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Jewish World Review Jan. 2, 2001 / 7 Teves 5761

Don Feder

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Requiem for a century

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- HOW TO write a requiem for the most tumultuous century in history -- in a few hundred words? Start with the vital statistics. The 20th century was born on Jan. 1, 1901, and died at midnight on Dec. 31, 2000. The roughly 36,500 days in between saw more drama, triumph, tragedy, progress, hope and despair than any comparable period in history.

Say something about how far we've come. In 1901, there were 76 million Americans, about a quarter of our current population. Roughly 60 percent lived in rural communities of fewer than 2,500 people.

The average laborer worked 10-hour days, six days a week. Horses were still the principle mode of transportation. (In the first year of the century, only 8,000 Americans owned horseless carriages.) Henry Ford's Model T was six years in the future. It would be almost three years before the Wright brothers flew 852 feet in a heavier-than-air conveyance.

American homes were lit with candles and gas lamps, and heated with wood or coal. There were few labor-saving devices. (An ice box was high technology.) Entertainment was a book -- or, for the less educated, Vaudeville.

Today we are far cleaner, healthier, and better fed and clothed than our turn-of-the-century counterparts. On average, our lifespan has increased by almost 30 years. Medical miracles -- open-heart surgery, organ transplants, chemotherapy, decoding DNA (the key to human genetics) -- are everyday occurrences.

We are a nation of multiple-car families. We can fly around the world in a matter of hours and communicate with the far reaches of the globe in seconds.

Through cable television, VCRs and DVDs, each home is a theater with a virtually endless assortment of dramas, comedies and tales of adventure played out before us on command. With personal computers and the Internet, we have access to more information than encompassed by the volumes of all the world's great libraries 100 years ago.

Now, delineate the dark side. From Verdun to Vietnam and Auschwitz to Phnom Penh, it was the century of mechanized slaughter and mass murder.

More than 36 million men in uniform died in the century's top 20 wars alone. There were at least as many civilian casualties. Millions more perished in purges, planned starvation and genocide. We've developed the technology (chemical, biological and nuclear) to end all life on this planet.

This is the century of the ideologue -- where millions of men, women and children were crucified on a cross of class struggle and master race theories. During the First World War, the poet Thomas Hardy observed: "After 2,000 years of Mass; we've got as far as poison gas." Physical terror has been matched by a creeping sickness of the soul. Especially in the second half of the century, we've become a society of gross spectacle, habitual voyeurism, casual immorality, entrenched cynicism and rampant nihilism.

In his book "Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, " historian Modris Eksteins explains how the First World War, the century's defining tragedy, was a manifestation of the modernist impulse. War was seen as the path to liberation, individual as much as national.

And liberation -- casting off the restraints of culture, society and history -- was the 20th century's driving force. Where once we found solace in faith, felt secure in the social order and were grateful for what existence sent our way, now the great urge is toward exultation of the self.

Ironically, as Eksteins points out, because violence is seen as salutary if not necessary in sweeping away confining institutions, this push for liberation often ends in a release from life -- on the battlefield, in the killing fields, in the gulags, in the gas chambers.

Philosophers of the 19th century confidently announced God's demise. Ideologues of the 20th century showed us just how ghastly existence could be with a gaping hole in the soul.

If the century's salvation is anywhere to be found, it's in the words and deeds of its heroes -- men of indomitable courage like Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, individuals who personified compassion (Albert Schweitizer and Mother Teresa), storytellers like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Frank Capra, as well as the millions of ordinary folks who led quiet lives of dignity and decency.

Words are poor tools to convey a sense of the century just past. But, like the New Year, the new century is a blank page. It's up to us to write words thereon that will redeem the worst of the 20th century.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder's latest books are Who is afraid of the Religious Right? ($15.95) and A Jewish conservative looks at pagan America ($9.95). To receive an autographed copy, send a check or money order to: Don Feder, The Boston Herald, 1 Herald Sq., Boston, Mass. 02106. Doing so will help fund JWR, if so noted. He is also available as a guest speaker. To comment on this column please click here.


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