“Main Street is the climax of civilization. That this
Ford car might stand in front of the Bon Ton Store, Hannibal
invaded Rome and Erasmus wrote in Oxford cloisters.”

Julie Pannuto

— Sinclair Lewis

“What are the politics of boredom?”

— Malcolm McLaren

After more than 40 years of Cold War
anxiety about counterforce strikes, the adequacy of the civil
defense system, a bomber gap followed by a missile gap, the
proliferation of MIRV missile technology and the credibility of
deterrent threat, the end of history looked like a pretty good
bargain. The thesis served to displace the apparently unshakable
fear of the end of humanity with more mundane fears. Even as
tragedies and conflict still lay ahead, future society would be
defined by free markets and democratic institutions. We knew what
we were and where we were going.

The tendency to identify one’s own epoch and way of life
as the crown of creation is a persistent undercurrent of human
history. The countless millenarian movements that have claimed the
end is nigh and exhorted their followers to consummate gruesome
deeds are prominent examples of this mode of thinking. A belief in
the imperative of “progress” and the concomitant belief
that the ideal of progress can be readily identified is a more
ambiguous example of the same pattern of thought. The fascination
with progress and an inability to grapple with the moral
uncertainty that often surrounds it has resulted in many outcomes
as abhorrent as those initiated by millenarian sects. The
self-styled progressives of the early 20th century who embraced the
promise of eugenics as a cure for the world’s problems
represent a particularly unsettling case of this behavior. The
relevant distinction between the two forms of endism is that in the
more ambiguous example, individuals merely believe that the
possibility of the end exists. We have created the tools for the
realization of the good life; it is up to the next generations to
adopt them.

Generational narcissism may be the handiest explanation of
humanity’s habit to identify the final stage of history as a
development contemporaneous with one’s existence. In this
respect, it is a self-absorbed fetish. However, its defenders
insist that there are benefits of this obsession with the end. It
is a tool to impose order on the complexity of historical events,
find a purpose in the confusion of life and reduce political
disagreements to their essentials.

The sea change in the U.S. political arena on the issues of free
trade and humanitarian intervention and the relative decline of the
Democratic Leadership Council’s influence has reflected a
distinct shift in the attitudes of Americans toward the end of
history story. While it has since been mocked, critiqued and
largely renounced by its creator — Francis Fukuyama has since
argued that the pace of technological innovation prevents history
from coming to an end — for a short expanse of time it looked
and felt real. On the foreign policy front, the first Clinton term
didn’t always live up to the expectations, but the second go
around was more promising. The foreign policy team mishandled the
Rwanda crisis in the spring of 1994, but eventually exercised a
credible response to genocide in Kosovo. Candidate Clinton often
took a skeptical attitude toward free trade, while President
Clinton struggled to get the North American Free Trade Agreement
past a Democratically controlled Congress. As vice president, Al
Gore went on CNN to mock Ross Perot as a protectionist with a
photograph of Rep. Willis C. Hawley and Sen. Reed Smoot, the
authors of the ignominious Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act of 1930, and
defend the principles of NAFTA. By the end of his presidency,
Clinton was winning major trade battles by large margins. Both
parties seemed to be converging toward the ideals in
Fukuyama’s vision of the end of history.

Of course, none of this holds now. John Kerry flaunts his
isolationist campaign line, “We shouldn’t be opening
firehouses in Baghdad and closing them in Brooklyn.”
It’s difficult not to be cynical when examining Sen. John
Edwards’ jibe that trade represents a “moral
issue” when he voted against the African Growth and
Opportunity Act. President Bush implements quotas on steel imports
and tariffs on textiles. The belief that the end of history is
preordained breeds a sense of complacency toward these sudden
shifts. The end of history thesis wraps policies that are genuinely
important in a cloak of urbane nonchalance. History, even from the
victor’s circle, is still worth fighting for.

Peskowitz can be reached at
“mailto:zpeskowi@umich.edu”>zpeskowi@umich.edu.

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