Looking back, Looking Forward

I suppose it is impossible for any columnist to ignore the millennial moment. Is there any logic, one might well ask., to looking back on a period of a 100 years selected for no other reason than the presumed date of birth of a Jewish pacifist preacher in Galilee 2000 years ago? Rationally, the dates on the calendar are just numbers; they no more correspond to historical cycles than any other arbitrary period. And yet , so deeply have the years of the Christian calendar been imprinted on the world’s collective consciousness that the passing of a century in fact does mark a milestone. A psychological milestone, perhaps – the magic of seeing all four digits of the calendar change for the only time in our lifetimes – but nonetheless one that defines a perspective. And so, I ask: what is our perspective as we look back on the century that has just passed from our midst?

The twentieth century has been a period of tumultuous change. This may seem a banal observation, except for the confidence with which the world greeted the dawn of this century, with its long record of peace and progress, seemed to embody the achievements of mankind: the twentieth, it was assumed, would simply provide more of the same, modified only by the growing dominance of the US. The twentieth century, some wit opined, is simply “the nineteenth speaking with a slight American accent”. He was wrong . The twentieth century was very different.

For one thing, it has been the century of democracy. The colonial empires that characterised the world throughout the nineteenth century were dissolved as subject peoples around the globe exercised the right to determine their own destines. Within the ongoing contention over systems of governance, democracy made steady, and spectacular, gains .

The three major alternatives to liberal democracy – monarchy, Fascism and Communism – were all tired and found wanting. Where monarchy survives it does so as a decoration; constitutional kings and queens preside symbolically over vigorous liberal democracies and fractious parliaments. Fascism, particularly under the National Socialists of Nazi Germany, but also in Italy, Spain and Portugal, peaked in the 1930s and declined precipitously thereafter, round in its principal strongholds by World War II and collapsing elsewhere by the 1970s. Communism’s appeal lingered, based as it claimed to be on compassion for the victims of injustice; but it spawned a tyranny for worse than the oppression it sought to end, and crashed under the weight of its own contradictions. While few would echo the American scholar Francis Fukuyama’s claim that this marked the “end of history” , it is clear that in the ongoing argument about which form of government most suited the human race, the twentieth century had witnessed the unambiguous triumph of liberal democracy.

Yet it also has been a century of wars: the two great global conflagrations known as World Wars I and II, the Doomsday- threatening Cold War, and hundreds of local ant ethnic conflicts that, it is estimated, have killed some 10 million people and displaced countless. It has been a century of human horrors: the Holocaust by the Nazis; the genocides in Armenia, Cambodia, East Pakistan and Rwanda, the massacres of innocent women and children as intended victims, of terrorist warfare. New weapons of mass destruction have been invented, from chemical and biological weapons to the earth-destroying atomic and hydrogen bombs. At the same time , the most intractable of ancient hatreds have flourished , erupting in bloody slaughter. The menace of terrorism, allied to the ruthless drug trade, is a late-twentieth-century disease.

In this respect the world has gone from the war-igniting nationalist passions of Sarajevo in 1914 to the murderous ethnic rage of Sarajevo in 1992. The century has taken us from the Correze to the Congo, from Sedan to Sukhumi, from Sarajevo to Sarajevo. The images of wasted lives, destroyed homes and energies spent in hatred, are the same.

And still mankind has made remarkable progress. Science and technology took astonishing steps to transform the daily assumptions of human life. It is in this century that most of the inventions that define our present-day life were devised. If the automobile, telephone and telegraph were already known to man – the first two as rare and exotic inventions available to a privileged few – their development and their ubiquity in the twentieth century could not have been imagined. Not only are these widespread today, but everything else that we associate with modern life came to light in our century: the aeroplane, motion picture, computer. Illnesses like smallpox and polio no longer ravage the world; maladies which were certain to kill are now containable and often curable. (But AIDS now stalks the globe and cancer kills as lethally – so there is no room

Source: Indian Express