IN A certain hard-headed sense, the fuss about the Year 2000 is much ado about not very much.
Logicians (and others) have noted that, strictly speaking, the new century and millennium don't begin until Jan. 1, 2001. Historians have pointed out that Jesus of Nazareth may have been born in what we call 4 B.C.; if so, the second millennium of the Christian era closed several years ago.
Indeed the very notion that we are entering the Y2K is an idiosyncratic artifact of Western Christendom's Gregorian calendar.
According to the Islamic calendar, this is 1420 and the new year won't arrive until April. The Hebrew calendar calls this year 5760; the Chinese Lunar calendar calls it the Year of the Rabbit.
Still this new year has provoked more stir than most -- and not just among doomsayers who cry that the end is near (apparently unembarrassed by thc failure of similar visions 1,000 years ago) and more aggressive millennialists who have stockpiled large arsenals for the war of each against all they expect the Y2K to bring.
Closer to the mainstream, hardly a magazine was able to let 1999 end without some retrospective award, or list of the greatest, most beautiful or most notable example of this or that.
Sometimes it seemed no award was too trivial. Shooting Times magazine named "The Auto-load-ing Gun of the Century." Moden Ferret chose a "Ferret of the Century'' (The Budweiser Ferret, of course).
What all this millennial media silliness is about is that, whether it's logical or not, years that end in "9" have become occasions to take stock of the past; to name heroes and villains and identify trends.
In this spirit, it seems apt to note that the 20th century was (or "is," depending on when you think it ends) marked by two particularly vexing paradoxes.
It was an age of technological marvels that cured plagues and brought to many of us levels of comfort and prosperity that were previously unimaginable. Yet, at century's end, billions of people five in abject poverty, virtually untouched by such marvels. For many Americans, the holidays have been a season of plenty. But around the world 1.3 billion people live on less than $30 a month.
At the same time, the century saw ideals of freedom, self-determination and respect for persons of all sorts gain unprecedented currency across the globe. Yet it was also the bloodiest century in human history -- one filled with wars and political violence and atrocities against ethnic groups (to say nothing of individuals) too numerous to recount.
From the trenches of Verdun, to the killing fields of Cambodia, to Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Rwanda. Kosovo and, today, Chechnya to the sites of hundreds of other atrocities, the 20th century saw almost unimaginable brutality become almost commonplace.
If the next century is to be a ' more humane one, prosperity must become more commonplace, and brutality less so.