HELLO, 21ST CENTURY/ESSAY
JANUARY 1, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 1
A Letter To The Year 2100
BY ROGER ROSENBLATT
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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