A New Millennium?

By Michael Lederer

“MCU035” by maxxtraf­fic is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Jan­u­ary 1, 2000. Not just a new cen­tu­ry, but a new mil­len­ni­um. Spot­less, for the briefest moment, though far from emp­ty. Arriv­ing so brim­ful of promise and hope. “What will it be like?” we won­dered, star­ing almost child-like at the clock as it approached the new era. A brand-new, unopened, ready-to-use mil­len­ni­um! And this time, with all we’d learned over past mil­len­nia, we would get things right.

Knock on wood.

 

A thou­sand years ear­li­er, the Holy Roman Empire ruled Europe. Leif Eriks­son set what may have been the first Euro­pean foot onto the New World. One small step for a Viking, but… The pop­u­la­tion of the entire globe was about that of today’s Indone­sia. A lot can change in a thou­sand years. A lot more, it seems, cannot.

Vladimir Sorokin, “The New Weapon,”oil on board, with wood, leather, iphone 2014

In his nov­el Tel­luria, the Russ­ian writer Vladimir Sorokin describes a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic scene in which a man liv­ing in a cave, clothed in ani­mal skins, dis­cov­ers a long-dis­card­ed and seem­ing­ly use­less lap­top lying in the dirt. Rather than ignore the ancient arti­fact, he lash­es it to the end of a long stick, then uses it as a club to blud­geon his ene­mies. A stark reminder that – even as sci­ence offers unri­valed advance­ments – human nature has not always advanced accord­ing­ly. Twit­ter has tak­en the place of the camp­fire. Our weapons are big­ger and shinier, if still clubs in essence.

Despite its sweet nanosec­ond of unsoiled promise, a quick rata-ta-ta of events, from hang­ing chads, 9/11, Lehman Broth­ers to … already such a long list … quick­ly dis­abused any idea this new era would be all that dif­fer­ent from the last Fly­ing cars from the Jet­sons? Not yet. Brain trans­plants? Jor­dan Peele may have brought us clos­er, but there’s still a way to go (please hurry).

While more sad­ly and seri­ous­ly, the promise of the Unit­ed Nations char­ter of 1945, social progress and bet­ter stan­dards of life in larg­er free­dom, remains so stub­born­ly elu­sive. Which, fast for­ward, brings us to the present.

Keep­ing with the most Amer­i­can of themes, ‘new’, we skip from new cen­tu­ry and new mil­len­ni­um to a new decade. The Twen­ties. And what an entrance.

In the last Twen­ties, art pro­duced by the mod­ernists cast both shad­ows and lights that reach us still. Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hem­ing­way, T.S. Eliot with his Waste­land. Dali’s sur­re­al con­tra­dic­tions, Picasso’s decon­struc­tions, Fitzgerald’s unre­al­ized dreams. The ques­tion has loomed: What would our own Twen­ties hold for the artists of today? Wait no longer. And what a smor­gas­bord! Exis­ten­tial angst? Check. Dis­ori­en­ta­tion? Absur­di­ty? Made to order. Lost Gen­er­a­tion? If things don’t abate soon, we may even have that one cov­ered. To the more cyn­i­cal, it seems the Age of Aquar­ius was more way sta­tion than des­ti­na­tion. Still, progress ‘is’ being made, even if by that old rhythm, two steps for­ward, one step back. It can be hard on those back­ward strides to remem­ber how far we’ve already come. John Lewis, lying in state under the Capi­tol Rotun­da, reminds us of that. George Floyd, on the oth­er hand, reminds us of how far we have yet to go.

And how shall we over­come this déjà vu all over again?

For some, there’s Nor­man Vin­cent Peale’s Pow­er of Pos­i­tive Think­ing. Wish a prob­lem to go away, and … poof. If only! Home­grown exper­i­ment: next time, wish the car to stop instead of apply­ing brakes. If that doesn’t work out, see “fric­tion brakes” to con­sid­er pos­si­bil­i­ty num­ber two: sci­ence. As in med­ical sci­ence, social sci­ence, polit­i­cal sci­ence. Because even if all the solu­tions aren’t here yet, those road maps toward them are.

In my new play, I Have Seen the Mis­sis­sip­pi, a char­ac­ter based on my father Ivo, who was a his­to­ri­an, says: “We don’t study his­to­ry to under­stand the past. The past is fin­ished, gone, water under the bridge. No, we study his­to­ry to under­stand today and tomor­row. Not to repeat our mis­takes, or so we hope.” He adds, “You want a his­to­ry les­son? Go touch a hot stove. There, that was a valu­able his­to­ry lesson!”

Many hot and all-too famil­iar stoves out there just now. Again, a check list. 1918, pan­dem­ic? Roger that. 1929: eco­nom­ic col­lapse? You betcha. 1930s: nation­al­ism? Google “pol­i­tics today.” 1960s: the strug­gle for vot­ing rights and racial equal­i­ty? The dream con­tin­ues, so too does the nightmare.

Yet, as if in some time-streamed episode of Twi­light Zone-meets-Ground­hog Day, for too many, his­to­ry is like Cas­san­dra of Greek myth, its lessons falling on deaf ears. A new age of sci­en­tif­ic rea­son and enlight­en­ment may yet lie ahead. If not, there’s always the old stand­by: Knock on wood.

24/7 already seems like such a quaint and slow­er, almost horse-and-bug­gy pace. It feels like we’re up to 25/8 at least, blink and you might so eas­i­ly miss one or more major events. There’s hard­ly time to ask a ques­tion any­more, as by the end of it some inter­rup­tion will have bull­dozed its way toward the front of the thought. Still, we’ll try.

New mil­len­ni­um? What new millennium?

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Michael Led­er­er is an Amer­i­can writer who lives in Berlin. His screen­play Sav­ing Amer­i­ca won the 2019 PAGE Inter­na­tion­al Screen­writ­ing Award. His newest stage play, I Have Seen the Mis­sis­sip­pi, is the sto­ry of the only small group of Jew­ish refugees from Europe admit­ted into the Unit­ed States dur­ing WW II.