When I was in my twenties and could not even imagine middle age, I realized I would be 44 in the year 2000. That seemed impossibly old. But as I neared that age and the century neared its end, I was in a different place than I had been twenty years before. Y2K notwithstanding (even my sensible middle sister hoarded water and food for the impending doom), on New Year’s Eve 2000 after I had seen for myself that in Australia and Europe the world had not indeed gone topsy turvy, I herded my then husband and children outside and we toasted in the new century with champagne as we watched fireworks over the Manatee River.
Science fiction notwithstanding, I didn’t expect enormous changes in the new century although I admit that the world’s fairs I had attended had offered the very attractive notions of flying cars and monorails, of swift-moving sidewalks and, perhaps, an end to the issues that that had plagued the 20th century. If I didn’t assume space colonies and robots and unisex clothing, I know that I could have never predicted that so much of what happens now, in this new century, would be achingly familiar. And not in a good way.
We are still engaged in useless wars, when we should have learned plenty from the last century’s horrific Viet Nam War. We are still worrying about gasoline prices and building cars that get 30 miles per gallon, when we should be driving, if not flying cars, at least electric ones—had those inroads in the last century not been squelched by the oil companies who are still, even as we speak, making record profits and getting government subsidies at the same time. We are still fighting religious wars in our own country and generating hatred of us abroad. We continue to be a seriously racist society in which a young man can be senselessly gunned down in a crime akin to one that happened 71 years ago. Women are still fighting for birth control rights, nearly 50 years after the invention of the pill, and fighting for abortion rights 39 years after Roe v Wade. Young people are marching in the streets to protest corporate greed, a greed that nearly brought on a new Depression, 83 years after the last one.
Women still don’t’ make as much as men do for the same work. Children are still being beaten and neglected and, around the world, sold into slavery. We are still struggling with immigrants hundreds of years after we were founded by immigrants.
It is disheartening to realize that we continue to fight the same old battles we have always fought, albeit now with instantaneous reporting. That civility has taken a back seat to righteousness.
We now sit and stare at smartphones and tablets and computers and even the oldest of us have learned to incorporate these devices into our lives. We may not be able to beam ourselves up and out of where we are but we can beam our locations and our opinions around the globe. It remains to be seen if that is ultimately a good thing or a bad thing.
When my father , out on a ship in the middle of the Pacific, sang the Christmas song with words that went “I’ll be home for Christmas…in 1969” it was because that was the farthest year he and his war buddies could imagine. And yet our leaders, our governments, don’t seem to be able to see any farther in the distance than my father did, if that far. Policies are made that don’t even begin to take the future into account; stopgap measures are put into place as though they made sense for more than a week. We budget in months, not decades. As though we know we have no real future to attend to.
But we do. The future is now. Now, in the 21st century we could, fairly easily, make huge and real changes that would reflect this new century. But we cling to old ideas, we rub salt in old wounds, we keep having the same old arguments, we revisit the same disagreement, like a husband and wife worrying a marriage. We can’t be of this century because we are stuck in the old one. Somehow the fact that things didn’t fall apart in 2000 gave us license to pretend that we could go on making the same mistakes, beating our heads against the proverbial wall and expecting a different result. A new kind of pain instead of the same old ache that has been plaguing us for centuries.
2012 may not look like 1492 or even like 1861 but it sure does bear a resemblance. We fight each other merely over ethnicity; we hate each other because of sex or blood or religion or opinion. When I read 1984 as a young teen I didn’t expect that that year would pass with so little fanfare even as the things it presaged were coming true. We are photographed and tracked and recorded and we allow all of it. But worse, we too often allow ourselves to sink to our lowest common denominator, over and over and over.
Flying cars, Rosie the robot housekeeper, moon colonies and the like would all be lovely. But I would rather have made more progress toward decency and equality and kindness and humanity than we seem to have made. I would rather the 21st century be a great place to live rather than a superb place to try and escape from.
(This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post)