Looking Back from the Year 2100

by Loren Cobb, 1999

Born in 1949 and now 150 years old, Jeremiah Duncan is one of our oldest living Americans. Mr. Duncan recently granted The Aspen Times the honor of a rare interview. Our interviewer, at 75 years of age, is just half as old as the venerable Mr. Duncan.

Aspen Times: Mr. Duncan, you were an adult through the entire 21st century, and you have just witnessed your second turn of the century. Looking back, how do you feel about the century just past?

Duncan: Glad its over. Too much change, everything happened too fast. But you're not so young yourself -- you must remember at least as much about it as I do. Why don't you ask a better question, like how do I feel about the 20th century? Now there's a story for you.

Times: Okay, how do...

Duncan: I'll tell you how I feel about it. I wish every young person could be sent back to the 20th century for a week to learn firsthand just how tough life really can be. It would be a trip that would blow their minds, even without using the drugs we had back then. Young people just have no idea.

Times: Weren't mind-altering drugs against the law in the 20th century?

Duncan: You bet they were against the law. Everything was against the law. The law itself was different then -- the threat of prison time was used as a blunt weapon to keep people in line in all sorts of ways, most of them bad. It was against the law for women to vote until 1920, and blacks could not vote in the South until somewhere in the 1960's. Even with the right to vote, there were thousands of other laws that kept women, minorities, and poor people underemployed, poorly educated, and under control. And even if you were white, male, and middle class, you still had serious problems. For example, mental illness could easily get you in trouble with the law. In any given year, two thirds of all prisoners were doing hard time as punishment for actions caused by their mental illnesses. Even drug addicts were almost always "treated" with imprisonment, often for life. Only the lucky few made it into any kind of treatment program. Prisons themselves were designed for maximum psychological damage to the inmates, and became universities of crime, hate, and violence.

Times: You paint a picture of psychological darkness. Did nobody understand?

Duncan: A few people, here and there, saw and understood parts of what was going on. The rest were sleepwalking. Take drug addiction. Until just before the turn of the century few people understood that certain early childhood experiences, like neglect and abuse, could permanently alter the brain’s chemistry. One powerful effect of the changed brain chemistry was what was then called an "addictive personality," a person who could easily become addicted to drugs. Nowadays this condition is simple to treat, but then it was thought to be a moral issue. And so, by the twisted logic of 20th century law, addicts were thrown in prison. Few could see the link between addiction and childhood experience. Almost nobody wanted to think about what was happening in America’s prisons.

Times: But wasn't the 20th century the time when child abuse was first recognized?

Duncan: Sure, some people late in the century recognized the problem, but society as a whole didn't see it. It wasn't until the 1960's that the medical profession could even bring itself to admit that many of the injured children they were seeing had been hurt by their own parents. For two thirds of the century medicine looked the other way, and never questioned the parents. Even after doctors finally allowed themselves to see what was going on, they still couldn't recognize the consequences. They told themselves that broken bones would heal, and carefully avoided thinking about permanent damage to the mind. Kids would grow up with mental illnesses of all kinds, but were these treated by doctors? Of course not! Twentieth century doctors were very uncomfortable with anything that they could call "psychosomatic," an old word which meant that it was "all in your head." The very few psychiatrists that existed in the 20th century were pill-rollers who did little more than apply chemical Band-Aids to gaping emotional wounds.

It was even worse with insurance companies. In those days you had to buy health insurance from private companies, a nasty collection of corporations that cut costs by eliminating from coverage every disease that they could get away with. If your disease was mental, you had no coverage. If your disease existed before your insurance policy, no coverage. If the only treatment was experimental, no coverage. If your doctor was not on their list, no coverage. If your illness was chronic, your coverage would run out. Even worse, these corporations used their enormous wealth to influence congressmen and legislators, so that insurance laws always worked in their favor. They had a great thing going, at incredible cost to the public.

Times: It sounds like I should be glad I was born in the 21st century!

Duncan: Perhaps, but we of the 20th century felt mightily blessed by the progress we had made. My father in his lifetime saw the development of airplanes, space stations, plastic, telephones, radio, television, computers, the internet, miracle drugs, vaccinations, and so many more amazing things. We were glad we didn't live in the 19th century! And look, the people of the 19th century knew they had come a long way from the 18th century, which in turn called itself the Enlightenment. I think the 21st century needs a little humility. People of the 22nd century may very well look down on them, too, and think how fortunate they are to have emerged from the dreadful darkness.

Times: Religion has evolved a lot during your 150 years on Earth. Are we closer to spiritual enlightenment?

Duncan: Of course not. Religion in the 20th century was used to justify all manner of wretched behavior, just as it is now. We used to have this outfit called the Ku Klux Klan, which hid their violent terrorism against blacks behind a cloak of Christianity. They felt that blacks were subhuman, and mounted a covert but deadly campaign of terror against them. It disturbs me to see the same spirit moving today within those who proudly proclaim they are genetically pure humans, innately superior to all artificial and genetically altered beings. And now they want to create a utopian society of genetically pure humans, guided only by the holy scriptures of the purely human religions? Ha! We used to call such people racist fundamentalists, back when they thought the only good human was a white Christian of European ancestry. You may call me a diehard liberal, but I find the spiritual writings of our artificial lifeforms endlessly fascinating and more soul satisfying than the ancient tribal doctrines we find in the Bible, the Talmud, and the Koran.

Times: Historians tell us that the primary problem of the 20th century was their terrible child-rearing practices. Parents and teachers meant well, but did not know the damage they were doing. Do you agree?

Duncan: Historians have always been wrong, throughout all of history, so I don't know why those of today should be any different. Of course parents of that era were well intentioned, and of course they caused unbelievable damage through ignorance, abuse, alcoholism, and emotional neglect, but was that the primary problem of the 20th century? One could just as easily blame warfare. Wars created epidemics of traumatized and emotionally crippled adults, who then became the parents of the next generation. The consequence was hidden waves of alcoholism and drug abuse, brutal disciplinary practices, and profound emotional and spiritual neglect of children. In truth it was a vicious circle, each problem causing the next in a seemingly endless cycle of woe. So let's not blame the parents. In fact, parents were responsible for breaking the cycle! In the 20th century new revelations about child development appeared in every decade, and most parents responded by doing their best to change what they could. We owe an enormous debt to these pioneers.

Times: Thank you, Mr. Duncan, for this opportunity to see the world through your eyes.

Copyright © 1999 by Loren Cobb. All rights reserved, worldwide.

Comments? Questions? Need to sound off? Send an email to the author.