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Jewish World Review Dec. 31, 1999 /22 Teves, 5760

Cal Thomas

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America and the new gilded age --
AS AMERICA PREPARED to enter the century just past, Mark Twain observed the fabulously wealthy and the fabulously poor and cynically asked, "What is the chief end of man? -- to get rich. In what way? -- dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must.''

It is true that during what came to be known as the "Gilded Age,'' capitalism had run amok. There was widespread corruption and wealth was displayed ostentatiously. The rich were covered with diamonds. The poor were covered with rags. In 1890, 11 million of the nation's 12 million families earned less than $1,200 per year. Within this group, the average annual income was just $380, well under the poverty line.

The beginning of a new year/century/millennium finds the United States and much of the world, though not all, considerably better off than a century ago. Many are breathing freedom's air in our generation because Americans were willing to spill their blood for the principle that freedom was not our exclusive property, but rightly belonged to the world.

The future promises medical breakthroughs that could soon lead to cures for cancer, AIDS and other horrible diseases, along with fantastic new technological advances that would show the sky is no longer a limit, but only a stage through which one passes to new limits, which themselves will be exceeded in future generations.

In all of this anticipated change, there is one constant. Human beings remain capable of great cruelties and their covetousness will lead to new wars and conquests. While life spans probably will be extended by a few years, perhaps a decade or two, and worn body parts may be replaced with laboratory creations that will do the work of the original, human nature remains the same.

Communism died in the last century, but something will replace it. Terrorism, the disease of twisted minds and souls, showed at the end of the year that its mere threat can force us indoors and alter our behavior.

In the Gilded Age, people forgot about the moral foundations that lead to the abolition of slavery and mostly kept culture from excess. Money tends to attract the allegiance of those making lots of it and they, in turn, begin to trust in their riches and ignore everything else.

While there is much for which to hope and dream, true progress will not be achieved until we do something about our broken homes, our focus on materialism and inattention to true value, which is not found in money but in our fellow humans, born and unborn, handicapped and "normal,'' and the poor. Vulgarity surrounds us. "Anything goes, but nothing lasts,'' said a New York times article as the 1990s began. How much truer at that decade's end.

The new century brings new opportunities and new challenges we have not yet realized and some we'd rather not think about. This century can be the American century more than the last one, or we could do ourselves in, as have former empires that trusted in their riches and temporal power to the exclusion of more important things.

In the midst of progress, more people were killed at the hands of their own governments during the 20th century than in all of the century's wars combined. Should true progress be measured by the amount of bread in the pantry, or the integrity level in our souls; by our military prowess or by the number of people who wind up in graves before their time?

C.S. Lewis wrote about the dangers of what he called "contented worldliness,'' the state in which one finds one's self when prosperity becomes the center and focus of life.

Each generation must learn the rules of life anew. History repeats for those who learn nothing from it. Our ancestors learned nothing or they would not have repeated their ancestor's mistakes. Will we be any better? Probably not. But one can hope. And dream. And pray. Happy New Year/Century/Millennium. And be careful of the gilding.

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