Fanfare For The Common Man

They don't look like heroes. They stand there tired, drooping, unshaven. They are rarely seen in action, and when they are, they're generally slumped in a foxhole, taking a breather and having a smoke. Yet Willie and Joe, cartoonist Bill Mauldin's evocation of the American GI in World War II, became the indelible symbol of the war effort. Thanks to Mauldin and other correspondents, World War II was the first war that was reported from the trenches, as well as the command posts. There, they found ordinary guys; they did their bit, they lived or died and they won. And in winning, they remade the world.

The 20th century has been an era of Willies and Joes (and Thelmas and Louises), whatever country they lived in and whether they wore uniforms or overalls or suits. As it draws to a close, let's sound a Fanfare for the Common Man. For this has been a century when he (and she) stepped out of the shadows of history and led the forces of change. Empires crumbled, dictators fell, colonialists let go, "great men" faded. "Elite" became a dirty word, and--for good and ill--authority in all its guises came under attack. Democracy, once a controversial form of government, became the norm to which pretty much everyone aspired. And though democracy's definition was often vague and its operation imperfect, as 2000 approached the world's people had a far greater say in their own governance than they did when the century began.

It was hardly a benign century--two terrible world wars saw to that, and the word "genocide" had to be coined for state-sponsored murder on a horrific scale. But there was at least one zone of steady and astounding progress: in medicine, science and technology, there has never been a period of such rapid advance. The beneficiaries were ordinary people. And culture, once the province of the highbrow and the avant-garde, overwhelmingly became popular culture.

In this century, great men have not stood easily on their pedestals. As the flashlights of history poke into dark corners, hardly a hero has been left unflawed. FDR and JFK were adulterers, Winston Churchill a heavy drinker. It has reached the point where some people--Kurt Cobain, Princess Diana--are admired for their faults, as if their lapses made them more endearing. Instant celebrities were our idols, and the most common man could become the great man, at least for Andy Warhol's allotted 15 minutes.

And heroes have not been the only victims of the age. In the realm of ideas and ideology, this has been a Century of the Trash Heap. We are ending the century by tossing out most of the theories that seemed fresh and invigorating 100 years ago. Marx and Lenin, their followers told us, pointed the way to a brave new egalitarian future that worked. It was a spectacular failure. Sigmund Freud burrowed into the unconscious, purporting to discover buried motives and inner demons that could be exorcised by "psychoanalysis." Today his work seems less scientific than literary, and the demons of mental illness respond more readily to drugs than to talk. In the arts, the gods of modernism have lost most of their worshipers.

Whatever wrong moves we have made in this century, it would be a mistake to imagine that we've simply wandered back to where we were 100 years ago. History has no U-turns. But many of the issues that confronted us as the new century began seem almost like premonitions of issues that are still before us. Women were demanding the vote, and comfortable assumptions of the late 19th century were cracking. Many of them were soon to be utterly shattered by the event that, more than any other, set the course of the century--the first world war.

That conflict cost much more than 9 million lives. It swept away four empires--the German, the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian and the Ottoman--and an aristocratic style of leadership throughout Europe. It triggered the Russian Revolution. It bled the treasuries of Europe dry, bringing the United States to the fore as the richest country in the world. It led the way, in Germany, to the advent of Adolf Hitler. It redrew the map of Central Europe but not well: while the victors mouthed lofty Wilsonian principles like "self-determination," in practice they cooked up a messy tribal goulash that Europe has still not digested. One of their brilliant inventions was Yugoslavia.

Then, in the '30s, the West slid into the Great Depression. The international trading system seized up as countries scrambled to cut back on imports to protect their own industries and their foreign exchange. As millions lost their jobs, the capitalist system itself seemed to be in peril. Among young intellectuals, the Marxist model gained luster, not so much from its achievements in Russia--where mass starvation and brutal population transplants were blissfully overlooked--as from the boom-and-bust harshness of capitalism, which the Depression made so painfully evident. The world economy was saved only by the massive arms buildup of the second world war.

The overarching theme of the century's first half was the rise of state power. The totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy and Russia were only the grotesque extremes. The democracies, too--in response to the totalitarian challenge and to the economic breakdown of the '30s--expanded central government, giving it leverage over the economy and a role in the lives of ordinary citizens that it had not had before. The nations of Western Europe, as they rebuilt after the war, erected elaborate "welfare states," under which the government took over responsibility for education, health and basic old-age pensions.

The theme of the century's second half was liberation--of women, of blacks, of information, of colonies around the world and of people living under communist regimes, most of which collapsed in the remarkable years between 1989 and 1991. Everywhere, established authority was called into question. Both communication and travel vastly accelerated; people and commerce were no longer prisoners of distance. A new phenomenon, the Internet, hooked up the entire planet; it existed nowhere (where exactly is "cyberspace"?) and was regulated by no one--a perfect symbol of the increasingly libertarian spirit of the time.

The second half of the century was notable, too, for something that did not happen: the world was not razed by thermonuclear war. The cold war stayed cold, in part because each side was grimly aware of the awful destruction that the other could wreak. The angry stalemate acted as a force for stability and prosperity, at least in the industrialized world. There was no stopping lower-level conflicts, however, in what came to be called the "Third World" as these nations struggled to free themselves from colonialism. India suffered a terrible spasm of murderous violence between Hindus and Muslims when British rule ended. Algerian rebels fought a long war against France. Perhaps inevitably, the anticolonial struggle became enmeshed in the cold war. First in Korea and then in Vietnam, the United States intervened in postcolonial battles to try to bolster the noncommunist side when it came under attack.

In the 1960s, movements of all sorts were the order of the day. It was a decade pumped high with adrenaline (often other substances, too) and swift to embrace moral causes. From Paris to Port Huron, Michigan, students turned against their own universities as surrogates for everything they thought was wrong. Nonnegotiable demands filled the air. Out of this frenzy came much that was good. Across the developed world, the formal barriers to racial equality came down. Gays gained greater acceptance and stronger legal rights. Women, too, took up the banner of liberation. The rapid entry of so many women into the labor force was arguably the greatest social change of the past 50 years, affecting married life, child rearing, family income, office culture and--not least--economic growth.

The exuberant '60s also liberated music. With a blast of electric guitars, a new generation busted loose and leapt onstage. Over all this scene floated a sweet haze of marijuana smoke. The youth of the '60s were hardly the first to experience narcotics. But the young celebrities of rock romanticized drugs, even when, like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, they died from them. Some of the residue of the '60s has been dangerous to our social health. Does sex belong in the dangerous category too? It was part of the decade's famous triumvirate--sex, drugs, rock and roll. But sexual freedom also meant sexual promiscuity; taboos tottered and fell. But one didn't have to be prudish to recognize the dark side. The sexual revolution was definitely not liberating to the teenage girl who dropped out of high school to bring up her baby--or to the young man dying of AIDS.

So the Century of the Common Man has had both a good face and a bad. Old assumptions have been challenged right and left, but it has been difficult to replace them with any new certainties--in fact, the very notion of certainty is alien to the 20th-century cast of mind. Blame the physicists. In 1905 Albert Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity, in which he argued that time and distance were not absolutes, but could be shorter or longer depending on the relative motion between the observer and the thing observed. In 1927 Werner Heisenberg came up with his Uncertainty Principle, according to which, in subatomic experiments, the very act of observation distorts reality in such a way that one can determine either the position or the velocity of a particle, but never both at once. Reality is loosed from its moorings, and the human observer becomes an agent in determining what's there. At the end of the century, these perceptions had been carried to some wild "postmodern" extremes. In literature, "deconstructionists" held that it was readers, not authors, who create meaning in a text. In other words, almost anything goes.

From the start, the 20th century has had a problem with authority. In its early decades it produced, in Hitler and Stalin, two of the worst authority figures ever to walk the earth. In its final decades it has produced mostly benign ones: Margaret Thatcher (she would probably hate the adjective), Nelson Mandela. Still, the century's successes all seem to be trailed by a cautionary "but." Democracy prevails as never before, but many people seem to have lost interest in politics (for one thing, it seems much too slow in a world grown accustomed to instant response). Liberation from imperialist rule or from racial discrimination has not turned out to go hand in hand with prosperity. Science and medicine have performed miracles, but particularly in the realm of genetic engineering, they may pose new ethical dilemmas for the future. The Common Man has more control over his life--new choices, but also new dilemmas. Perhaps that's what freedom means.