The punctilious say the century won’t end until midnight on the 31st of December 2000. Meanwhile, the other 99.99 percent of Earth’s denizens (or those who care about such things) prepares to celebrate the end of the decade, century, and millennium on December 31, 1999. Contrary to our custom, we bow here to the popular will, but just long enough to offer this paean to the Twentieth Century. After boldly diagnosing the last 100 years in a few hundred words, we also thrown in a prognosis for the next 100 years.
The American Century?
The Twentieth Century, like any other complex phenomenon, cannot be judged one-dimensionally. Let us begin by comparing it with the other centuries of our nationhood.
Yes, the Twentieth Century has been called the American Century, but that soubriquet reflects one of the least of our achievements as a nation, namely, our dominant role in world affairs. In any event, the American Century was the Eighteenth Century, when the greatest heroes of American history gave us liberty and framed the Constitution to assure liberty’s blessings unto their posterity. (Well, that’s how they talked in those days — you can look it up.)
The Nineteenth Century was decidely less stellar than the Eighteenth. The Nineteenth started well enough, with Mr. Jefferson in the White House, the purchase of Louisiana Territory, and the expedition of Lewis and Clark Then the British burned the Executive Mansion, causing it to be painted white (whence the White House). That was one of the first — but far from the last — whitewashings in Washington.
If the history of the presidency counts for anything in rating centuries, the Nineteenth weighs in with one great (Lincoln) and a whole flock of losers and nonentities: Van Buren, Harrison I (he of the 30-day term of office), Tyler (the “too” in “Tippecanoe and…”), Polk, Taylor, Fillmore (later an avowed Know-Nothing as that party’s candidate for President), Pierce (a New Hampshire dipsomaniac), Buchanan, Johnson I (he of the first impeachment trial), Grant (the bury-ee in Grant’s Tomb), Hayes, Garfield, Arthur (call me Chet), Cleveland (who, unlike Billy-boy, fessed up to his sins before he was caught lying about them), Harrison II, and McKinley.
In the Twentieth Century, there have been three honorable Presidents — Coolidge, Truman, and Reagan — surrounded by a sea of fools and scoundrels: Roosevelt I (a Napoleonic nut-case), Taft (the answer to two trivia questions: heaviest and only one to become Chief Justice), Harding (sex-Clinton I), Hoover and Carter (two humorless engineers), Roosevelt II (our first socialist President), Eisenhower (principle-Clinton I), Kennedy (sex-Clinton II), Johnson II (wager of disastrous wars on poverty and Vietnamese civilians), Nixon (truth-Clinton I), Ford (duh!), Bush (principle-Clinton II), and Clinton (combining the worst of Harding, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, and Bush — oversexed, unprincipled, and a congenital liar).
The Twentieth Century may have been the century of American power, but it has not been a century to be proud of if you still have any principles.
Major Themes of Century XX
The century’s dominant theme was established in its first decade: Capitalism became evil incarnate and — in the name of fighting evil — the federal government began to usurp the socializing roles of family, friends, neighborhood, and church. The second and third decades should have disillusioned the true believers in progress through government, as Wilson led us into the charnel-house called Europe and the sons and daughters of Carrie Nation led us into Prohibition. But prosperity casts a rosy glow on the sordid truth, as attests Clinton’s survival of l’affaire Lewinsky.
The fourth decade — specifically, the Great Depression — legitimated the federal government’s seizure of power in the name of “good.” The President and other elected officials became Santa Claus incarnate, doling largesse and special privileges to the masses in return for their votes, at the expense of the objects of the masses’ envy. Judges briefly and episodically resisted the power grab, then joined their executive and legislative brethren in the rape of the Constitution.
Succeeding decades saw more wars (perhaps only one of them was not a senseless exercise in presidential megalomania), more “social progress” (read aggrandizement of government), more “freedom” (read erosion of moral and ethical standards), more crime, and less civility. More crime and less civility being the direct result of moral and ethical erosion; moral and ethical erosion being a by-product of aggrandized government (the “nanny” state).
Other than that, it’s been a peachy 100 years. Somehow, our high standard of living (which would be even higher were it not for senseless wars and aggrandized government) doesn’t make up for all the rest. But perhaps the prospect of the “grand nanny” of them all — Ms. Rodham-Clinton — lecturing us from the well of the Senate is makes us just a bit peevish.
Inside and Outside
Each decade’s foreign adventures reflected the home front’s view of the world outside. In the 1900s, government could do no wrong: it busted trusts, stole Panama, and sailed the Great White Fleet — all to great acclaim from the masses. A decade later it was time to assuage national guilt and get into a serious war, but only after much vacillation about what side to join. As if in atonement for trust-busting days of the first decade, the Marines were enlisted to the aid of capitalism in the “Banana Republic” skirmishes of the 1920s.
In the 1930s, the hangover from the Great War and the cancer of the Great Depression sapped our willingness to confront the most potent (but nevertheless distant) threat to national sovereignty since 1812. But Roosevelt II, with the unwitting help of the foolhardy Nipponese, managed to drag us into another foreign war. The feat of vanquishing not one but two legitimate powerhouses, awakened the will to power that lurks just below the skin of every politician and policy wonk.
The poobahs on the Potomac — who reap vicarious ego gratification (and perhaps sexual gratification) from the very thought of being at the center of world power — demanded that we stay in the arena so that we could shape the world in the American image. (Well, in the self-image of an all-wise, all-powerful effete stratum of the Eastern establishment and its acolytes, who come from all regions and walks of life to sniff at the seat of power.) Whence the misbegotten Korean War, the utterly tragic Vietnam War, and the various travesties, gunboat diplomacies, and chest-thumpings known as the invasion of Grenada, “peacekeeping” in Lebanon, the bombing of Tripoli, the confrontation with Iran, the seemingly endless Persian Gulf War, the feckless “humanitarian” excursion into Somalia, and the “humanitarian” bombing of Kosovar civilians so that the “good” thugs of the country formerly known as Yugoslavia can take their turn at savagery.
Thus has self-interested isolationism — like constitutional government — given way to the self-indulgent whims of the “wizards” behind the curtain of the ominscient, omnipotent state.
Historical Determinism Revisited
Moralists would say that the Great Depression was the price we paid for the Roaring Twenties. If that is so, think what might lie beyond the turn of the millenium. In any event, there may be something to the theory that what we sow in one decade we reap in the next.
The “gay” 1890s gave way to the “uplifting” 1900s, when such moralists as Frank Norris, Ida Tarbell, and Roosevelt I strode the land. Their moral vigor gave way to the next decade’s Great War and the disillusionment it wrought. What could follow moral disillusionment but the amoral and “immoral” goings on the the materialistic 1920s? We paid for that holiday from reality with the plunge into the Great Depression and the rise of fascism.
Our indifference to fascism led to the next decade’s Greater War and thence to the Cold War. Fatigue set in, and the 1950s became the decade of “complacency,” featuring such entertainments as “Ozzie and Harriet,” “I Love Lucy,” and President Eisenhower’s studiedly incoherent ramblings at press conferences.
“Down with complacency,” said the children of the 1960s. “Up with the people (of all colors), down with imperialistic, paranoic foreign adventures, up with sex and drugs and rock and roll,” they chanted. And they were mostly right — but some of them became what they had hated and…but I digress.
If the 1960s began in hope and ended in despair, the 1970s began in despair and ended in despondency. It was a decade of unremitting bad news, from the presidency and resignation of Nixon to the “oil shock” to double-digit inflation to the seizure of American hostages by Iran. There was nowhere to go but up, and up we went, through most of the 1980s and — with a breather for another foreign adventure and a brief recession — on into the 1990s: ever more prosperous, ever more hopeful of the future — materially if not spiritually.
And so here we are in what should be called — for more than one reason — the “gay” 1990s: where “rights” flourish and responsibilities diminish; where more and more parents neglect their children and blame the schools (if not society) for the tragic results of that neglect; where gratuitous sex and violence pass for entertainment; where reading, writing, coherent speech, and good manners are practiced more in the breach than in the observance; where those who believe in and practice personal responsibility are simply sick and tired of giving a free ride to the indolent and self-indulgent (of all colors, genders, and political persuasions across all socio-economic strata).
Just when you think things can’t get worse, they do. It’s not hard to imagine a United States in which the following new “rights” have been legislated and/or adjudicated:
- Animals may not be kept as pets without a license from the Department of Animal Rights & Welfare (DARW), whose inspectors may enter any home at any time in order to ensure that pets are being treated in accordance with the Animal Bill of Rights.
- Animals and their produce (e.g., meat, eggs, feathers, manure) may be raised and processed only on “reservations” controlled by the DARW.
- Guns may not be kept for any purpose — not for self-defense and (of course) not for hunting — by anyone other than law enforcement officers and members of the armed forces.
- Because criminals are merely misguided or genetically defective products of society they may not be punished. Rather, society must be punished by turning criminals loose to exact their vengeance on it.
- Because incessant media attention to every politician’s peccadilloes merely demoralizes the public — and because politicians are merely misguided or genetically defective products of society — the media may no longer report news about politics or politicians without a license from the Department of Happiness. Licenses are granted only to Hollywood producers who agree to produce uplifting “documentaries” of politicians in action (e.g., “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” with James Stewart but without Claude Rains and his cronies).
- Health care is socialized — no more ifs, ands, or buts; no more half-baked efforts to screw up the world’s best system of health care. It’s socialized and screwed up for good because Republicans — weary of being called “meanies” — give in on the last issue on which they differ from Democrats.
“How,” you ask, “could all of that happen?” Simple…Al Gore is elected President in 2000 and re-elected in 2004, with Ms. Rodham-Clinton as his running mate the second time. Ms. R-C shoots Gore at his second swearing in. She pardons herself (as a misguided product of society) and the Chief Justice swears her in — at gunpoint. In case you’re wondering, Ms. R-C was authorized to carry a gun because, following her unsuccessful Senate race in 2000, she became Gore’s Attorney General. (That’s called “first the good news, then the bad news.”)
And it goes downhill from there…