When historians consider the 20th century as it turned into the 21st, what will they find unique. I’m looking forward to others’ opinions. What are deep and permanent changes? What are minor and transient ones? I’ll throw out my opinion, though it isn’t original; Henry Adams posited it as the last century began.
That century millions were slain by an inhuman, omnipotent, omnipresent state striving to produce a faceless utopia. But this characterized Rousseau and the French Revolution; it, too, smothered history and the individual. We said “never again”, but this opportunistic virus pops up, still, over and over again. Making Hitler its face, we opened ourselves to new Stalins and Maos and Castros and Chavezes. Modern ideologies, old religions – we’ve seen both “perfect” (cleanse) the world through mass murder. Would that it were unique and transient, though maybe these particular virulent forms are.
Practical science produced medicines that made both childhood and old age safer places. Research led to abundant food. Research and engineering protect us. Man can plan and science enlarged to strengthen those plans: compare the deaths in Galveston in 1900 to those from Harvey. Hurricanes remain powerful but man’s ability to learn and construct meant Houston’s medical center was protected by this century.
And the dynamo: energy made cars and planes move, energy warms and cools us, cleans our houses and powers our businesses. It has made us more travelled and less rooted; it produced a world of goods and art and information that our forefathers could not have imagined. Ordinary people labor less and live in more comfort than imaginable to the tip of the upper class a century ago. Having enough to eat and a roof over our heads produces an equality we take for granted. For thousands of years, the only energy was man’s; now, our world mines energy. We worry whether truckers displaced by robots can find work – the idea of servitude let alone slavery is far from modern minds.
But surely the strangest change has been our perception of ourselves and our relation to nature and fate. And stranger still, seeing as inconsequential (or destructive) that traditional first question – boy or girl? I can’t imagine that the truly absurd belief that gender is more concept than biology will stand. But it is symptom: we don’t confront nature.
Will we ever see sex as we did before? The twentieth century decoupled sex from procreation – we believed we had control. A child really seems a choice. And the gifts of our time reinforced each other. With energy, an extra child became a mouth to feed rather than hands in planting and harvesting. Prosperity meant a child was likely to leave the household and the household economy before productive skills were honed and that old age was travelling, as few roofs house three or four generations. All this is not just a change from history but leads to an alienation from it. We just don’t know it as we did when we worked beside our parents in the field or nursed a grandmother in the bedroom upstairs.
So, we entertain ourselves with scandals of Hollywood and Congress. And we see threats – quite real ones – from North Korea, Russia, China, Iran. We worry Congress will be ineffectual in lifting the yoke of a national health care system or of the government owned “monuments”, of cleaning out our tax code and lowering our taxes.
We worry about all of that. But the truth is, if we are attracted to the barren world we seem to be choosing then any weapons aimed at our heartland will be like the corpse on yet another version of Agatha Christie’s Orient Express, overkilled.