The turn of the millennium seemed like a good moment to skip a column, rather than summon up a thousand words or so about the past thousand years. No such luck, according to my editor, heartless and brutal in his demands, as always.
Although I hardly feel any urge to add my own squibs to the growing surfeit of celebratory platitude and banal observation, this is what happens when there is space to fill on deadline and the clock is about to strike the last midnight of 1999. I am trying to be thankful that it won't happen to me again, and keeping it short for your sake as well as mine.
Now, a few words in defense of the Enlightenment, that hard-won legacy of human thought that remains under continuing assault by the forces of intellectual darkness. For instance, at a time when human beings have developed powers of scientific observation that were once unimaginable, it is amazing that society is still besieged by a "religious right" which insists on teaching children such notions as the literal truth of the Bible.
What I find even more remarkable, and disheartening, is the fact that the most prominent citizens of the most powerful country on earth hardly dare to contradict these boobs. Indeed, the leading aspirant to this nation's highest office seems quite eager to reassure his most benighted constituents that he shares their superstitions and prejudices.
No matter how far we have advanced in 10 centuries, we always seem at risk of slipping back into idiocy. We have just endured an attempted coup d'etat in Washington whose most enthusiastic sponsors were the direct intellectual descendants of witch-hunters and holy inquisitors.
Fundamentalist movements that would subjugate women, outlaw heresy, stifle free inquiry and establish authoritarian hierarchies have been gaining strength both here and abroad, and their adherents are no doubt quivering with millennial fervor these days.
Ironically, the fundamentalists do not hesitate to employ the means of science -- including computers, modern weaponry and mass communications -- in their crusade to suppress reason. They possess the confidence of their militant ignorance, while the rest of us are hobbled by the doubts that are inherent to rationality.
Yet the impulse toward knowledge and freedom that animated Galileo, Jefferson and all of their heirs lives on. The calendar changes but the struggle continues.