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HELLO, 21ST CENTURY/ESSAY

JANUARY 1, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 1

A Letter To The Year 2100
BY ROGER ROSENBLATT

Dear America,

Are you wearing pajamas? I do not mean to begin this letter by getting personal. I was just wondering if you people leave the house anymore--something that seems to be increasingly unnecessary these days, a hundred years ago. Not that leaving the house is always a good idea. Outside lies the wide and brittle world of wars, gunplay, scandal, disease, superstition, categorical hatreds, willful ignorance, envy, pettiness and cant. In your perfected age, all such things undoubtedly have been eradicated. (How I wish I could hear your laughter.)

Are you six-feet-six? Are you fly-fishing on Mars? Are you talking on a cell phone? We are, usually.

We are talking on a cell phone as we walk among the blazing office towers and the gridlocked SUVs, along a frozen sidewalk on the Avenue of the Americas in New York City, from which we call a colleague in an airplane who, while speaking to us, is faxing an application for a Platinum card and e-mailing a color photo of his beaming children, taken with a digital camera and put on a CD, to a screen in his home in Connecticut, where the kids are playing Pokemon (don't ask) or dancing to Livin' la Vida Loca (don't ask), before he trades a hundred shares of Microsoft, transfers some cash, buys a Palm Pilot for his wife (who's doing Pilates at the health club this afternoon), auctions off the cabin in Vermont, then orders one set of tickets to a black-tie dinner for breast cancer and another to the latest off-off-off-Broadway play, about a man talking on a cell phone as he walks among the blazing office towers and gridlocked SUVs, along a frozen sidewalk on the Avenue of the Americas.

I am not, of course, accounting for the Mexican boy in South Central Los Angeles who lies on his bed staring up at paint chips on his ceiling; or for the pale girl gazing out a high-floor window in one of those blazing office towers at a pale boy in the tower opposite, gazing back; or for the bearded hermit crouching near the statue of a general on horseback in a city park and talking on a cell phone that does not exist.

As lovers leaving lovers say, By the time you read this, I'll be gone. Or possibly I won't. Given the way life is being prolonged these days, I--with my pig's liver, titanium hips and knees, artificial heart, transplanted kidney and reconstructed DNA--could write this letter in my century and pick it up in yours. ("Dear Me"--the perfect address for a solipsistic time.) No thanks. It is enough to be able to send these words across the abyss of years to tell something of who we are. We are members of a narrative species, you and I--two eras connected by a story that changes just enough to keep it interesting.

I write you in the dead of winter from a summer village by the Atlantic Ocean. The last of the houseflies beats its body against the window, through which I watch the tremors of a berry bush and the shorn stoic trees. Afternoon lowers on evening; the sky is the color of unpolished silver. A Cole Porter song, In the Still of the Night, goes through my head. I do not know why.

Some facts, to begin with: The gross domestic product is up about 4%. Inflation is at 2.6%. Unemployment is at 4.1%. Our budget surplus stands at $124 billion; the deficit in our balance of international payments is about $300 billion. A three-bedroom apartment in the most fashionable neighborhoods of Manhattan rents for about $12,000 a month. The median price for a house nationwide is $133,000. People pay as much as $350,000 to rent a summer house to be near partygoing writers, editors and agents, whose principal ambition in life is to be able to rent a $350,000 summer house. One person is paid $10 million a year for hitting a baseball. Another person is paid $7 million a year for talking to other people on television. Another is paid $35,000 for teaching math in high school. The hit movie of the past few years was about a sinking ship. The most memorable quotation of the past few years was "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." The most exciting product was a pill called Viagra (I won't tell you how exciting). The most overused word of the times: synergy (see "mischief").

As long as I am on the subject of language, do the following have any meaning for you: "like"; "you know"; "what's up with that?"; "like, you know, what's up with that?"? You have no idea what I am talking about? Good. How about "yada yada yada"; "fuhgeddaboutit"; "pumped"; "zine"; "you're history"? (We're history.)

We are generally content, generally at peace, generally optimistic, and with good reason. As a people, we are simply a lot more interesting and various. Our latest immigrants come from everywhere, with more Latino immigration than European, and new Americans popping up from places like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Korea, the South Pacific and Ghana. If I had been writing to you a hundred years ago, in 1900, my age group (55 to 64) would have represented 5% of the population. Today it accounts for 9%. In 1900 only 4% of the population was 65 and older. Now that number is 13%. Geographically, we are more spread out. America's 10 most populous cities in 1900 were the industrial centers of San Francisco, Chicago, St. Louis and points east. Today Americans range over the breadth of the continent in cities such as Phoenix, Houston and San Antonio, where they have settled in the path of the sun. 

We are generally rich; more people have homes of their own. We are generally healthy, thanks largely to remarkable advances in medicine. People who died of certain diseases even 30 years ago are routinely saved today. A colonoscopy will detect and lead to the removal of a cancer that shows no external symptoms. Lifesaving operations on hearts and brains occur every day. Not only has medicine advanced; it has allowed people to act on their more selfless impulses. In September a middle-school teacher in Fayetteville, N.C., learned that one of her students suffered from kidney disease and needed a transplant. So the 42-year-old woman offered the 14-year-old boy one of her kidneys. Two miracles are at work in the story. The teacher wanted to sacrifice herself, and medicine would enable her to do it.

In short, we are generally O.K. in spite of notable low spots and areas of significant concern. Our movies are mostly silly. Our books? Mostly small. The quality of our cultural criticism is generally so low that one cannot tell how good or bad any artist is, but in literature, at least, it is highly unlikely that any writer touted as a heavyweight in our era will make it to the ring in yours. Movies that once were judged by normal artistic criteria are now valued by the amount of money they make over a weekend. For your horrified amusement, see if you can dig up a print of something called Scream or The Blair Witch Project.

Our theater? Mostly lights and tricks. Music? Mostly sappy-sentimental, and rap--a rhythmic fusion of grunts and hisses, minus the notes. Like Wagner, it's not as bad as it sounds, but one misses doo-wop, pop and jazz, especially jazz. Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday, George Gershwin, Miles, Ella, Satchmo, Bix. I hope they have survived. It is, of course, possible that you long for Dr. Dre and Limp Bizkit the way I long for Cole Porter, but are you crazy?

Humor? It rarely translates from age to age. Have you heard the one about the dyslexic atheist who did not believe in Dog? Are you out there? I can hear you breathing.

Money drives the culture. Television has recently hit on the old successful formula of big-money quiz shows. The new ones give away millions to people who know which Presidents' faces appear on different dollar bills. (The most candid of these shows is called Greed.) The likable and funny fellow who is host of Win Ben Stein's Money may turn out to be the symbolic spokesperson of the age. He challenges contestants to match his wealth of information and simultaneously implies that education for its own sake is preposterous. If you're so smart--Stein asks merely by existing--why aren't you rich?

Signs of the times: When your bank says no, Champion says yes; You have a friend at Chase Manhattan; You get much more at the Money Store; Diamonds are forever; American Express--Don't leave home without it; Thank you, PaineWebber.

The nation has become a kind of giant store; everything is for sale. Catalogs rise like dough in our mailboxes, offering "the best double-buffer shoe polisher"; "the only floating practice green," which transforms "any pool into a challenging golf shot"; a "baby elephant sprinkler topiary" that sprays water from its moss-covered trunk. Fame is for sale. New hair, necks and noses are for sale. Debt is for sale. Every inch of space is used for advertising. A good pass in a pro basketball game is identified as an "AT&T Great Connection." Politics is for sale; candidates buy public opinion to try to get elected. Love is for sale, or at least a variation of it. Last year a man in Minnesota advertised for a bride, hired friends to interview candidates, and wound up with what the market would bear, as did she. The wedding took place in the Mall of America.

The idea, as ever, is to make people feel that they have to have purposeless merchandise they do not want. In a restaurant, a waiter will giddily announce, "We have mahi-mahi!" A sensible person would say, "So what?" America says, "I'll take it!"

We enlarge and expand. We have recently found out that the entire universe is expanding more than we had initially believed. We build, invent and discover at a pace that is dizzying for us, perhaps turtle footed for you. This year the automobile industry produced a vehicle powered by liquid hydrogen; Detroit plans to have fuel-cell cars on the roads in 2004. (I assume yours run on carrots.) The computer industry comes up with a "killer app" every 18 months. With silicon chips reaching their limit, the industry announces "molecular computing"--shrinking computer circuits to the size of molecules. Soon we will have flexible transistors and bendable screens, easy to fold, like a newspaper.

Once the human genome is decoded, genetic sequences can be patented, licensed and (of course) sold. On a higher plane, in the past three years alone, astronomers have discovered 17 nearby stars that appear to be orbited by planets the size of Jupiter. We're experiencing a bit of trouble with outer space lately, having just lost two costly gizmos we launched toward Mars. Have you found them?

Half the country is fat, half low-fat. Butter and eggs, once out, are in; I suppose you have tossed them out again. Coffee, once considered poison, turns out to be harmless. Red meat is not as lethal as once thought. Take a shot of Scotch, of red wine. Take a shot: vaccines are on the way soon that will prevent pneumonia, rheumatic fever, meningitis and the flu. There's a new prospect called regenerative medicine--using the body's own stem cells and growth factors to repair tissue. We make ourselves anew. And how are you?

While we expand, we also contract. America Inc. has become a term for describing the unending mergers of vast companies--multibillion-dollar mergers, real money today. Oil companies, car companies, food companies, banks; everything comes together. Media companies become telephone companies. Telephone companies become software companies. Book-publishing companies are swallowed whole by companies that make music, movies and magazines. Nothing is wrong with these adhesions in principle, but some "products," like books, suffer. Not long ago, the large book publishers would take on a number of excellent but unprofitable manuscripts as a kind of intellectual duty, pro bono work for the national mind. These days, if a book is not predicted to sell at least 15,000 copies, fuhgeddaboutit (there you go). The Great Gatsby (fewer than 24,000 copies sold in its first 15 years) would not be published by a major house today.

Religions merge: this past year the Methodists with the Episcopalians. Folks are merging too. U.S. immigration officials recently predicted that by 2050 (50 years ago for you), nearly half the country's population will be nonwhite. There are more interracial marriages every year. I like to picture you as a nice, rich shade of beige.

Did I mention that this is a presidential election year--an invitation to nutcases ordinarily? This time everyone seems to have accepted the invitation, evidently having taken seriously the truism that anybody can grow up to be President. In addition to normally qualified candidates, those who have presented themselves as potential leaders of the free world include an apologist for Adolf Hitler; a professional wrestler who changed his name from the Body to the Mind; and a real estate magnate at once so ridiculous and self-confident that he is oddly mesmerizing. Indeed, watching the entire crop of Reform Party candidates vie for position is like watching dogs copulate in a public square: it's not pleasant, but you can't take your eyes off them.

For all our Big Business expansions, government too remains big, and most people engage in the harmless hypocrisy of condemning its interferences and relying on its services. Fundamentally, we remain a liberal nation in spite of the gloatings or laments that liberalism is dead. If this year's Democratic platform resembles that of the Republicans, it will not be because the Democrats have capitulated but because the G.O.P. has absorbed the liberal agenda.

Nonetheless, as one of our few genuine statesmen, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has said, "Liberalism has to learn to deal with the aftermath of its successes." In recent years, liberals have cornered themselves into appearing to approve of everything opposed to God and family. The country has been polluted with an idea called political correctness, which is simply a fundamentalism of the left. We are beginning to reach a point of equilibrium between laissez-faire capitalism and the welfare state, and to learn to discriminate between useful sympathy for the needy and wasteful excuses for careless behavior. But we still have plenty of braying pietists. Has the name William Bennett floated up to you?

I wish I could accurately report on our status in the world. We've got the weapons and the dollars. What Henry Luce saw as the American Century in the middle of the 1900s is nothing compared with the Americanization of the globe these days. Whether this owes more to cheap hamburgers or to free thought is hard to know. We are as we were and probably will be forever--eager to control the world and eager to stay out of it.

There are almost 190 independent countries, of which some 30 remain monarchies, most of them constitutional. There are many more democracies than before, and one senses a yearning on the part of former enemies, even those of bitter long standing, to bury the hatchets and the Uzis and get on with it. Northern Ireland recently appeared to be healing itself. The Middle East seems to be coming to its senses; the other day, the leader of Syria made a peaceful move toward Israel, which made a peaceful move in return, and the world did not come to an end. For all we know, both these areas may be associated only with productive cooperation in your time. If you are still smoking cigars, I hope they're Cuban.

But just so you know that human nature has not entirely altered as of this writing: what America once feared as the Soviet Union, we now fear as the Russian non-union--seething duchies with warheads underground. China, with its split personality, continues to make us nervous; we court its markets while trying to improve its government. In the Balkans, Christians spent the better part of the past nine years massacring Muslims. In Sudan, Muslims continue to massacre Christians. Over the past 100 years, we have advanced from Sarajevo to Sarajevo. If Sarajevo is again involved in a war as you read this, we may be on to something.

Our more mysterious problems are, as usual, internal. Mergers aside, we are in an increasing mode of separation from one another. The American class system (always vehemently denied) has never been more stratified. People who make the same money live in the same neighborhoods; they socialize with the same people; their kids go to the same schools; their habits, speech patterns, clothes are the same. The so-called middle class consists of a dozen subclasses earning anywhere from $20,000 a year to $200,000. Distribution is skewed. The top 20% of American families make as much as the remaining 80%. The top 5% of that 20% makes nearly as much as the remaining 15%. In that 5%, the top one-fifth (or 1% of the total population) makes as much as the remaining 4%.

The emerging technologies that purport to bind people together have also created a new information class imposed on the others. Not everyone has a computer, so there is that class of outsiders. Even among the insiders, people seek virtual localities where they find their own kind--chess players chat with chess players, militia members with militia members. Since communication is the soul of democracy, the Internet should have become the great equalizer, but most people are in touch with their own, home alone.

At the same time, individual privacy is both systemically invaded and willingly forfeited. Businesses spend fortunes spying on the competition. A few weeks ago, a Russian spy was caught listening to a bug planted in the State Department, having possibly made a comfortable shift from cold war espionage to industrial espionage. CD-ROMs are sold with essential information on millions of citizens. Banks divulge how much money one has; credit companies, how much one owes. Yet privacy is also eagerly, happily surrendered--on radio and TV talk-revelation-boxing shows. Everyone owns a camcorder, so everyone is on TV. One has never been more in the open, or more apart.

I wonder if we really want to have as much to do with one another as we have always claimed to want. Connectedness--that was supposed to be the desperate cry of a world frightened by modernity. "Only connect," pleaded E.M. Forster at the outset of the century. Inventions were concocted to bring us closer to one another, the machinery of communication especially. Observe a riot of fans at a soccer game and see how close we are. Historically, there has never been as much communication as in our 20th century, or as much mass murder. Communication, mistaken for a virtue in itself, has substituted for sympathetic, beneficial social existence. If living with one another merely means living in touch with one another, no wonder so many people feel closer to their computer screens than to other people.

A young boy in Harlem was sitting at a computer in a library, clearly loving the experience. When asked why, he said of the computer, "It doesn't know I'm black." We are no closer to one another than we wish to be.

Between men and women there seems to be a widening separation based partly on the new varied social status of women and on men's difficulties in making adjustments. Movie plots have men turning into women, women men. One of our weirder celebrities, a basketball star named Dennis Rodman, put on a bridal gown a few years ago and married himself. Saner but sadder consequences are evidenced in an absence of romance in courtship and the treatment of sex as sport.

Between adults and children there has always been a chasm (sentimental pretenses notwithstanding), which has of late become murderous. Child-interest groups regularly cite the vast numbers of the abused, neglected and homeless. White middle-class families blithely assume that the statistics apply to poor urban people of color. The fact is that sexual abuse in states like Iowa and Nebraska is the national average. Because of work patterns, parents of every economic status are spending much less time with their kids. Children also compete for one's money, time and resources. In a recent exhibition of children's art in New York City, a painting showed a man raising his hands in surrender and surrounded by clocks. It carried the caption THIS IS MY FATHER.

Between people and nature there may actually be less of a division than there was, say, 50 years ago. The corruption of the atmosphere, the erosion of the rain forests, the plundering of the waters are all common topics of concern. Dozens of first-rate organizations are at work on conservation, and political candidates have adopted the issue, both because it's safe and because they mean it. The trouble is that this effort may be too little, too late. You tell me.

Between people and themselves, separations have always existed. Some of that today is due to the "Is this all there is"-ness of flush modern life; some, to the number of work hours--a mere three hours less a week than in 1970. And the pressures of competition make those hours feel like more. Maybe we are deliberately working harder so as to have less contact, less time for self-inspection. (These are self-interested but not introspective times.) I won't pretend to know what all this means, but if you have preserved Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, we look more like the hectic machine than we look like the hapless Chaplin.

A woman just rowed solo across the Atlantic. Parachutists frequently leap off cliffs and out of planes. Balloonists are beginning to require air-traffic controllers. We are trying to escape from something.

What draws us close are accidents--catastrophes to which we attempt to assign blame or affix explanations but which we know intuitively to be inexplicable. In the past year, a teacher and 12 schoolchildren were shot down by schoolchildren in Colorado; 12 people died building a bonfire in Texas; six fire fighters died fighting a blaze in a warehouse in Massachusetts; six Marines and a Navy man fell to their death in a helicopter exercise off the coast of San Diego. Our insistently enlightened minds leap to "solve" such things, but their effect on our spirits has more to do with our helplessness. Helplessness brings us close to one another in silent acts of mourning, to weep for the life we share--with you as well.

These concerns may all sound like child's play to you, but somehow I doubt it. A hundred years isn't all that long, and your world must look a good deal like ours, if not in its devices and architecture, then in the small signs and gestures. A woman in Rhode Island wants to paint a flower. A man in Wyoming wants to catch a trout. He, somewhere, wants fame and love. She, somewhere, wants children or revenge. Everybody wants. What do you want? What should we want?

I wonder how far you have progressed. I wonder if you have learned to deal with the concept of God without turning faith into a weapon. I wonder if you have learned to control the anarchy of popular authority. I wonder if you have figured out how to make the best use of the past. Have you learned that traditions and institutions are not all bad? After a century of Freud, Marx and Einstein, we are pretty shatterproof these days, in terms of not being shocked by being all shook up. But in the words of one of our favorite songwriters, Carole King, "Doesn't anybody stay in one place anymore?" Maybe you have finally figured out how to live where we have always tried to live--safely between chaos and boredom.

Have you rediscovered a gentle, generous sense of humor? Have you recovered an appreciation of irony? Have you reacquired the ability to praise? So much of what passes for intellectual activity in our time is the carping of the jealous or the embittered. One of our poets, W.H. Auden, wrote an elegy to another, W.B. Yeats, in which he sought to "teach the free man how to praise." I hope you've learned.

People are generally more praiseworthy than we have been made out. That is a little secret of our age, perhaps of yours as well. Not all the people, all the time, but there is a tenderness, a loveliness that outlives our cruelty and stupidity. One can see it in an audience lost in a passage of Mahler's, or in a sudden, gaudy display of sunlight on a field. All the fear and self-absorption are wiped away, and in our blameless, dumb-struck faces lies the better story of the race. This too is who we are. This is who you are, whoever you are.

I see you looking back at us. You see us looking out at you. Because we can imagine one another, we constitute each other's dreams. Outside, the air is cold and deep. The moon hangs in a fingernail of light. The clouds conspire and retreat to reveal your stars and ours. Come. Walk with me in the chill still of the night. END

  COPYRIGHT © 2000 TIME INC.



NEW YEAR'S ALBUM: From the Pyramids to Paris, from Red Square to Times Square, a retrospective of the global turn of the millennium, in all its theatricality and extravagance

I'M O.K., Y2 0.K.: Joel Stein on the end of the world that wasn't--and the celebrations to die for

LETTER TO THE FUTURE: Roger Rosenblatt tries to translate our times for the 22nd century

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