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As first Truly global century draws to a close, Common experiences link much of mankind

Torrent of innovation webs together human race; coming next: But... was Dickens right?

By Earl W. FoellChief Editorial Writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 25, 1998


Nov. 24 - Poor Dickens! His opening words in "A Tale of Two Cities" are likely to be commandeered by innumerable writers trying to sum up the 20th century.

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For wasn't this, indeed, the best of centuries and the worst of centuries?

It was clearly both. But, arguably, the best outweighed the worst. Humanity did progress apace, harvesting the myriad fruits of the knowledge explosion. It also tried, fitfully, to devise institutions to prevent future germination of the dark fruits that blighted the century: genocides, world wars, the Great Depression, environmental recklessness.

During the 20th's triumphant and tragic course, the human race not only learned to fly (not just balloon) above the surface of the planet, but left Earth entirely for mankind's epic first ventures into the universe. In little more than half a century, flight speed rocketed from 6.8 miles per hour at Kitty Hawk to 17,500 m.p.h. at Cape Canaveral.

Humans literally took off for the first time in history. And the liftoff acceleration was mirrored in many earthbound fields. We sped toward a global civilization - linked by a floodtide of inventions, experiments in peacekeeping and global rule-making,

surging trade, and rapid communications.

Life was quantifiably better for a larger portion of the planet's people than ever.

By mid-century, French phi-lospher Raymond Aron glimpsed what he called "the dawn of universal history." That meant all of mankind at last starting to write on - and read off - the same page.

By century's end, the dawn of universal history had edged toward noon. (But not without casting heavy shadows.) The human race - with all its distinct ethnic tongues, foods, costumes, customs, and prejudices - moved perceptibly closer to one address. Call it

Jeans, Zines, cuisines

Humanity became webbed together in ways that would have startled that cultural export-import maven, Marco Polo. The main link was joint experiences - of World Cups; sitcoms dubbed in scores of languages; citizens born to those tongues but learning the worldtongue, biz-English; living room wars; jeans, zines, cuisines; ethnopop fusion; blockbuster traveling art shows; chain-linked economic booms and busts; Japanese cars built in Europe; German carmakers following German rocket scientists to Alabama; Mona Lisa printed on Asian handkerchiefs; and Beethoven's Ninth everywhere.

Much of this could be parodied, or even sneered at. But who's to argue that hearing the Ode to Joy for the first time in Beijing is any less moving a discovery than hearing koto music for the first time in Omaha. Nobody criticizes the 19th century equivalent: French Impressionists discovering Chinese brush painting, or Puccini galvanized by Asian music.

Free of gravity, little else

A more pertinent question at century's end is this: were humans freer than at the start?

Of gravity, yes.

Of terra incognita, yes.

Of colonialism, mostly.

Of racism, somewhat.

Of ideological blinders, the jury is out. Many ideologies were discredited and discarded, but new ones were fashioned. Those ranged from primitive cult of personality Kim-ism in North Korea to various fundamentalisms that rejected the modern world, to the lethal lure of Japan's Om cult, to the PC litany: Don't think; we're in charge of that.

And what about other historic ballast holding men and women down - the societal equivalent of gravity: War, cruelty, hunger, addiction, hubris, apathy, greed? Steps forward. Steps backward.

Martin Luther King's visionary cry "Free at last" saluted not astronauts but the human spirit and universal brother/sisterhood. On that score, freer at last - not free - is clearly a more realistic appraisal of this jampacked century.

The century and millennium end with major net progress. But it's a matter of progress in progress rather than progress fully accomplished.

Netting out progress

Decolonization left us nearly free of imposed empires for the first time in well over two millennia, but not yet free of other forms of despotism. It helped erode racism by getting rid of white rule over nonwhite subjects. But it still took further battles, like the epic struggle against apartheid in South Africa, to push brotherhood among humans beyond gospel, slogan, or UN declaration.