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The End of History?

Notes on a Neocon Fantasy

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Maybe you didn't notice, but 1989 saw the end of history as we know it. While the world's attention was fixed on the struggles in Prague, Berlin, and San Salvador, the outcome of the human project was already being summed up in America's middlebrow journals of opinion, where Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History?" became the most talked-about article since David Stockman gave away the game of the Reagan administration in the Atlantic Monthly.

While most of the untutored masses assumed that history was moving along rather briskly this year, Fukuyama's credentials as a Harvard PhD and a State Department policy planner afforded him a larger view of things. Writing in the summer issue of the neoconservative quarterly The National Interest, Fukuyama proclaimed that the dissolution of the Soviet bloc spelled not only the end of the Cold War but "the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." The West had won. Forever. Case closed.

But if liberalism now rules the earth, how to account for the illiberal cruelties of apartheid, Tiananmen Square, the West Bank, and the west side? Patience, instructed Fukuyama. A devout Hegelian idealist, confident that the spirit of history would soon come to rest where his sage finger had pointed, he considered it of no great import that "the victory of liberalism has occurred primarily in the realm of ideas and is as yet incomplete in the material world. [For] there are powerful reasons for believing that it is the ideal that will govern the material world in the long run."

A bit presumptuous, you say? Narcissistic? Ethnocentric? In fact, the article was banal in more ways than one can easily name, not the least of which was that in discussing the ponderous Hegel it dwelled at a level of sophistication barely worthy of Philosophy 101.

But it was Fukuyama's reach rather than his grasp that excited his fellow pundits, who scrambled to get in on the victory celebration before it was over. Allan Bloom praised the article as "bold and brilliant." Irving Kristol was "delighted to welcome G.W.F. Hegel to Washington." Arrangements were made to translate the piece into several foreign languages, and Fukuyama quickly became the academic cause celebre of the year.

Besides Bloom and Kristol, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and at least two dozen others had their say in print about Fukuyama's thesis, in a debate that spilled onto the pages of Newsweek, Time, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Harper's, and the National Review. Even the leftist Zeta magazine featured a send-up of Fukuyama on the cover of its October issue.

Not everyone agreed with him, of course, or thought his genius was self-evident. Harper's editor Lewis H. Lapham called Fukuyama's prose "fatuous, smug, and clotted with abstraction." Strobe Talbott said the article reflected "arrogance and shortsightedness." Most commentators, in fact, found Fukuyama's argument to be flawed in one way or another, and some thought it was just plain ridiculous. Yet none of them could forbear rushing into print with their opinions. (Nor, obviously, and in all candor, could I.)

Why did this silly article, which apart from its provocative title had little to stir the mind, become the topic on which anyone claiming to be literate had to have (and publish) an opinion?

One reason was the author. A State Department functionary even superficially conversant in Continental Philosophy is a curiosity; no wonder the article was studied for clues to what one writer called "the cerebral underpinnings of the Bush Administration." That the administration might indeed have a functioning frontal lobe was big news, deserving as much attention as other previously undetected phenomena, like room-temperature fusion.

What's more, the article's release was a masterstroke of timing and promotion. Kristol, publisher of The National Interest, clearly meant for it to be a publishing event, lining up for the same issue commentaries on Fukuyama by such neocon drawing cards as Bloom, Moynihan, and himself. But that wasn't the end of it. Six more commentaries appeared in the fall issue, with Fukuyama's rejoinder promised for the winter. It was a superb marketing job, designed to prolong the shelf life of the product and conceal its faults in lavish packaging. A truly postmodern achievement.

The principals seemed to have known from the start that self-promotion, not intellection, was what this was all about. How else to make sense of Kristol's comment on Fukuyama that "I don't believe a word of it"? Or of Fukuyama's escape clause, in the very last sentence of his 16-page article: "Perhaps boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again"? I mean, is it the end or isn't it?

But of course that question misses the point, which is that endism plays well in the press and inside the Beltway and satisfies our hunger for sententious explanations. Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind did that in 1987, as did Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers last year. But those books were pessimistic and thus not likely to stay with us beyond a single intellectual fashion cycle. Ah, but the end--especially an end in which we win--that's almost like living happily ever after.

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