A wish list for the 21st century

Just days after celebrants around the world heralded the arrival of a new millennium last month, American advertisers and journalists began engaging in an amusing sport: century-bashing.

"Leave the 20th century in the dust," urged a computer ad.

"Still getting your local and long-distance services from two different places? How 20th century," sniffed an ad from Bell Atlantic.

Advocating a "millennium makeover" at home, The Times of London told readers, "You have the perfect space, but it's looking so 20th century."

And a pre-Valentine's Day ad for diamonds read, "A card and some flowers? That's so 1999."

Ah, the poor 20th century. How quickly its inventions and customs have become outdated and discredited. Off with the old, on with the new - civilization marches on.

But in the quest for 21st-century progress, why stop with updating the small, tangible stuff - computers, phones, gifts, and home decor? These ads, for all their gentle humor, prompt a serious question: Why not also focus on larger cultural issues that need reconsideration and change - changes that could eventually leave the least desirable social trends of the 20th century "in the dust," as the computer ad put it?

Definitions of progress vary widely. But one highly personal wish list for a better and more humane 21st century includes these four ideals:

*First, end capital punishment. The United States stands alone among industrialized nations by continuing the death penalty in 38 states. Last month Gov. George Ryan of Illinois called for a moratorium on executions in that state, pointing out that a dozen men on death row had been proven innocent.

In a similar vein, Benetton, the clothing retailer, has just produced a controversial 50-page catalog - not an ad in sight - called "We, on Death Row." The project profiles 26 prisoners awaiting execution.

The catalog offers chilling statistics: Since 1976, the US has executed approximately 600 inmates, more than 190 of them in Texas alone. Approximately 100 of those 600 executions occurred in 1999. Most horrifying of all, conservative estimates indicate that at least 23 innocent people were put to death in the US in the past 100 years. What a tragic record to preserve in 20th-century history books.

*Second, get rid of lotteries. What has been called a "casino mentality" permeates American culture. For state governments to encourage gambling, however small the stakes, only increases its subtle allure. Lotteries have also helped to fuel a millionaire mentality. From "millionaire" game shows on television to "millionaire" bestsellers, the message, "Get rich," is pervasive. It drowns out the quieter cautionary note that richer is not necessarily synonymous with wiser or happier.

*Third, write fathers back into the family equation. In the past 30 years, fatherhood has fallen on hard times in the US. It has been beset by trends that include Hollywood's glorification of single motherhood, welfare policies that penalize fathers living in the home, and custody arrangements that make it hard for divorced men to see their children.

The National Fatherhood Initiative estimates that almost 40 percent of American children do not live with their biological fathers. It calls on religious institutions, among others, to take a leadership role in encouraging fathers to be present in their children's lives. Already the group sees hope in declining out-of-wedlock birth rates and a stabilizing divorce rate.

*Fourth, promote alternatives to a workaholic culture. Almost 50 years ago Josef Pieper, a German philosopher and author of "Leisure: The Basis of Culture," observed that "in our bourgeois Western world total labor has vanquished leisure. Unless we regain the art of silence and insight, the ability for nonactivity, unless we substitute true leisure for our hectic amusements, we will destroy our culture - and ourselves."

Leisure, Pieper added, "has been, and always will be, the first foundation of any culture."

Today his warnings are more relevant than ever as a 24-hour, seven-day society gains a global foothold, working to the detriment of individuals and families. It is not just a matter of getting time off, but of finding time for contemplation and renewal.

Wish lists for the new century could go on. But if more-enlightened attitudes gradually prevail in the next hundred years, Americans turning their calendars over to 2100 will be able to chart progress. Taking a cue from the ad writers of 2000, they can look back on outmoded practices and policies and say, "That was so 1999," and "How 20th century."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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