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NOT A BAD CENTURY, REALLY

There are a few down sides to the millennium. If the Y2K bug hits your computer, you could lose all your high scores on "Tomb Raider" forever. The frozen pizza you bought because it's too dangerous to go out this New Year's Eve may turn out to be inedible because the chip in your microwave decides it's now 1900, when there was no frozen pizza. But the worst thing is the journalists.

On occasions like this, there is a whole sub-tribe of journalists who surface to write sententious drivel about the anniversary now passing. On this mother of all anniversaries, they will be out in force, telling us in one lugubrious chorus that the 20th century was the most terrible of epochs, an era when we finally plumbed the deepest depths of evil, a century of unparallelled terror and destruction, a cesspool of (cont'd p. 94). Newspapers need copy to hold the ads apart, so it's understandable from a commercial point of view, but have these people never heard of Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan and the Black Death? A number of really bad things happened in the 20th century, but you have to be a historical ignoramus to believe that it even ranks among the worst five centuries in terms of death and destruction.

Forget the historical comparisons, and just take the 20th century in isolation. The population of the world increased fourfold, from 1.5 billion in 1900 to 6 billion now -- which could just mean four times as much squalor and pain, in theory, but it certainly doesn't in practice. Because in the same hundred years, average per capita real incomes around the planet (including the Third World) have also grown fourfold.

In terms of the most basic consideration of all, life span, the improvement has been huge, and roughly equal, in both the developed and the developing parts of the world. The average American born today can expect to live 30 years longer than an American born in 1900, while average male life expectancy at birth in the Third World has almost doubled to 62 years.

Yes, but what about Africa? What about AIDS? What about the plague of ethnic wars? What about Hiroshima? What about the Holocaust?

Africa is a mess, no doubt about it. It is home to over half of the world's wars, and to at least two-thirds of the AIDS victims. It is the only part of the world where many countries are suffering an actual decline in real incomes, average educational levels and even life expectancy. But Africa only has 10 percent of the world's population: it is the one tragic exception to a generally encouraging picture of human welfare.

And what about the wars and genocides? That's a more complex issue, but most of the 20th century's wars fall into two categories. There are the border wars and ethnic wars (including most of the genocides), which have followed decolonization all over Asia, the Middle East, Africa and more recently in eastern Europe. Bad though they have been, the fact that they are the result of change suggests they are a transitional phenomenon, not a chronic problem.

Then there were the great killings between around 1935 and 1970: up to 50 million murdered or starved to death by Stalin's regime, about 50 million dead in the war to stop Nazism (including the 6 million who died in the Holocaust), and at least 50 million killed or starved to death in the first 20 years of Mao's rule in China. The great totalitarian regimes cost the world a lot of lives, but apart from China, they are all gone -- and even China is mostly transformed.

Even counting these calamities, the 20th century was not an outstanding killer of innocent people. The total number of people who have died as the result of deliberate actions by other human beings in the past hundred years is at most 250 million, out of over 10 billion who have lived in this century: at worst, one out of 40. That is certainly no worse than any previous century, and a good deal better than most. When you add in the fact that the technology for killing has become so much more efficient, indeed, it is a remarkably low toll.

Will that deter the various pseudo-pundits from telling us how uniquely terrible the 20th century has been? Of course not.