I was listening to "The Boy in the Bubble" last night from Paul Simon's Graceland. (Click on the preceding link to go to Amazon.com and listen to a clip. Click here to read the lyrics.) To me, the song is a beautiful distillation of the essential contradiction of the 20th century (whew, am I getting pretentious?) -- how so much progress could be accompanied by so much brutality?
As the century draws to a close (I refuse to get into arguments about when it really ends), I'm often jolted by its characterization as the most violent century in the history of humanity. Of course, that's true, but is that how we define the 20th century? Is it the century of Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin and Franco? Is it defined by the Katyn Forest, Hiroshima, Armenian genocide, Kosovo, and above all the Holocaust? Or is it the century of FDR, Churchill, Thurgood Marshall, Albert Einstein and Mandela? Is this the time of the rise of democracy, the defeat of polio and smallpox, suffrage, the birth of numerous art forms (cinema, jazz, rock, the weblog...) and the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem? "The bomb in the baby carriage" or "lasers in the jungle"?
Maybe I'm an optimist, but I think we come out of the 20th century better than the way we entered it. For example, look at Paul Simon's Graceland album. When it came out, his use of South African artists drew attention because of the issue of apartheid. Today, apartheid is...well, a memory. The situation that replaced it -- the crime and uncertainty -- is not ideal, but it is hard to argue that good has not been done. I think history will judge the 20th century as one where humanity took important steps in fundamental rights, revolutionized our technology, and started to use that technology in ways that underscored those rights.
But don't cry, baby, don't cry.