Hype, history & a new year

As the new year and new century dawns, we have much to be grateful for, not the least of which is that all the yammering about the millennium has finally reached its own End Time. From the interminable impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton to the false apocalypse of Y2K to the endless hype that gave us Talk magazine, the bullish stock market, and the promise of a Donald Trump presidential bid, 1999 threatened not only to usher in a new century but to last a century as well. Looking back, a hard-earned obscurity is all that can really be hoped for when it comes to the likes of Monica Lewinsky, Ken Starr, the Brooklyn Museum’s "Sensation" show, Bob Dole’s efforts to peddle Viagra, and Newt Gingrich’s impersonation of an outraged moralist. (Feel free to add your least favorite names to this list.) Still, most of what was with us last year-and the years before-will accompany us into the new century. No one knows what the future holds, except that it holds a good deal of the past.

The recent debates among the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, for example, suggest that the on-again, off-again dalliance between religion and politics may heat up during this year’s race for the White House. There is little in principle that is worrisome about the forthrightness with which the Republican candidates have proclaimed the importance of their religious views in shaping their political convictions-provided, of course, that such proclamations are candid, not cosmetic. In that light, Texas Governor George W. Bush’s choice of Jesus as his favorite "philosopher" did appear a bit stagey, perhaps especially to Bush’s former fraternity brothers at Yale and even to many people who share Bush’s sense of Jesus’ palpable presence in their lives. The governor’s unwillingness or inability to explain exactly how Jesus had transformed his life raised similar suspicions. Religious conversion can be a powerful force for good, but it is not a self-validating credential for public office. To the extent that the 2000 campaign consists of competing professions of faith, the most outspokenly agnostic candidates-should they come forward!-may begin to look better and better.

Agnosticism-at least when it comes to politics and religion, or even the politics of religion-should continue to be an invaluable attribute as the new century unfolds. Last month the Vatican announced the long-awaited beatification of John XXIII. Welcome news. Evidently not wanting to upset the perfect ideological balance of the celestial spheres, however, the Vatican also announced that Pius IX, the man who gave us the "Syllabus of Errors" and the doctrine of papal infallibility, was also being elevated. This is the sort of ticket balancing that would make a Chicago ward-heeler, if not a saint, proud.

Agnosticism also seems to be in order in New York State, where voters seeking to fill the Senate seat being vacated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan are faced with a duo as unlikely as that of John XXIII and Pius IX. The choice in November is likely to be between First Lady Hillary Clinton and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani-a heavyweight confrontation that may update the definition of the term Hobson’s choice. The sincerity of Mrs. Clinton’s claim of a deep and abiding interest in local politics-let alone her New York residency or love for the Yankees-is only rivaled by Giuliani’s operatic brand of cultural politics and bureaucratic warfare. Whether New Yorkers want to see the mayor’s tough-love social policies given a national stage in Washington is doubtful. But whether New York wants to be responsible for extending the run of the Clinton follies is perhaps even more doubtful. If hopelessly simplistic arguments about Catholic bashing (from the right and left) or the plight of the homeless (from the left and right) are to dominate the state’s public debate for the rest of the year, people may begin to long for the Y2K apocalypse. In fact, even the linkage of John XXIII and Pius IX begins to look good in this light.

None of the light-hearted rumination above is meant to denigrate Pope John Paul II’s more serious hopes for this Jubilee Year. The pope’s call for the church to examine its own history of intolerance, and his repeated efforts to apologize for the errors and sins of his predecessors, is one of the most dramatic and inspiring initiatives modern Catholicism has witnessed. And it is worthy of emulation by secular leaders as well. Certainly in the West, the broad consensus across ideological camps on the need for third-world debt relief-something the pope has eagerly endorsed-should be heeded. How to effect that relief so that it benefits the truly needy and not merely those currently in positions of power is the more difficult question. But the need to alleviate the burden is not.

Closer to home, the United States needs to significantly modify criminal justice policies that now place 2 million people in prison and jail. The United States has more people in prison than any other country in the world, with two-thirds of those incarcerated serving time for nonviolent offenses. Much of this crisis can be attributed to mandatory sentencing laws that often send first-time drug offenders to prison for fifteen or more years. Again, there is a growing consensus that incarceration rates this high are both morally scandalous and counterproductive. Nothing produces criminals like a prison. The impact on minority communities has been especially devastating, with one-third of black men now embroiled in the criminal justice system. Other ways must be found to deter crime, with drug and alcohol treatment programs as the first alternative for nonviolent offenders.

If progress could be made in the next year on these two issues, the "real" arrival of the millennium in 2001 would be an even greater cause for rejoicing. That won’t be easy. But 1999 did give some reason for optimism. After all, who ever imagined that Microsoft’s monopoly could be seriously challenged? Or that Donald Trump-possibly in answer to the fervent prayers of New Yorkers-would discover that he wanted to live in Washington, D.C.?

Published in the 2000-01-14 issue: 
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