The Magazine


Sep 8, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 50 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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Even by Washington's standards, where a "profoundly historic event" is said to occur about once every month, the millennium promises to stand out as a rarity. After all, we have had only one millennium before this one, and a prudent person might entertain doubts if there will ever be a third. So history can only judge between 1000 and 2000. From the limited accounts available of the first millennium, Otto III's national millennium program was designed to counteract a widespread sense of foreboding and doom. According to the great chronicler of the millennium, Rodulfus Glaber (980-1046), signs were viewed everywhere as ominous portents of the end of the world, as foretold in the book of Revelation. Others report that on the dreaded New Years's Eve of 999, a huge crowd assembled in Rome expecting the Last Judgment. But even those like Glaber, who all along doubted this populist eschatology, saw the millennium as a moment in which man stood under God's judgment and was to take stock of things. In verses he composed for the occasion, Glaber wrote:


A thousand years since the Lord was born on earth of a Virgin,

Men act with the gravest of errors. . . .

Our people now mock past generations,

Mixing pleasure and debauchery.

They fear not scandal and scorn serious matters. . . .

The Republic groans under soft rule.

If God's great pity did not delay His wrath,

Hell would engulf us in its frightful mouth.

Happily, our millennium is not in the grips of Glaberite gloom and doom. We are in control of things, and, as President Clinton assured us, we can " imagine the future." It is our millennium to fashion just as we want -- for our children. This hopeful view is by no means the intellectual property of the Clintons alone, but is characteristic of the thinking of much of their opposition on the right. A Jack Kemp in the White House would be using the occasion to push for Millennium Enterprise Zones to guarantee hope, growth, and opportunity until 3000. The Clintons, in fact, have adopted a historical narrative with the appearance of greater depth, using race and racism as elements of pathos to be overcome in a struggle for human dignity. The great story of the millennium, as the Clintons tell it, is the battle to recognize and celebrate our diversity. By contrast, much of the modern Right seeks to overcome nothing, unless it is higher marginal tax rates. Whichever of these easy versions, left or right, prevails in Washington, it is unlikely to lead the way to an American millennium. Without a genuine sense of the tragic -- of the fragility and yet the possibility of things -- there can be no preparation for greatness.

It is not, of course, that Americans face no challenges at the end of the millennium. As the president said, we have a particularly great problem, which he is prepared to confront head on. Can we prevail? "I want to assure the American people that the federal government is taking steps to prevent any interruption in government services that rely on the functioning of federal computer systems." Stupor Mundi!

James W. Ceaser is professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia and the author of Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought (Yale University Press).