n the next week, millions will celebrate the turning of the new year, the beginning of 1998, and the inevitable start of countdowns to the Millennium. At times like these, all sorts of calls go out and self-proclaimed prophets foretell battles of good and evil. There are already many calls to peace going out in the name of the upcoming Millennium and this being the era it is, these celebrations are being planned and advertised right here on the Internet. But what’s the fuss about?
Since you’re reading this on a computer, let’s start with numbers. Computers don’t recognize the millennium, since they don’t count in tens. The whole existence of the millennium is a trick of our base-ten digital numbering system Our computers more naturally think in binary code-base two rather than ten-or in hexadecimal base sixteen. In hexadecimal, two years from now will be the year “7d0.” In binary, or base two, it’s a hideous mix of ones and zeros that don’t look at al special. But humans have ten fingers and ten toes, so we count in tens, and when you count that way two years from now has a lot of zeros in it’s name.
Well, it does if you’re a Christian. A second assumption is that the latest epoch of human history started with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth in the manger. Most of the world’s people don’t agree with that, using other dates to begin their calendars (for example the Muslim calendar starts with Mohammed’s flight from Mecca). Making matters even more confusing is that early calendar makers mis-counted: Jesus was born a couple of years earlier than they thought which means we’ve already past the millennium mark.
Still, it’s not enough to merely point out the inconsistencies of the millennium-minded peace-makers. What is the draw of this sort of marker? Is it the chance to live in some special age? War often provides this sort of marker-our conceptions of history often use wars as reference points, bringing “antebellum” and “post-war” to our descriptions. Wars re-orient society and it’s basic structures, creating changes in everyone’s lives and giving societies a shared sense of living in history.
Could the millennium mean something if we all just agree that it means something? It’s hokey to think peace could come because the calendar flips, but if enough people believe it, things really could change. The nonviolence movement has been quite fractured in recent years, to the point where one has to really argue whether there is a “movement.” What kind of event could we coalesce around to create fundamental social change? What are we waiting for? What kind of society do we envision and when are we going to come together to work on it?
Big questions, I know. The millennium won’t answer them, I also know. And I don’t think the millennium is really the event I want. But the urge to commemorate a non-war event and use it to bring world peace is a strong one. If we could understand why so many want peace and change to come in 2000, then we could perhaps figure out how to work across our easy answers and bring about a real and lasting peace.