Wacky world of political predictions: Everything you ever feared - and desired - never happened

By Steven Levingston

For as long as we've been blessed with imagination, we sorry dreamers have turned it to faulty prediction. Besides the obvious goofy expectations - flying cars, moon bases and plankton as our main source of sustenance - we've dished out scores of ridiculous forecasts on the political front. Paul Milo packs a treasury of unrealized hopes into "Your Flying Car Awaits: Robot Butlers, Lunar Vacations, and Other Dead-Wrong Predictions of the Twentieth Century," published as an original paperback by Harper ($14.99).

War? It was supposed to be an ugly memory by now. Andrew Carnegie said so in 1901. Before the end of the 20th century, he assured us, "the earth will be purged of its foulest shame, the killing of men in battle under the name of war."

Philosopher William James fully expected war to die of its own awfulness. In "The Moral Equivalent of War," published in 1910, he wrote: "War becomes absurd and impossible from its own monstrosity." Advances in the technology of destruction would ultimately keep nations from entering the battlefield.

Wrong again. Several decades later technology allowed humans to slaughter each other in a fiery blast so horrible that forecasters expected those weapons would be wiped from the earth before they wiped us from the earth. In 1968, Milo tells us, a panel including members of the U.S. military predicted a ban on nuclear weapons by 2002. Still waiting.

Historian Arthur Waskow projected in the 1960s that by 1999 the United States would have transformed its military into a force for peace, with its ships and planes retrofitted for humanitarian missions and the Strategic Air Command leaving its bombs at home and instead carrying cargo to needy nations.

China? It seemed a "no-hoper," as Milo puts it. Forecaster Ferdinand Lumberg, for instance, foresaw from his 1960s perspective that the Soviet Union would still be around in 150 years and China would remain poor and undeveloped. "Red China ... seems likely to survive," Lumberg wrote, "but that China will in 50 years be able to industrialize to the extent Russia has in a similar period seems impossible."

Women? The forecasts of two men - one, a 1920s alarmist, the other, a remarkably clear-sighted 18th century Frenchman - show the extreme divergence of expectations that women inspired. Anthony Ludovici, who wrote a book in 1925 called "Lysistrata, Or Woman's Future," was shocked by the assertiveness of women in the Roaring 20s and was certain that soon Amazons would dominate society. Women, he feared, would take over industry, make men superfluous, and turn en masse to artificial insemination. A man of vastly different insight, the Marquis de Condorcet predicted in the 1790s that a hundred years hence there would be legal equality between the sexes. His forecast came, Milo writes, at a time "when women had virtually no rights, where a wife was, under the law, virtually the possession of her husband." Concorcet had just experienced the French Revolution and foresaw monarchies around the world tumbling and empires losing their colonies. This prediction, Milo writes, came when "European colonialism was still on the upswing."

For all the wacky missteps, there were others like Concoret who got it amazingly right. In some cases, it took courage as much as brains and imagination. In his book, "A Discourse Concerning a New World and Another Planet," published in 1640, an English clergyman named John Wilkins ventured into a dangerous world of astronomical science. Galileo had already been punished for challenging the belief that the earth lay at the center of the universe. Now, Wilkins proposed that one day humans would streak through the heavens in flying chariots and land on the moon. "Tis likely enough that there may be a means invented of journeying to the Moon," Wilkins wrote, "and how happy they shall be that are first successful in this attempt."

By Steven E. Levingston |  January 19, 2010; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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Flying cars may not have become common in the 20th century but experimental models do exist. I wouldn't be surprised to see them before the end of the 21st century.

Posted by: David561 | January 19, 2010 3:33 PM

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