With the recent proliferation of boneheaded top-whatever lists of the millennium in every magazine that exists, not to mention the public's reborn fondness for bongload-enriched list-making (VH1's The List springs to mind), it seems like the human race is hoping to use a few choice summaries of the last thousand years' very best in plumbing inventions, polka albums, and baked goods to stitch the meaning of the last thousand years into a nice bite-sized package. Hey, if you're a student of history and/or have any moral structure whatsoever, I'm sure you feel the way I do: This millennium pretty much sucked, and making a list of its 10,000 best footwear inventions does little to take the edge off the big scary Third One.
In this era of media saturation, we like things simple, and we like our history simplest of all (hence The Clan of the Cave Bear and Evita). That's why we at GettingIt, in keeping with our editorial policy of giving you exactly what you want, especially if you don't really want it, have devised the ultimate millennial top-10 list, and the very last one you will ever have to read. Rejoice! Here are our picks for the 10 Best Centuries of the Millennium.
10. The 20th Century. I know it may come as a shock to some of you, but don't tell me you hadn't already figured this one out: Our own sorry century comes dead last. If the 12th century wasn't so friggin' boring the old deuce-oh wouldn't even have made the list. There's a Chinese curse that goes, "May you live in interesting times." And interesting, as the very first (but unfortunately not the last) millennium that sported Jerry Springer drizzles to a close, is the best damn thing you can be -- just ask Marilyn Manson or Liz Taylor. If you're interesting, you don't have to be much of anything else, which must come as a big relief to most of the people in the world (and all of Hollywood).
But our own century was a little too interesting. What's your reason for hating this century? Whether it was the Holocaust, the cold war, Gary Coleman, Reagan, nuclear testing, the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, Pokémon, the Starr Report, the rape of Nanking, the Spice Girls, Y2K hype, or those goddamn Toyota commercials, I'm sure you can come up with a favorite atrocity of the 20th century. And don't give me any of that crap about civil rights, economic prosperity, education, advances in technology, or people living longer, healthier lives. Give me a good case of bubonic plague and a mouth full of rotten teeth over reruns of Diff'rent Strokes and The Facts of Life any damn day.
9. The 19th Century. OK, this is more like it. Mind, I'm not saying the 19th century didn't suck royally; in fact, if it weren't for Beethoven and Chopin I would have nudged this mother off the list, too. But the 19th partially redeems itself: At least the slaughters, rapes, pillages, and destructions were kept to merely a mind-bending, brain-jellifying cacophonic roar worthy of a galactic-core supernova. Sure, a lot of people got offed in the 19th -- let's talk Garibaldi in Italy, Bismarck in Prussia, Napoleon in Frogville, the American Civil War, Mexican-American War, and Spanish-American War, the slaughter of untold numbers of Native Americans by whitey, the Opium War in China, the Russo-Turkish War, and other moments of even greater bizarreness like the French invading Mexico in 1863 and setting up the Austrian archduke Maximilian as Mexican emperor. Mex, Max... makes sense to me. Sound fun? It wasn't. That's why it's second to last.
8. The 16th Century. If you want drama, the 16th has got it. In fact, it comes dangerously close to crossing the too interesting line, with its endless parade of massacres and Spaniards. Rampant colonialism, with Cortes the killer bringing down the Aztec emperor in Mexico, Francisco Pizarro destroying the Inca empire in Peru, and those endearing Portuguese entrepreneurs starting up the transatlantic trade in all human flesh of a less sickly-pink shade than their own. Martin Luther gave Popey the finger early in the century, which would later make Protestants like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson possible. And the Iberians took their lumps from the Brits with the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Even the plays of slick Willie Shakespeare can't lift this century any higher than 8.
7. The 14th Century. Major foray into dullsville. Berber scholar Ibn Battuta traveled around Africa and wrote an account of everything he saw; the Ottoman Turks defeated the Christian Serbs at, of all places, Kossovo (1389); the Kalmar Agreement united Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. I think you're getting the idea. Anything that has to do with Sweden is pretty dull unless it involves Satanic industrial bands. The Black Death provided a little light diversion 'round about 1347 when it reached Europe and started killing people en masse. But by then we were in the late-afternoon doldrums of the 14th century, and not even a night of beer belches and 90210 reruns could save it. Hit the snooze bar.
6. The 13th Century. Booooo-ring! There was the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, the founding of the Mongol empire by Genghis Kahn, and the invention of spectacles in Italy in 1290; Marco Polo also set out for China wearing swim goggles but with his eyes closed. Whoopee shit. Basically, what I'm saying is that the 13th century made Pleasantville look like a Playboy mansion orgy with Hugh Hefner wearing the bunny ears. Oh, don't get me wrong, nothing is sexier than the signing of some friggin' treaty that grants extra rights to a bunch of rich limey pricks with "Sir" before their names, believe me.
5. The 15th Century. Joan of Arc kicked some major Brit keister; shortly thereafter, it was frog legs on the barbie. The Khmer empire in Southeast Asia collapsed; the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, ending the last incarnation of the Roman empire (and good riddance!); the first Bible was printed in 1455 and 1456 by Gutenberg (an event that is significant because it would later make Mickey Spillane novels possible). Then there's the little matter of Christopher Columbus "discovering" the Americas in 1492-ish. The left-winger in me can hardly herald this event as a good thing, but since it signals the start of a half-millennium (so far) of gleeful invasion, exploitation, and mass murder by those humans of the sickly-pink variety, it at least makes for interesting times.
4. The 11th Century. Leif Ericson made North America, William of Normandy made Hastings, and Pope Gregory excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor -- setting the stage for conflicts that would continue into the 12th century. La-dee-dah. Who gives a damn? What puts this century in the top half is that somewhere in the ten-teens, Japanese court lady Murasaki Shikibu found time from her busy schedule of composing haikus and making sushi to invent the novel. Not that her Tale of Genji is exactly bestseller material, but it was the first. Meanwhile, the Chinese were inventing gunpowder. These two innovations would later make Mickey Spillane novels possible, which puts the 11th right up there with the best of 'em.
3. The 8th Century B.C. OK, look, I know it's not in this millennium, but we really didn't need the 12th century so I just sort of nudged it off the list. Hope you don't mind. By way of executive summary: The 8th century B.C. was when Homer wrote The Iliad, the Greek gods ran around schtupping everything that moved (or didn't), and everyone was naked. What's not to love?
2. The 17th Century. OK, I admit it, I'm a softie. There was no less rampant colonialism, slave trading, etc, in the 17th century than in the 16th -- if anything, things were even more rotten from an indigenous-whereverian perspective. Meanwhile, there were civil wars in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and the 30 Years War dragged in every country in Europe except those lucky islanders. But without a doubt the greatest war crime of the century was Galileo Galilei confirming that the sun is the center of the universe, which laid the necessary foundation for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Still, I am a confessed culture dork, if a bit of a trashy one, and the 17th century netted one big plus to humankind: Baroque music. Even William Shatner can't counter that.
1. The 18th Century. Why is this the very best century of the millennium? Because, as I've already established, I'm a softie. It's not the life and work of J.S. Bach that enchants me with the 18th, nor is it the early life of William Blake. Surely, the many imperialist wars of the 18th century (notably the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1750, the Wars of Spanish, Austrian, and Bavarian Succession, and the Seven Years War) cast even those luminous achievements into shadow.
No, the thing that makes me place the gold medal on the 18th century is a little thing called the Declaration of Independence. In it, Thomas Jefferson (and his extensive congressional editorial staff, which back then didn't have time to ask him where he was getting his blowjobs) wrote some particularly inspiring words about liberty and justice for all.
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.
They're words that bring a tingle to my noggin and a tear to my eye. I sniffle sentimentally when I hear them. But not because I'm soft in the brain -- because I know they're total and absolute cow cookies. Come on, "All men are created equal?" Yeah, right. This from a man who owns people.
But Jefferson believed it just the same. And that's why the 18th century was the very best century of the millennium. Hey, who gives a dumpling that the American Revolution ("the shot heard round the world") laid the groundwork for the bloodfest that was the French Revolution, not to mention the slaughter of the Native American population. Jefferson could actually write that -- with a straight face. (I'm guessing.)
That's what's so wonderful about it. Because in these media-savvy times, when colonialism consists of setting up a tourist-snaring Web page and the revolution requires you to refrain from wearing Nikes, we are totally and entirely too smart. Jefferson, on the other hand, believed that he and his cronies could change the world for the better.
Did they? You tell me. But that's not the point. The point is that those founding fathers, Jefferson in particular, were shit-stupid enough to think that pretty words and noble intentions are the start of true freedom. They aren't, but that delusion is the central myth of American culture -- and much of global culture, really.
So screw you, Thomas Jefferson, and screw the 18th century. It's the best we've done in a thousand years, so screw the millennium. Now let's clear the slate and party.
Thomas S. Roche is a GettingIt staff writer and holds a bachelor's degree in History from the University of California, which means he eats a lot of take-out food and never washes his socks. He operates a free email newsletter about his writing; send email to email@example.com to subscribe.