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Millennium TV: A thousand years of history


How are you spending New Year’s Eve?

Some of us, I don’t doubt, have invitations to special parties in exotic settings -- the Pyramids, Windsor Castle, St. Peter’s Square or atop the Eiffel Tower.

A few inner-directed souls will tell themselves that this is just another night. They will deny the millennium. They will stay home, read a book and go to bed at 11:45 p.m.

Everyone else will watch TV.

To make sure we are watching TV, the media have been hyping the millennium, or the century -- in the press, on film, and, above all, on TV. The special issues of magazines and the “Sunday morning gasbags” have come on with their lists of “greats,” some more serious than others.

American Heritage (November) has cartoonist Edward Sorel pay homage to the century’s “20 Greatest Innovators of the Century,” with No. 1 as Philo T. Farnsworth (1906-1971), the inventor of TV. Time (Nov. 22) is preparing us for its announcement of the Person of the Century. George W. Bush and John McCain have nominated Winston Churchill; Al Gore has named Franklin D. Roosevelt. On Bob Schieffer’s “Face the Nation,” (Nov. 28), historian Douglas Brinkley nominated Franklin and Eleanor together: him for the “Four Freedoms” speech -- of speech, of religion, from want, and from fear -- and her for the Declaration of Human Rights, which she guided through the United Nations. Others named Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela

Gail Collins, in her New York Times column (Nov. 9), trying to lighten things up when she sensed that the millennium just wasn’t catching on, came up with a tentative list of the millennium’s top tunes. She and her friends included: “Ave Maria,” “La Marseillaise,” “Oh! Susanna,” “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” “After the Ball,” and “Auld Lang Syne.” Somehow they overlooked “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.”

On Sunday (Nov. 21) NBC tried to give viewers a jolt with “Y2K,” a sci-fi thriller in which planes crash, subways stop, an old man dies in an emergency room power failure, the lights go out in Times Square and a nuclear reactor almost melts down. The electrical companies, fearing viewers would mistake TV for reality, asked NBC not to run the show: But there was no need. NBC’s ratings were the lowest of the night and lower than “Mary, the Mother of Jesus,” the week before.

Meanwhile, a planned “Party of the Century,” a $25 million bash for rich people at New York’s Javits Center -- $1000 to $2,500 a head, featuring Andrea Bocelli, Aretha Franklin, Sting and chauffeur-driven limos for the first 2000 guests -- has been scotched for lack of interest.

Why so little concern? Columnist Charles Krauthammer suggests (New York Daily News, Nov. 22) that this is a much less religious age than the last millennium, and the birth of Christ is “less fraught with meaning.” At least he associates the event with Christ. A radio commercial for travel in Israel tells us, “See Israel for the millennium. Masada, Tel Aviv -- that’s what the millennium is all about.”

On PBS, “Frontline” presented a thoughtful two hours, “Apocalypse,” a scholarly consideration on how John’s Book of Revelation has been interpreted -- usually misinterpreted -- over the centuries. Explaining the Babylonian, Zoroastrian, Hebrew, Greek, and Roman origins of the complex imagery, they document its misuse by Pentecostal movements and cults. Contrary to the babble of contemporary fundamentalists who link up Biblical passages with contemporary events like the atomic bomb, the Arab-Israeli war and AIDS, this last book of the Bible is not a prophetic prediction of things to come but a Christian attempt to give hope during the Roman persecutions.

On Thanksgiving Eve, “Nightline” was honest enough to point out that since Christ was born not at year zero but about 5 B.C., the millennium we’re waiting for was actually about five years ago -- and nothing happened. Anyway, St. Thomas Aquinas told us in the 13th century not to think about it, that it’s all symbolism.

The media didn’t listen.

The New York Times Magazine tells us that the turning point of the last 1000 years was man’s replacing God as the center of the universe -- enabling each of us, who before the Renaissance didn’t even have last names, to achieve individual identity.

The New Republic (Nov. 8), gave Anthony Grafton 12 pages of small print to review six books on apocalypses and the millennium, in which he makes the useful point, citing Stephen Jay Gould, “that the millennium’s end -- like those of centuries, and the return of Halley’s comet and other dates to which prophets and historians have traditionally ascribed deep meaning -- is purely arbitrary.”

At most, these dates are an occasion for us to sit back and ask some questions about where we have been and where we are going.

The best way to do this is to study history. Watching CNN is not exactly studying history, but, at Ted Turner’s direction, the same team that made the admirable series, “The Cold War,” has produced the ten-part “Millennium,” the last part of which will air on Sunday, Dec. 12, at 10 p.m. It gives us much to think about, both by what it includes and what it leaves out.

If the Renaissance emboldened us to turn our gaze from the heavens to ourselves, in the 20th century, says CNN, we plunged beneath the surface self into the subconscious, the secret self. Whether the submerged self is the real self or its vanquished opposite is another question. But, as the 19th century belonged to Charles Darwin, the 20th has belonged to Sigmund Freud. Graphically the documentary depicts the archetypal imagery of tunnels, towers and inky whirlpools that allegedly reveal the hidden fears and forbidden loves of modern mankind.

Wisely the producers make no attempt to cover everything. Rather than focus on standard Western history, they present a global view. In its segment on the population explosion, as the narrator, Ben Kingsley, tells us that 6 billion people live on this planet and that Mexico City covers 1600 square miles of urban sprawl, the cameras zoom over the slims of Calcutta, India, and Mexico City.

Ours was the bloodiest century. We fine-tuned 19th-century technology so that in World War I one man with a machine gun could mow down a company in a minute. Once we had split the atom, one pilot and bombardier could annihilate cities of millions in seconds.

CNN passes over the familiar great leaders who gave us hope. No Winston Churchill, no FDR, no popes. Few, if any, religious leaders have made these lists of “greats.” These years belong to the devils: We see Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, both playing with little children. Then the faces of Freud, Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer -- who respectively taught us to dig into our sexual selves, to reach for the universe and to blow ourselves up.

Ultimately, ours has been the age of the “communications revolution.” We have banished solitude with the cell phone; silence with the stereo; both isolation and privacy with the TV camera and satellite dish, that lets all of us watch each other anytime, anywhere. When Princess Diana got married, 200 million saw her on TV. Two and a half billion saw her funeral.


After watching and reading all this stuff, two themes stand out. First, at least to historians and public intellectuals who do the measurements, the impact of religion has been small and is waning.

Either the people of the world are too distracted by either their comfort or their desperate poverty to listen to the gospel, or those who preach it don’t know what to say.

Second, the statistics show that, as America enjoys a delirious prosperity, worldwide the gap between the rich and poor has widened dramatically. Whole populations among that 6 billion are on the move -- some decimated by their own civil wars, others “yearning to breathe free.”

Which brings us to my Person of the Century. It’s the anonymous woman, the “Migrant Mother,” photographed by Dorothea Lange during the Depression. She is dressed in rags and covered with grime and nestles a baby in her left arm. Her older children cling to her, hiding their faces from the camera. Her right hand touches her face, and her eyes, hard, anxious, desperate, stare straight ahead.

Wondering what will come.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is writing a history and memoir of Fordham University.

National Catholic Reporter, December 10, 1999