20 Lessons of the 20th Century

Each of the following statements contradicts ideas prominently held at the beginning of the twentieth century:

1. There is no such thing as moral progress. The Holocaust occurred in a country considered among the most socially and morally sophisticated in the world: the country of Brahms, Bach, Kant, and Albert Schweitzer.

2. No language is truly dead. Hebrew had not been a spoken language for 2,000 years, yet was completely revived with the creation of Israel.

3. No culture need die. The survival of the Jews, the Rom people (Gypsies), and recently, the Tibetans, by creating a diaspora, shows that a culture can continue to exist despite military defeat and decimation. The question of what qualities a culture needs in order to create a successful diaspora, has not been answered in the twentieth century. In the early 1900s, Jews were found living in China, where they had been cut off from the rest of the world since 900. They had lost the ability to read Hebrew, but they still called themselves Jews and practiced circumcision.

4. There is no worldwide proletariat. Marxist and socialist predictions of a working class self-identity never occurred. Work as a core identity never became more important than other sources of identity.

5. Anti-urbanism (Communism) is a flawed political doctrine. The nations that adopted a Communist ideology were all agricultural, trying to retain agricultural social ideals in the face of urbanism. These nations (the USSR, China, Cuba, India, and Romania) were not able to maintain their anti-urban values throughout the century. The concept of Communism as primarily an anti-urban ideology is mine personally, but it seems to be confirmed by the history of the twentieth century.

6. Education is the primary economic and social resource. Several nations (Japan, Israel, Singapore, and Taiwan) have emerged as powerful economic units without natural resources; what they all have in common is a well-educated population.

7. Oil is of central importance in most social and economic structures. The outcomes of two world wars were determined by access to oil resources, and a war about that issue was fought by unified UN forces in the Persian Gulf. We had two wars popularly called "world wars," but they were really part of a long tradition of European wars with many international allies involved.

8. Trade is pervasive (industry has not replaced trade.) The colonization of Africa and urbanization in Russia and China assure that a Japanese Walkman and batteries are available for purchase by 99 percent of the people of the world. (Trade is different from industry. Industry developed in the mid-nineteenth century and expanded rapidly in the twentieth century. Trade continued to grow, as it had for the previous four hundred years. Trade is carried out by traders; it is merely the exchange of goods and services for money, and it does not require government or any other social infrastructure.

9. Industry needs stable government. Industry&emdash;businesses that require secure electricity, highways, and schools and provide customer support and maintenance&emdash;requires stability in government to provide legal and financial institutions. Contra-examples were found in Eastern Europe and most of Africa during the twentieth century.

10. Cities can survive alone. Singapore and Hong Kong have been successful city-states. They were joined by the Czech Republic, which is only Prague. It has long been an adage of economics and military strategy that a nation consisted of urban and rural areas, and that together they comprised an economically productive unit. It turns out that the city is the productive economic unit, which can buy food and military services on the world market.

11. There are no longer free goods on the planet. The oceans aren't big enough and the atmosphere is too small for all the human beings and their by-products to be dumped indiscriminately. DDT, a toxin, has been found everywhere on the surface of the planet, and underwater as well.

12. Land-based hatred is persistent. The hatred of people for their neighbors over the issue of rights to land is an unending source of hostility, killing, and war.

13. The Roman Catholic Church was an underlying cause of the Holocaust. From the Church's Fourth Council of Lateran in 1215, which decreed that European Jews were to wear yellow badges, the Church has promoted behavior that encouraged hatred of Jews.

It may be several centuries before the Holocaust is reasonably understood. It remains a highly charged emotional issue fifty years after the event. At this point, it is only evident that religious ideology, dating back seven centuries, provided fertile ground for this unusual historic event.

In March of 2000, Pope John Paul II declared peace with the Jews in Jerusalem.

14. A peaceful social rebellion that brings about significant change is possible. The Indian subcontinent was freed from British rule by Mahatma Gandhi, who served as an example for the successes of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Lech Wallensa. In the United States, a small movement for social participation by disabled people, led by Ed Roberts, also became successful on a worldwide scale, entirely using peaceful, morally potent means.

15. Nuclear weapons have had an effect on the conduct of war and international relations. Since their introduction in 1945, nuclear weapons have not been used in warfare. However, the awesome threat of their use has served to limit overt military actions to small proxie battles in geographic regions. The possession of nuclear weapons has been a vital organizing element in "nuclear age" alliances.

16. The outcome of a war is strongly affected by the political alliances that existed before the war. In dozens of wars during the twentieth century, the outcome was heavily influenced by the economic and military power of the allies of the initial belligerents. For example, World War I was initially a battle between families in the Austro-Hungarian empire, which spread next to adjoining countries with traditional alliances, then spread internationally to other countries within traditional alliances. Even when a major world power, such as the United States, lost a war when it entered as an ally (in Vietnam); the winner succeeded because of its vital support by its allies (the USSR).

17. The English language has continued to expand in significance in the twentieth century. At the beginning of the twentieth century, several languages vied for world dominance. Chinese had the largest numbers of speakers, French was a significant force in commerce, Latin was a core language in science and academia, and its co-language of Spanish had many speakers. English was important because of the British Empire and former colonies. Only English has continued to steadily expand throughout the century. English came to dominate in science, medicine and many technologies, in the entire air transport system, in commerce (in finance and management) and has become the global lingua franca of the Internet.

18. Commerce has become more significant in the world than religion, the military, art, and politics. At the beginning of the century, among the majority of well-educated people in the world, the individuals who sought personal power and recognition were disproportionately attracted to politics, the military, government, established religion, and the arts. That is no longer true. Commerce now attracts more individuals, seeking power, than all the other fields.

19. Science, technology, and medicine performed almost as expected in the twentieth century, except for the moral consequences. Most educated people at the beginning of the century expected science and technology to become increasingly important. They were right. However, it had negative effects on end-of-the-19th-century values: rural life has virtually disappeared, population has increased geometrically, and sexual morality is almost unrecognizable.

20. The population explosion that Malthus feared occurred in the late twentieth century, but it had expired by the end of the century. Because of global improvements in sanitation and medicine, infant mortality dropped drastically and life expectancy increased rapidly by mid-century. The consequence of the geometric population growth in the form feared by Malthus was evident by the 1970s. By the last decade of the twentieth century, the global expansion of life expectancy had ceased to be significant, and population growth lost its potential for disaster. (The two restraining forces that keep population from growing geometrically continued to increase in significance over the century. One is economic aspiration&emdash;which generates urbanism, education, and small families&emdash;the other is technology, which has given us better access to birth control.

Michael Phillips, 1998 (revised 2000)


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