Conversation on the Millennium
Howard Solomon and Charles Inouye on the human challenge of
By Laura Ferguson
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
There is a lot of nervousness about the Y2K problem because
we've become so technologically dependent. How do you weigh in
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.