- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 22, 1999

The turn of a new millennium seems a good time to take stock. As a columnist, one feels blessed indeed. How many people get to be on the record with their view of human progress over the past 1,000 years, all in 800 words?
This event is something one has pondered for a while, of course. A favorite book of mine years ago was Douglas Adams' "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe," the second volume in the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series, a strange British sci-fi cult classic. The restaurant in question was perched in a time warp at the end of the universe and with panoramic windows offered its patrons a spectacular view of the end of time with dinner every night. The closing of the 20th century similarly has been with us in preview for some time.
Some resemblance does exist to the year 999, as James Finn Garner, author of the very politically incorrect "Apocalypse Wow!" points out. In 999 a.d. median life expectancy was 17, and today median emotional age is 17. "Coincidence or what?" he writes. In 999, "an ignorant, illiterate population relies on privileged, self-serving demagogues to interpret the world around them." Today we have "24-hour talk radio." (Of course, there are eminent exceptions in the world of conservative talk, as readers of this newspaper will be the first to recognize.) In 999, the end of the world was certainly anticipated with fear; farmers stopped feeding their livestock and harvesting their fields. Why bother? Pilgrims took off en masse for the Holy Land. All of which became a bit of a problem when the end failed to materialize.
Numerology still having a potent hold on the human mind, superstitions have crept up on us. Some have the flavor of old-fashioned Biblical Apocalyptic fears, such as those that motivated the Branch Davidians or the Aum Shinrikyo sect in Japan, or the group that left this earthly abode for a better life, they thought, on the Hale-Bopp comet. Sadly for the Branch Davidians, they were justified in a sense through the crazy actions of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Others have settled on more interesting superstitions, though, uniquely reflecting the state of technological progress. Fears of environmental apocalypse have been with us for a while, and have indeed been embraced by one of the major contenders for the presidency of the United States a pretty disturbing thought. Though fluctuations in the climate have happened routinely over time, people like Vice President Gore have gotten it into their heads, that it is all our fault. Like Samuel Johnson's philosopher in the story "Rasselas" who fervently believed that the sun rose every day only through his agency and who consequently felt a terrible burden, Mr. Gore and friends cling to the myth that we are causing the temperature of the earth to rise, and they want us to stop doing what we are doing this minute.
The much feared Y2K apocalypse seems to me to fall into the same category, the end of the world as written for the computer age. One may, of course, live to regret these words, but there is surely something bizarre in the fears that are causing people to prepare for a siege, stocking up on dried beans and purified water, and batteries enough to survive for years in their log cabins, expecting the world's computers to crash around them. A friend of mine is preparing to go into the next millennium in his basement fortified with a football helmet and a baseball bat and enough canned food to last him another thousand years.
Rather than give in to the multitude of fears that attend midnight Dec. 31 this year, we do instead have much to celebrate. It has persuasively been argued that the real end of the 20th century came in 1989, with the fall of the second of this century's most destructive philosophies communism. The victims of this evil plague are counted by scholars up to 100 million, and the sooner we rid the world of its last vestiges the better it will be for us all.
As we survey the state of humanity, there is much to appreciate. We recently celebrated the birth of human being number 6 billion, with no dire consequences in sight as predicted by the population control movement (Perhaps another millennial superstition in disguise?) The auxiliary power of computers is transforming life at great speed, and promises untold future possibilities.
And just looking at statistics on the improvements in the quality of life here in the United States over the past 100 years is enough to cheer you up (as helpfully provided by the Cato Institute). Life expectancy has risen by 30 years to an average of 77 years. Infant mortality has fallen from 100 per 1,000 births to 7. Death from infectious diseases declined from 700 per 100,000 population to 50. Just think of the bout of suffering eased by science and better nutrition as revealed by these figures. There is, of course, the small problem that annual per capita telephone calls have gone up from 40 to 2,300, which unless you are a teen-age girl, might seem excessive.
Just in case none of these figures chase away the Y2K jitters, consider this: It's not even the year 2000 for large parts of humanity. In China, it's the year of 4698, year of the dragon. The Hebrew calendar counts it the year 5760/61. The Islamic world believes this is the year 1421. Even the world of Christianity cannot agree exactly when to celebrate the new year.
And just consider this now you can do your holiday shopping over the Internet without leaving the comfort of your home. Now, that's real progress for you.
Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all.
E-mail: bering@washtimes.com.

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