Posted on December 27, 1999 in Washington Watch

I have not been impressed with the millennial hype that we have been forced to endure during the past few years. Since President Clinton campaigned on the theme of “building a bridge to the 21st century” and then, in victory, termed his presidency as the “first of the next millennium”–we have been subjected to an excessive abuse of the “new era” notion.

I have a rather large extended family and this past year a number of my nephews graduated from high school and college. At each graduation event, speaker after speaker came forth to declare this the “last graduating class of the millennium.” Next year’s classes have, of course, already been termed the first graduating classes of the new millennium. Everything, it seems, is now either a “last of the old” or a “first of the new.” On one level, January 1 is being transformed from a date to a cosmic event–a defining moment in time. On another level, it is being trivialized.

Everywhere, it seems, the “millennium” is promoted. There are sales in stores–“biggest jewelry sale of the millennium.” And there are contests: to name the biggest event of the millennium or the top list of “heroes of the millennium.”

On January 1, there will be, of course, excessive celebrations. Some hotels have been booked for rooms and parties for more than two decades now. Extravaganzas have been planned. One Washington-based radio station has sent its announcers to five different locations around the world so that they can broadcast the millennium change live, five times on January 1. Not to be outdone, the major television networks have announced plans to cover the millennium live each hour of the day from locations all over the globe.

If the celebrations and commemorations only included this type of silliness, the situation would be merely annoying. But there is a more worrisome phenomenon at work here as well. There are the recent arrests of individuals in the United States, Canada, Jordan and Pakistan identified as Islamic extremists who are alleged to have been planning terrorist acts at millennial celebrations. And there are also some pseudo-religious cults which have planned dramatic events of their own–including what are feared to be planned mass suicides at religious sites around the world. Authorities in several countries have, for example, arrested a number of adherents of one exotic Christian cult that some suggest are plotting mass suicides to coincide with the New Year. Apparently, this group believes that their actions at the change of the millennium will help to foster some act of divine judgment on the world.

What, of course, is most troublesome about this entire situation is its unabashed ethnocentrism. The fact that the date, in question, is relative, arbitrary and even, an error in calculation–appears to be ignored by those selling and hyping the millennium as well as those planning to end their lives at its change.
This is, after all, only the millennium for some–actually less than one-fifth of humanity. It is not the millennium for Muslims, nor is it for Jews. The Chinese, the Hindus, and the Japanese (who together comprise 40 percent of all humanity) will also not celebrate this millennium.

And even the Christian church, as well, is divided as to the actual date. Coptic Christians in Egypt use a different calendar, as do most of the Eastern Orthodox Christians.

The Gregorian calendar, the only one on which January 1 begins the new millennium, is only 417 years old and is, itself, based on an error. The calendar supposedly measures time after the birth of Jesus. But its creators mistakenly named that first year as year 1, instead of year 0–so that even if its calculations were correct, next year’s January 1, 2001, would actually be the millennium.

However, the inventor of that calendar made another error as well. The best religious and historical scholarship now available argues that the actual birth of Jesus must have taken place in the year 4 of the current calendar.

I’m aware that none of what I have written will dissuade the cultists, the terrorists, the planners of extravaganzas, the promoters of sales or the purveyors of hype. 2000 will be celebrated and sold all over the world–because it has become a two-sided symbol. On the one side, it is a symbol of change, which some will use either thoughtfully to reflect on the past and project new ideas for the future, while and others will trivialize or exploit for gain. On another more subtle side, January 1, 2000, is a symbol of the West’s conquest, not only of history, but of time itself.

In this context it is fascinating to look at the various lists that have already started to be compiled of the millenium’s or century’s top events or major figures.
The lists are Western in construct and in content. Whatever one might think of these compilations, they represent those who shaped the modern era–from the perspective of those sitting on top of this era and who now look backwards at how they have arrived at this pinnacle.

The lists are, to be sure, heavy with some whose contributions cannot be ignored. For example, about 1/3 of those named are inventors and scientists: from Gutenberg to Einstein, from Edison to Gates. Their contributions, however, they maybe be abused by some, are universal. In this same category are the artists, philosophers and religious leaders–who despite reflecting the obvious ethnocentrism of the list-makers, can still be seen as persons whose contributions are larger than place and time.

Where these lists, however, become clearly reflective of the West’s conquest is in their line-up of political leaders who comprise about one-half of those named on the lists. They are, of course, for the most part, the leaders who won–since it those who have won who are able to shape history.

Of the 50 top leaders noted on one TV network’s lists, only three were non-Western. Most interesting was the fact that those three non-Westerners who were recognized were individuals who challenged and, at least for a time, defeated the West: Mahatma Ghandi, Mao Tse Tung and Ghengis Khan.

At the end of the day, however, the list-making enterprise is as empty as the celebrations themselves. It does point to a reality of hegemony, but it, too, is relative.

Other than the inventors and the scientists, the religious leaders and philosophers, the order and even the presence of the other names will change with the passage of time and the judgment of the future.

So let the millennial madness pass, as is most certainly will. We will all awaken on the day after with our lives much the same as they were on the day before.

The only new challenge we may face is a man-made one–the breakdown of some computer dependent systems that have not been adjusted to be Y2K compliant. But that too will pass.

In the end, the change of a date will not usher in a new era. It will be the same era, with the same challenges and the same “us” to deal with them.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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