Suffering through any of the television millennial coverage was enough to make one long for a return to the Dark Ages. Each of the networks outdid the other in pretentiousness, as if hyping their own self-importance as chroniclers of the event added momentousness to the event itself. All featured the usual gaggle of talking heads, who filled the airwaves with mindless blather that dissolved into ether as soon as it was uttered.
It’s a toss-up as to which was worse. But if a prize had to be given the winner, it would be ABC, which touted its programming as “The biggest live global event in television history!,” and stayed on the air for 24 hours, beginning on the early morning of December 31. Out of a perhaps perverse curiosity, I tuned in from time to time as the day wore on. Host Peter Jennings was showing the strain eight hours into the broadcast. By the 15th hour, he was barely coherent, and at the end, he was reduced to blubbering. Of course, by then, only insomniac mental patients were watching.
Throughout the day, viewers were treated to an endless stream of politically correct banality, highlighted by an on-the-spot piece of pro-Castro propaganda by Cynthia McFadden that might have been penned by Fidel himself. For comic relief, it was hard to top the treacly interview between Cokie Roberts and her mother, Lindy Boggs, who now serves as ambassador to the Holy See. About this, the less said the better, but it is worth noting that their embarrassing and instantly forgettable exchange was, so to speak, the theological high point of ABC’s coverage. If you had just arrived from Mars and wondered what the fuss was all about, you would have been hard pressed to figure out why the arrival of the third millennium (never mind about the dates) had any religious significance at all.
Not to be outdone, the news magazines weighed in with their own paeans to a pagan world.
The highlight of Time’s special millennium issue was a gaseous “Letter to the Year 2100” by Roger Rosenblatt, who brought new meaning to the definition of narcissistic excess. Few people in our time consistently manage to say so much about so little: Neither a memorable line nor thought emerged from his endless trek through the contents of his millennial mind.
Newsweek at least spared us any such deep-dish thinking but, like Time, bent over backwards to avoid reference to the religious import of the occasion. It did present a full-page photo of the pope delivering his New Year’s message from his apartment balcony, and a couple of pages later mocked a group of Christian millennialists in Ohio who believe that 2000 will be the year of the Rapture. That pretty much exhausted the editors’ religious sensibilities in an issue that devoted two full pages to a shooting in a New York City night club, four to the latest movies and entertainment, and five to the rise of the self-help industry. Chesterton was right: The striking thing about those who no longer believe in God is not that they believe in nothing but that they will believe in anything.
One somehow expected more from the Economist, but its “Millennium Special Edition,” weighing in at a mailbox crushing 140 pages, presented an historical romp through the past 1,000 years that can only be described as a hymn to triumphal materialism. Christianity is notable only insofar as it failed, one of many historical artifacts, along with, say, the rise of Islam and the invention of oral contraceptives, that give definition—only God knows how—to something called western civilization. Like undergraduates who overdosed on their first history lectures at Oxford and Cambridge, the editors exhibited playfully cynical dubiety about almost everything antedating last week or last year.
But of one thing they were absolutely sure, with a tenacity rivaling the conviction of the most purblind devotee of medieval mysticism: The overthrow of religion by science is not only a certifiably good thing but a permanent feature of the human condition.
Even as the magazine appeared, an aging but still remarkably vigorous John Paul II delivered his Urbi et Orbi (To the City and the World) homily from the central loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica, remarking the inauguration of the Jubilee Year and reminding the world that the mystery of mankind’s divine adoption is the one truth that can make men free—yesterday, today, and forever. Perhaps even Cokie, Peter, Roger, and the editors of the Economist paused long enough to listen, and to give thanks.