Jewish World Review Nov. 19, 1999 /10 Kislev, 5760
Where's the 2000 Buzz?
WHERE IS THE PANIC? Where is the hysteria? Where are the men in robes
and placards warning of the imminent end of the world? There are just six
weeks left before the turn of the millennium, and things are so quiet and
sober that one hardly senses a fin-de-siecle atmosphere, let alone millennial
The hounds are not barking. Why is the most portentous, widely
anticipated turn of the calendar being greeted with such apparent
One answer, I suppose, is that ours is a far less religious age than 100, 200
or certainly 1,000 years ago. The millennium of the birth of the Christian savior is
accordingly less fraught with meaning.
But in a culture as suffused as ours with secular superstitions -- belief in
UFOs, psychic phenomena, astrology and psychoanalysis, for
example -- the advent of a rare and magical number, regardless of its
religious origins, might be expected to generate some anticipatory, if not
Hence a more plausible explanation: We have already had our burst of
millennialism. It came early -- about two decades early. The late '70s and
early '80s saw a remarkable, if brief, efflorescence of apocalyptic dread.
Why then? Because a mere odometer rollover is not sufficient to cause
millennial stirrings. Bad times are required, too. And the '90s are good
times. The bad times hit two decades ago, a time of oil shocks, stagflation
and post-Vietnam demoralization.
It was a time rife with foreboding and trepidation, from the influential Club
of Rome report predicting catastrophic resource depletion and economic
collapse, to Hal Lindsey's "The Late Great Planet Earth," a fundamentalist
tract linking modern events to the biblical apocalypse.
The hunger for apocalypse was insatiable. "The Late Great Planet Earth"
went through 21 printings in its first 26 months. (It was the No. 1 nonfiction
bestseller for the entire decade of the 1970s.) Its secular equivalent,
Jonathan Schell's "The Fate of the Earth," laid out in equally lurid detail the
coming nuclear apocalypse. It begat the granddaddy of panics, the nuclear
hysteria of the early '80s.
A rehearsal of sorts occurred in 1979, when the coincidence of Three Mile
Island and the movie "The China Syndrome" stoked a mini-panic over
nuclear power. But it was the specter of nuclear war that soon invaded the
Text was provided by Schell. Video was provided by "The Day After," the
ABC-TV movie depicting a nuclear attack on the United States. (It
sparked such alarm that psychological counselors were assigned to schools
throughout the country to deal with the morning after "The Day After.")
Drama was provided by now forgotten organizations like Ground Zero that
offered symbolic reenactments of all the burning, melting and exploding that
would attend the coming Armageddon. Heavy thinking was provided by
such fashionable figures as psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, who diagnosed
those resisting the anti-nuclear hysteria as suffering from "psychic numbing"
|Give it up, guys.
The panic engendered countless demonstrations, culminating in the New
York City disarmament rally of June 1982, by some estimates the largest
demonstration in American history.
And then it all vanished.
Perhaps every generation has only one millennial panic in it, and we've
already shot our wad.
But I'd venture one more reason why the millennium is being approached
with such psychic equanimity: the Y2K computer problem. My theory is
that Y2K is ironically having a dampening effect on the free-floating anxiety
one might have expected with the advent of the millennium.
The Y2K computer problem, being real, has taken that anxiety and
focused it. It has taken an irrational dread--2000 is, after all, just an
arbitrary number--and rationalized it. For the first time in history, the
turning of the calendar corresponds to a real event in the physical universe.
Y2K takes the new millennium out of the realm of metaphysics and
reduces it to a problem of engineering.
With everyone racing to fix their computers, there is very little time for idle
speculation about the apocalypse. True, a minor cottage industry of
catastrophe speculation has grown up, with suitably millennial predictions
of airplanes falling out of the sky, elevators and economies coming to a
halt, and general dislocation and chaos on Jan. 1.
Yet what little credence these predictions have been given--and it is not
much--has actually helped deflect more cosmic millennial fears. The Y2K
apocalypse, unlike any other ever anticipated, is fixable by human agency:
a few lines of computer code.
The fix may cost a lot--by the reckoning of experts, some $100 billion to
$300 billion. But it is a bargain, a small price to pay for the service Y2K
renders during a potentially mind-addling metaphysical moment: keeping us
sane and focused on the
Comment on Charles Karauthammer's column by clicking here.
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