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The Start of Something Big

As the end of the century approaches, we are seeking the important & extreordinary--inkeeping with a time of epochal thinking

January 04, 1998|Neal Gabler | Neal Gabler is author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood." His newest book is "Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Cult of Celebrity."

AMAGANSETT, N.Y. — Though we are still two years away from the new century and millennium, you can already sense the pressure they apply. These are the sorts of big partitions that divide historical epochs, and therein lies the source of pressure. Everyone wants our era to seem worthy of the moment, which gets people to thinking how the culture might rise to the occasion.

Just about 100 years ago, the country was infused with a sense of the momentous. The Spanish American War which, by any geopolitical measure, was completely unnecessary, was a symbolic success that demonstrated the nation's might and confirmed its standing on the global severe recession stage. Economic turmoil, capped by a severe recession in 1893, triggered a major reevaluation of relations between capital and labor out of which sprung everything from antitrust laws to the populist movement. Race relations again were landing loudly on the national agenda with the Supreme Court's Plessy vs. Ferguson decision, establishing the principle of "separate but equal." And in entertainment, the new medium of the movies was holding out the promise of redistributing cultural power from the elites to the masses.

None of these events was directly connected to any other, and an observer might have been excused for seeing their confluence as the kind of coincidence history often throws at us. But there was, in fact, something that did connect them--something so obvious that one isn't even likely to acknowledge it. All occurred as America was poised to cross the threshold of a new century, and the imminence of the century may have played some role in generating them.

"It was recognized by everybody as a turning point, a 100 milestone," one contemporary journalist said of the last turn of the century. "There was a human disposition to sum things up, to say who had been the greatest men of the century just closed, what had been the greatest books, the greatest inventions, the greatest advances in science." This was all true. Yet, there was another disposition, too. This was the disposition not only to summarize, but to aggrandize. As Americans strode into a new era they began to think in epochal terms, attempting to create a history large enough to fit the magnitude of the occasion. Hence, the events that erupted at century's end.

What was true then may be equally true now. Millennial thinking may be beyond the mental grasp of most of us, but centennial thinking is something else. As the 21st century approaches, many of us have a sense, albeit largely subliminal, of both moment and portent. No one wants a century to end with a whimper. One wants it to end with a bang. We want big dramatic events, clean endings and new beginnings, historical landmarks. Or put another way, if events can make epochs, why can't epochs make events?

It could be that much of what has been hyped recently in our culture as groundbreaking is a result of this sort of epochal thinking that inflates things to make them commensurate with centennial scale and to make us feel we are on the cusp of history. Take the Internet. Only the tiniest fraction of Americans regularly logs on, but we are inundated with reports about what the Internet portends for us. We all will be shopping over the Internet, learning over the Internet, communicating over the Internet, even watching TV over the Internet. One well-regarded futurist proclaimed it the most important invention since the printing press--though he may have been exaggerating simply because the idea of entering a new century without some radically new medium didn't seem right.

Or take social relations. In the last few years, the debate over race in America, traditionally rather desultory, has taken a new dogmatic turn. With a kind of finality not heard before, conservatives are calling for, and working toward, the sudden end of affirmative action and the beginning of a new color-blind public policy--in short, for a new era in race relations. At the same time, President Bill Clinton has tried to open a dialogue on race to usher in his own era of good feelings. Why did both sides wait so long? Well, it may just be some of that epochal thinking that makes people view a new century as a perfect time for a new social contract.

Or take the idea of destiny. Not coincidentally, a bit more than 100 years ago, historian Frederick Jackson Turner propounded his famous "frontier thesis," in which he asserted that the American frontier was the place where the American character was shaped, and declared the end of an epoch as that frontier disappeared. Ever since, Americans have been searching for new frontiers to conquer, but there seems a greater urgency now. The Sojourner probe to Mars sparked a renewed interest in space and has even led to increased calls to land people on the planet. Meanwhile, other pioneers are trudging biological frontiers with cloning and genetic engineering--again, big advances for big times.

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