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Conversation on the Millennium

Howard Solomon and Charles Inouye on the human challenge of 2000

By Laura Ferguson

As the year 2000 fast approaches, discussion of the millennium will continue to intensify. At Tufts, the conversation began this spring through an initiative, "H&A on Y2K: A Humanities and Arts Dialogue on the Millennium," sponsored by Leila Fawaz, dean for the Humanities and Arts. While many humanities and arts courses are already looking at millennial-related themes-broadly defined as rapid social and cultural change, concepts of the apocalypse, and the ends and beginnings of new eras-a slate of lectures, films and faculty discussions will also consider the implications of this historic moment.

For this issue of Tuftonia, we thought it appropriate to foster a similar discussion, albeit on a smaller scale. Two natural choices were faculty members who are keen observers of cultural thought: Howard Solomon, history professor and chair of "H&A on Y2K," and Charles Inouye, associate professor of Asian Languages and Literatures.

For Howard Solomon, 1999 marks a rich opportunity for focusing on a key subtext of the millennium, the notion of the "other." That idea has preoccupied him not only professionally, but also personally, as a Jew and a gay man. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh and earning a PhD in European history from Northwestern, he arrived at Tufts in 1971. His academic career has evolved over the years, accommodating his own scholarship and the needs of Tufts. He served as Dean for Undergraduate Studies and Academic Affairs from 1978 to 1982 and was chair of the history department from 1985 to 1988. In 1983, after he came out as a gay man, he became an important figure in creating a supportive campus for gay, lesbian and bisexual students; he co-chaired the Campus Task Force on Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Issues from 1991 to 1992. His effort to challenge attitudes and create a welcoming environment starts in his classrooms, where his courses touch on issues such as the history of homophobia, anti-Semitism, millennialism, and social marginalization. In "Sexuality, Disease, Difference: Stereotyping in European and American Culture, 1600-Present," for example, he weaves together his study of European history with the society's notion of the "other." His expertise has also made him a valuable consultant to public and independent schools on issues of multicultural awareness and diversity.

In a similar vein, Charles Inouye sees the true meaning of the millennium as a "renegotiation of old relationships." Raised in a small Mormon town in Utah, he is as versed in the Scriptures as he is in Japanese literature and Eastern thought. Inouye came to Tufts in 1991 after earning an undergraduate degree from Stanford, and in 1988 a PhD from Harvard. At Tufts he has been a strong advocate for Asian studies, helping to establish a Japanese major, an international letters and visual studies major, the Tufts-in-Japan Study Abroad program and the Japan-in-Boston Program, which helps local public schools introduce the teaching of Japanese language and culture. He is the author of Japanese Gothic Tales (University of Hawaii Press) and The Similitude of Blossoms (Harvard University Press). He balances a busy writing schedule with his teaching of courses such as "East-West Perspectives on Fascism: Germany and Japan," "Love and Sexuality in World Literature," and "Defining Modern Japanese Culture." A firm believer that a postmodern society-one which accepts and sustains the increasing diversification of cultures and people-is a more stable and humane society, he has been an invited speaker on postmodern thought and its implications for how we live today.

What central idea would you like to see come out of millennial scholarship?

Solomon: The identification of the "other" as a necessary ingredient in millennium thinking. In apocalyptic thought, there has to be a group through which we personalize and objectify much of our rhetorical expectations. In an extreme form, that's the Antichrist. There's always an objectification of those who are acting outside of the veil of expected behavior, and that's often constructed in sexual terms. Then, obviously, there's the global computerization now seen by many as a kind of real technological "other." At the same time, I believe you wish to bring more serious attention to what extremist groups have to say. Solomon Millennialism is not a marginal footnote to Western history and culture. It is hardwired in how that culture has thought about itself. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," for example, is right out of the Book of Revelation. "He's loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible, swift sword. His truth is marching on." Verses three and four and five become even more apocalyptic. One of the main points I try to bring out in my teaching is this: studying how a culture thinks about those outside the pale, those who are identified as the other, is a wonderful way to understand what the center thinks about itself and how it projects the things it doesn't want to look at onto them.

We have failed to fully take into consideration that the Branch Davidians in Waco or the members of the Heaven's Gate cult are to be taken seriously. Within the academy, we get a little nervous about emotions, a little nervous about "irrational stuff." We tend to ghettoize topics that make us uncomfortable in courses on abnormal psychology; when I first came here in '71, for instance, I taught a course called "The History of Social Deviance." I talk about the same groups today in a course called "Marginality and Power." The name change is really important.

Inouye: My take on the "other" might be a bit different. I wonder if the center exists anymore precisely because of our ability to talk dispassionately about things like homosexuality and religion in the classroom today. That ability has a lot to do with what I perceive to be a fragmenting of what you're calling Western culture. Perhaps the strongest critique to make of a linear view of history-a teleological view of life that is central to that culture-is that either it hasn't panned out or we're in a millennial situation already.

What do you mean?

Inouye: I pulled out some Scriptures for you. One is the famous passage from Isaiah that talks about how the wolf shall dwell with the lamb.What does that mean?Do we really think that some day lions will actually eat straw like oxen? I don't think that's the point, surely. What it probably means is somehow things that we have thought to be utterly incompatible will find a way to live in peace. And, I think that the positive side of what people are bemoaning as cultural relativity is the possibility to rethink issues in a way that puts everything out on the table, that allows us to renegotiate old relationships with a new fairness and understanding. That's the true meaning of peace and of the millennium.

How does that relate to the millennium as an event?

Inouye: One possibility is that people who are drastically wedded to this linear view of history will either kill themselves or be sorely disillusioned when things don't start burning up. We can imagine these two choices. . . . Dire predictions are often justified scripturally, but the New Testament also says that the signs of the times have already begun occurring, and that no one will know when Christ will come to earth. Taking a multicultural perspective, the Buddhists have thought that the end of the world-mappo-started a thousand or so years ago. So, I think the present hysteria about the millennium might be sort of a last gasp of modern thought. Modern thought is ending, but the world isn't. If I'm wrong, okay, it's the end of the world. But if I'm right, which I hope I am, I'll still be fly-fishing a year from now.

Would you talk more about your own individual backgrounds and how they shape how you frame the millennium?

Solomon: I always knew that I was "different." Growing up in a working-class neighborhood in New Castle, Pennsylvania, I have two early memories: being the only Jewish family in our neighborhood, and growing up at a time when I didn't have a language to even begin to think about what it meant to be "straight" or "gay." You have to remember that the 1950s had "Ozzie and Harriet," but didn't have any positive role models for lesbian and gay youth.

Today, as a Jew, I get a little nervous when I hear Jerry Falwell proclaim that the Antichrist is already alive somewhere on the earth, and is Jewish. As a gay man, it pains me to constantly hear right-wing talk-show hosts use apocalyptic language to portray me as the devil incarnate, and the contributions of productive, hard-working lesbians and gay men as a sign that the country is going to hell in a handbasket.

Now, I have two choices: I can say, "Well, you know, Jews and gay people have always been dumped on"-not true by the way-close my mind, and wallow in my own victimization. Or, instead, I can ask the question, "What is it about millennialist thought that tends to demonize people who are "different'?" Once I do that, I can begin to understand what Falwell is really saying-the Antichrist has to be Jewish because Jesus was Jewish-and I can begin to understand more fully the anxiety about sexuality, changing family structures, economic dislocation, etc., which concern a lot of the fundamentally decent people who listen to right-wing talk shows. If I really want to understand why and how I've been marginalized historically, I have to stop marginalizing the other side as well.

Inouye: I'm not gay, but I am a Mormon, which these days might be an even harder sell. My parents were Buddhist. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, they both ended up in the same camp in Wyoming, where they got married. (It must have been a kind of dating paradise-all these young people together, surrounded by barbed wire!) Eventually they ended up in Utah and, unlike most of my relatives, they never went back to the West Coast. So I grew up on a farm right smack in the middle of Mormondom, driving a tractor by day and reading Dostoevsky by night.

All of that, of course, has had a huge impact on how I see things. As a Latter-day Saint, I've been thinking about the Second Coming and the Millennium for a long time. Mormons call the present era the Fullness of Times, a time of massive revelation and growth, whether personal or institutional, a time of unprecedented plenty, brought about by the blessings of knowledge and compassion. But it's also billed as a time of tremendous challenge, and I'm afraid a lot of unrighteous judgment still goes on. It's hard teaching old dogs new tricks. As Charles Dickens said when he ate his first bowl of hot-and-sour soup, "It was the best of sauce, it was the worst of sauce."

You've often remarked on the shifting of balance away from a reading culture to a graphic culture. Does this also relate to a shift in the linear view of the world?

Inouye: Descartes supposedly sets the ball rolling by saying, "I think, therefore I am." But what I am saying is that while we are what we think, what we think depends on what I have to think with. These days we're thinking more and more with videos and less and less with novels, for instance. Part of the breakup of this modern, linear, monolithic view of the world is a response to how information has become more visually oriented, and therefore more concrete. In a visual age it becomes harder to hide the fact that the tools we use to express our understanding of reality are crude, distorting, and culturally specific. Modern languages, especially alphabetic ones, have tried to pose as accurate, culturally neutral transcriptions for true, phonetic reality. They have tended to support various metaphysical or ideological notions-such as millennialism-for an obvious reason. In order for you to have a really good unifying systematic world view, the most crucial things have to be invisible. If they're invisible and abstract, there's a better chance that people will think they understand in a similar way ideas that they actually understand differently-capitalism, patriotism, racism, you name it. These unifying notions have to have wide currency, so they tend to be ambiguous and even deceitful, though not in an easily noticeable way. That's the trick. For example, take Santa Claus. Is Santa Claus one or many? If a child sees ten Santas in one day, then the only way to explain this impossibility is to make Santa a concept, and these people the child sees become merely symbols of representatives of this overriding notion, which is more important. In other words, the abstraction of a living Santa from his actual context is the only thing that saves the idea of Santa. The minute any particular Santa becomes too real, then the larger system collapses, along with its currency and credibility. That's why they all dress alike. We disregard their particularity and see them only as a part of something larger. That's just one crude example of the shape of modern systems. Language, like Santa's uniform, tries to restrict the meaning of an image, to tell us who and what Santa Claus is. But as language comes to be seen as yet another system of signs, it loses its ability to help create and sustain the abstraction. Put different clothes on Santa and he's somebody else. Well, who is he really, then? If his identity depends on his clothes, aren't the clothes as important, if not more so, than the ideas to which they refer? This is why, if you want to strictly maintain the integrity of a notion, it has to be invisible. But, of course, complete invisibility means that it is unknowable and useless; thus the inevitable compromise. Why does God have to be invisible? I ask my students that.

And what do they say?

Inouye: They just think about it. I don't know. To the Japanese, God isn't always invisible. God is very tangible. God is a tree. God is anything that pertains to the sacred.

And how does that inform their sense of the world?

Inouye: Well, I'll tell you that for a postmodern audience, it's not a big problem. For a modern audience, it is a problem. One way to define postmodernity is to say that it has the potential to move us toward a more capable appreciation of difference. It's embracing, inclusive. It's harder to draw a map of where the good guys live. And that scares the hell out of people who have any investment in the center as it's been defined. It scares them because their vital interests are at stake. But it has nothing to do with truth. It is simply an issue of do you have more to gain or do you have more to lose? My position has always been close to Professor Solomon's, that I have much more to gain than I have to lose. From the rubble of the broken edifice of modern thought grow these various plants. Some may be weeds, but some may be very valuable. Feminism would not be possible without this. Racism would not be questioned. Of course, some proponents of "social progress" are as modern and as intolerant as the people they are trying to displace. But I'm hopeful. Yes, it's a confusing time to be alive, but it's also, I think, a very good time because things are really happening. Paradigms are shifting. Lions are starting to eat straw. Solomon Or, as the postmodernist said to the modernist, "Buddy, can you paradigm." Sorry.

Apology accepted. To get back to what we're living through . . . you're saying it's a different kind of portent of the end than described in the Book of Revelation.

Solomon: You could read Revelation this way, though. For instance, people like Jack van Impe and other fundamentalists on TV are literally counting the days to the end of the world. He has made these elaborate maps of the Holy Land depicting Russian-led armies from the lands of Gog and Magog. He has figured out exactly what the "ten horns" of the scarlet beast with seven heads mean, and why Babylon is called the "mother of harlots of earth's abominations," and so forth. A sign of the end days for apocalyptics is the breakdown of order in all of its forms, simultaneous with the emergence of a new world order. But signs of the end can be read in our own world events. It's not only the fall of the Berlin Wall, the growing emergence of Third World nations or the European Economic Community. For people anxious about social change, another sign of these end times is that lesbian and gay people are coming out of the closet. What used to be said privately is now being said publicly. It's a crisis of categories. For certain readings of Revelation and the Prophets, this is a sign of the "endtimes."

Inouye: One strategy to cope with linear thinking, then, is to accept the fact that the millennium has already begun. . . . It depends on how you're reading the tea leaves. One way would be to say, yes, order has broken down. The love of man has waxed cold. The moon has fallen from the sky, the sun is blood red. There are wars and rumors of wars, quakes in diverse places, and on and on and on. But another way to read it is to say, here I am. My background is very different from yours and here we have a very peaceable conversation. Maybe this is proof that in some sense the millennium has already begun, an era of global understanding is upon us. That's what we profess, here at Tufts, global understanding.

But the reality is that it is not illogical to consider the end of the world. I think Charles Strozier says, in the preface to Essays on the End, that in fact we numb out if we don't consider that the destruction of the world with nuclear weapons is a very real possibility.

Solomon: Well, you're absolutely right. There are technological realities today that were not there 200 or 2,000 years ago. No question about it. This obliges us as members of the university community to be more invested in historically and culturally understanding how certain kinds of millennial thinking have conditioned the way we think about these things. In a sense, the stakes are even higher for us to examine what previously we left to the religion department, or to the abnormal psych course, or to Solomon's marginality course. This is it, folks! This is life. This is the world we're living in.

It seems an increasingly frail beauty.

Inouye: But that's great. That's what the Buddhists have been saying all along: One, you couldn't know the world if you tried; everything you see is illusion. Two, life is brief. It passes so quickly. Everything is changing. So therefore, you develop a more accepting attitude, and I don't think that it's necessarily a pessimistic view. As you say, technology has changed things, it's made us all connected to each other. The cushion of ignorance has been taken from us, which is both a curse and a blessing. I prefer to think of it as a great blessing. Solomon What has been revealed is the fact that we are on this planet together, and if we don't help each other we're all going to go down. It's all of us trying to struggle through life. . . . We are both interpreters and actors in the drama, and that's very exciting.

Do you think your voices of reason-and I think a certain wisdom-can be heard over the more strident voices of others that tend to fan the flames of dread or anxiety?

Solomon: It really doesn't make any difference. We do what we do. We are scholars trying to do it as well as we can. I find the millennium a very "teachable moment." You can't open up a newspaper, you can't go to a T-shirt shop, you can't go through a supermarket without being barraged by millennial stuff. This is an extraordinary opportunity which we as teachers should not avoid. The reality is that the millennium is in our classrooms twenty-four hours a day. So, instead of "Oh, no, we don't talk about this because this is my course in Japanese literature, this is my course in seventeenth-century Europe," we must say, "It's here, come on in. Let's talk about it. Let's dance with it."

Inouye: If you ask the question what is the teachable moment, I think it's one thing essentially. You can answer it by asking another question. When the angels came to visit Abraham, they let him know they were on a business trip. And the business they were on was to go to Sodom and Gomorrah and destroy these two cities. When Abraham discovers this, his reaction is to bargain with them. He says, "Suppose there are fifty righteous people. Would you spare these cities?" They say, "Fine." And Abraham says, "Suppose there are forty?" "No problem." And he says, again, "Let's make that thirty." He's compelled to bargain, but why? His cousin Lot is there, that's one reason why he should care, but why should Abraham give a damn about Sodom and Gomorrah? Well, that's the question we face now. If we face the end of the world in this scenario of destruction and judgment, the question is how do you feel about that? If you're one of these people who say, I can't wait because I'm going to get rid of that son-of-a-bitch who keeps walking his dog on my lawn, that's one thing. But if it makes you feel like, I don't want the world to be destroyed when it comes right down to it, if it provokes that response in you, then I think that you are correctly reading the Holy Scriptures. In my mind, the Bible's not looking forward to the judgment of anything. God gives judgment in order to make us realize just what sort of fix we are in. And with that knowledge, we can develop an attitude, we call it compassion, or charity, so that we become advocates for the world, no matter who is in the world. This is not so different from Buddhist acceptance or from Mormon optimism. You're no longer advocating for your interest group. It doesn't matter. You just want everybody to have a good life, and if that's the response that comes to you because of your sense of judgment, then I think you've finally gotten the point.

Solomon: The stakes in terms of these kind of responsibilities and decisions are high in a village of a hundred people. They're high today because we all live in the global village and we have the real possibility of ending it all. So, we don't want to minimize that at all. Those stakes are what humanity is about. It's that relationship to community. It's that relationship to a sense of understanding what makes the moral universe operate. This is part of what's going to be the disappointment on January 1. Not that the world's going to end, but that we have to keep on thinking about these things. We've been in a millennial situation not only during the past two or three months but the past five, twenty, thirty years. There are moments in historical linear time where human communities have become more anxious about these end days, but part of what I've heard Charles say is we're in the millennium now. That's what post-millennialists argue. Millennialism is not a single moment. It's the anticipation, the awareness of, being in the presence of times of revelation.

Professor Solomon, you said apocalyptic thinking is a rhetorical mode that is powerful, attractive, seductive and dangerous. I believe this ties in with that idea that the more we understand how it operates historically the better we can identify and disengage from it.

Solomon: I just got a mailing from the Journal of the National Rifle Association-somehow we got on the mailing list. They talk about their opponents in terms of "The enemy is always hidden." "The enemy is always duplicitous." "The enemy is always innumerable," whether it's Joseph McCarthy talking about communists in the State Department or immigration opponents worried about "yellow hordes" from Asia, or the homophobe fantasy about hordes of gay teachers subverting our schools. There's always the "other." But this kind of language always assumes there will come a day of reckoning. It's about revealing those of us who are on the side of light and truth and those who are not. The day will come. It's a day of separation. It's language we hear all the time. It's demonization. I don't want to say that millennial thinking and conspiratorial thinking are interchangeable. They're not. But they often dance together. It is violent, certainly. One of the aims I have is to sensitize my students to this language. When you start hearing this kind of language, you must take it apart to see the implications. There's no neutral language. Millennialism is rhetoric, ultimately. It's how we use language to conceive and describe. It's very effective. It's seductive. It's extremely powerful. And it can shut down analysis.

How does that mode differ from an Eastern viewpoint?

Inouye: The Japanese have always been bad at endings. Some people read Japanese fiction and feel a lack of closure. That is just part of the Japanese viewpoint, to accept ambiguity. You can see it as a question of perspective. There was no perspective in Japanese painting until the eighteenth century and that was a copy of Western painting. Perspective is an attempt to put everything in its place. It atomizes everything within your vision. Everything becomes an atom of a larger system, so that in some ways it's a giving up of power and responsibility to the larger system. But another part of the logic of perspective is that it establishes one point of view that is superior to every other point of view. If you can give yourself to that system and then somehow glue yourself to the position of the narrator, the seer, the artist, the genius, then that's extremely powerful. That's the logic of fascism, essentially. It's one of the seductions that encouraged the Japanese to think they could invade China and rule the world. With a few exceptions, they've learned their lesson. I'm not so sure Americans have, though, and that's a shame.

Solomon: And looking at European history, the development of perspective in Western art in the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries is also the period in which we see the development of a historical consciousness, a linear consciousness, not only visually but also as a controlling mechanism for understanding the world.

There is a lot of nervousness about the Y2K problem because we've become so technologically dependent. How do you weigh in on that?

Solomon: It's not only about having enough toilet paper for January 2000. It's a larger opportunity for us to ask the question: What do I need? We should take it as an opportunity to talk with our neighbors. How mutually responsible are we to each other? This is an opportune moment, teachable not only for students in our courses but for the culture as a whole. What is our dependence beyond our own communities?

Inouye: If we actually do have a catastrophe, it's going to require us to deal with that catastrophe as a community. You can't just deal with it yourself. For instance, there's a famous story where Jesus is talking and it gets late and he says, "You people better have something to eat." But no one has been smart enough to bring a lunch except this one little boy who has some loaves of bread and some fish. So, he comes up and says, "I have some food, and I'd like to share." Jesus says to his disciples, "Take this fish and bread and divide it," and everybody had enough and there was food left over. I always thought what that meant was that somehow Jesus, using his divine power, multiplied that bread and that fish. Miraculously, somehow he provided for the people when they didn't provide for themselves. But there's another way to read that story, a less magical but equally miraculous way. These people actually had food and no one came forth except this little boy. Then, when the little boy came forward and generously gave what he had, he inspired other people to give too. They loosened up and shared and everyone had enough. So, as a "sunshine postmodernist," I view the possible Y2K catastrophe in these terms: that sharing will begin, and sharing will lead to more sharing, we will get through it, and everyone will have enough. It's going to force the issue of whether or not we have learned the lesson that we should be compassionate and care about everyone or just look out for ourselves. The point is simple. As Abraham knew, Sodom and Gomorrah are always worth saving.

   

 

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