation that was “ill-clothed, ill-housed, ill-fed.” One can hardly imagine a speech that candid ever making it through the maze of spin doctors, focus groups, and media advisors who shape political discourse in Washington today.

With regard to race, for all America’s progress in eliminating Jim Crow, we live in a time when educational experts speak of the resegregation of America’s urban schools. Busing has fallen out of favor in the courts and in Congress, but there has been no serious discussion about what can take its place as an engine of racial integration. The same is true of affirmative action. Although we would like to believe that the era of bigoted violence ended with Birmingham and Selma in the 1960s, we are still confronted with shocking outbursts of racial violence, most notably in Los Angeles, but also reflected in the alarming level of hate crimes nationally—10,706 in 1996, 61% of which were race-based. The belief that we have entered a new and more tolerant era is challenged when one reads of the recent sadistic murders of a gay man in Wyoming, and the killing and dragging through the streets of an African American man in Texas, crimes as horrific as those of the Jim Crow South.

All of this is to suggest that at the very least America needs to develop a gauge for measuring its progress, and keep this at its side as it enters the new millennium. We need to consider how not only those at the top and middle of society are faring, but also those at and near the bottom. We need to assess not merely whether we teach tolerance, but whether we practice it. The same is true in the realm of peace and the struggle for international justice and human rights. And there ought to be at least a small place in this process of self-examination for thought about the fate of democratic idealism and the tradition of progressive reform. Such self-examination may yield self-doubt, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, a society can only solve problems which it acknowledges and addresses.

The problems of war, poverty, and racism have proven so enduring that if we take our failure to eliminate these to heart we might well enter the new millennium in a despondent mood. But perhaps we can take comfort from the words of one of the more optimistic Europeans quoted by Hobsbawm in assessing our fading century, the Italian historian Leo Valiani, who observed: “Our century demonstrates that the victory of the ideals of justice and equality is always ephemeral, but also that if we manage to preserve liberty, we can always start all over again….There is no need to despair, even in the most desperate circumstances.”

 

Notes

1. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 (New York: Vintage, 1996).

2. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., The Cycles of American History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999).

 

Robert Cohen is director of the Social Studies Program in the School of Education at New York University. Diana Turk is an assistant professor in the same school.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.