Those who cry Y2K doom would have us think so. The technical facts do not necessarily support such fear. Scientists agree that no one knows what will happen. But in the United States, fear now precedes the facts.
That is the legacy of the 20th century. In the last hundred years, we have lost the belief Americans once considered most precious: the belief that we could stand together confidently at the dawn of any new era, to hope and work for a better world.
When was the last time you heard anyone talk about the turn of the millennium as a hopeful, exciting, invigorating time? Politicians and TV commercials may mouth optimistic words, but who takes them seriously? The words that really matter show barely a glimmer of optimism. If we think about the turn of the millennium at all, our publicly shared expectations are focused on the Y2K threat.
The first English settlers who landed on the Atlantic coast brought plenty of fear with them too. But their fears were offset by great hope for the future. As Calvinists, they shared the deep ambivalence of their theological master, Jean Calvin. He worried that Europe might soon dissolve in a chaos unleashed by rapid socioeconomic change. Yet he was certain that true Christians could join together to improve the world, to bring it closer to the Kingdom of God.
The expansive, proactive, optimistic impulse and the protective, defensive, pessimistic impulse wrestled for dominance in colonial times. That’s how it remained here for some 300 years.
The optimism began to disappear during the Great Depression. There were serious fears that global capitalism would collapse forever, and with it liberal democracy. If the only thing we had to fear was fear itself, it was hard to see what the United States could aspire to beyond just surviving its worst fears.
World War II rescued the economy, but not the national mood. Men at the front said they were fighting, not to make a better world, but merely to save the nation and to hasten home, to be sheltered from an endless parade of world problems. At home, there were serious fears that the war’s end would bring renewed depression. The atomic bomb that seemed to bring victory hardly brought any hope for a better world. In the United States, influential public voices immediately warned that the dreaded weapon could be used some day against the nation that had created it.
The growing sense that threat was both a permanent and predominant fact of life sent Americans searching for the next enemy. As the cold war settled into a deep freeze, it seemed that the nation’s mission was merely to survive.
President Eisenhower announced that the United States was not in a moment of peril, but “an age of peril.” He warned the public not to expect any solution to its cold war problems “in our lifetime.”
John Kennedy said, “Each day the crises multiply…. The tide of events has been running out and time is not our friend.” His New Frontier was hardly a place to look forward confidently to a better future. It was a place merely to survive the worst disasters that history might bring. The glimmer of ’60s hope was buried beneath the fears of the “silent majority.”
When Ronald Reagan proclaimed “Morning in America,” he was boasting only of staving off the “red menace” and blunting the winds of social change.
Four decades of cold war and a half-century of the nuclear age have taught us to hope for little more than survival. We may harbor private hopes for a better life for our family and friends. But a truly better public life seems out of reach. All public threats seem to portend apocalyptic destruction, and the best we hope for is that our leaders will manage them skillfully enough to avoid the worst. “Apocalypse management” has become our highest societal ideal.
The cynicism and despair about public life we bequeath to our descendants is the great legacy of this century. The great challenge of the next century is to revive belief in the basic principle of all real politics: people can get together to decide how they want to improve their world and then work together to make it happen.