A Backward Glance at the Twentieth Century

We're only five full years into the twenty—first century and I want out. The changes are coming too fast and thick for my comfort and cherished values seem to be crumbling before my eyes. And so, on the start of yet another year, let's look back a moment and take stock.

What epitaph should we write for the twentieth century? A generation ago, book stores often displayed a set of Mentor paperbacks, neatly labeling each century: The Age of Belief, The Age of Enlightenment, The Age of Discovery, and so on. What title should we give the Age we have just lived through?

At first glance, it was the Age of Technology. Oscar Wilde rightly said that the only way to achieve a comfortable and humane society was by replacing human slaves with mechanical ones; and we have done just that. Our lives are now enriched, and complicated, by the fruits of technologies unimaginable a century ago. Our science fiction writers are hard pressed to keep a step ahead of reality. (Remember Captain Kirk's little beam—me—up—Scotty phone? You're probably carrying one right now.) Most recently, we have been dazzled by the deluge of free information the Internet offers us.

But we had better save the "Technology" label for the century to come. In fields such as medicine and space exploration, the pace of discovery is still accelerating, or rather has just barely begun. And in critical areas like the environment and nutrition, we do not yet know whether technology will ultimately prove to be savior or villain.

Technology has already shown its dark side as a tool for efficient slaughter. By war, pogroms, and holocausts, we have managed to kill an estimated 100,000,000 human beings———Armenians, Jews, Poles, Gypsies, dissident Ukrainians and Chinese, and many others———in scientific and systematic ways. This is certainly a record; far more than all the other centuries combined. The twentieth century might well be called The Age of Holocausts.

Contemporary Americans might suggest alternatives, such as The Age of Hype, The Age of the Media, or The Age of Liability. But that is because we are on the inside looking out. Most of the rest of the world think of the twentieth century as The Age of America.

In 1900, the United States was one of a dozen major powers. By mid—century, after WWII, we were The Power, as Persia and Rome had once been, with enough military and economic might to impose our domination on the rest of the world. But for the first time in history, the victor stooped down to raise its enemies from the dust, bound their wounds, and rebuilt them into prosperous (and ungrateful) competitors. When new enemies arose, we disdained to use our weapons and endured a stalemate until an accord could be reached. We even ceded some of our power to an international peace—keeping agency and, when wars broke out, tried to mediate and restore balance.

Internally, we have begun to live up to the ideal of all men being intrinsically equal. We still have social injustices such as ghettos and crowded prisons, but we are at least striving to solve problems that are considered inevitable facts of life elsewhere. Our degree of success is proclaimed by the desperation with which people of all nationalities and conditions try to immigrate here.

We also led the world in philanthropy. As the huge population increase attests, the century 's slaughters were more than balanced by lives saved from starvation and disease. And to this incredible effort of charity, the US contributed the predominant share, far in excess of its proportionate wealth and resources. It is only in the last few years that other nations have begun to follow our example.

Even now, as we seem to be declining from our zenith, we are still teaching the poor and oppressed of the world to dare to hope. In some future century, when we have faded into impoverished obscurity, historians may still write with awe about the Age of America and wish they had been fortunate enough to be part of it.

For us at least, it was a very good century. As for you younger ones who worry about the present  century, it will probably be whatever you choose to make it. Choose carefully.

Paul Shlichta is a research scientist.

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