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Column: The End of Everything

There is no end to the books using the title "The End of . . ." Maybe that's because it is a perfect headline for our age. (Washington Post - Anne Farrar)

There is no end to the books using the title "The End of . . ." Maybe that's because it is a perfect headline for our age. (Washington Post - Anne Farrar)

I hope you had it while you could, because, a couple of weeks ago, sex ended.

That may sound like a big deal, but it’s not that serious when you consider everything else that has ended.

Nature and truth. Money and markets. Men and marriage. Faith and reason. They’ve all ended. Power ended in March, but that makes sense because leadership ended last year. History ended more than two decades ago, while the future ended just two years ago.

On the plus side, illness has ended, along with poverty, racism, war — even homework.

If you thought these things were still around, just pick up The End of Sex, by Donna Freitas, published last week, or Moises Naim’s The End of Power, which came out last month. Try David Wolman’s The End of Money or David Agus’ The End of Illness. Those came out in 2012, the same year that Hanna Rosin affirmed The End of Men and John Horgan imagined The End of War.

One could dismiss this proliferation of “The End” as a plea for attention by publishers, magazine editors, authors, bloggers, TED talkers and the rest of the ideas industry — a marketing device signaling little more than the end of imagination.

But it is more than that. “The end of” is also the perfect headline for our age. It fits a moment that fetishizes disruption over stability. It grabs an audience enamored of what is next, not what is here. It suits a public debate in which extreme positions are requisite starting points.

We don’t know what is coming; that’s too hard to discern. All we know is that what we have — old jobs, old ideologies, old phones — is boring, dated, over. Ended.

The Patient Zero of the end times has to be Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History? in 1989. In a 9,000-word essay in the National Interest, Fukuyama declared the triumph of free markets and democracy, not in the real world but in the world of ideas. “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history,” he wrote, “but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy.”

This erudite, sprawling work replete with Marx and Hegel references became a sensation — debated and dissected by scholars, journalists and politicians around the world. And it planted the 36-year-old Fukuyama on the big-thinker map.

Why the appeal? Declaring an end “conveys a kind of apocalyptic sense that there is a big transition underfoot,” Fukuyama told me recently. “You perceive there is something going on — saying it is the end of something gives you that aha moment.”

The essay — which three years later became a hefty book — had a built-in defense mechanism: The end of history was not yet upon us, but would happen in an unspecified “long run.” So if history doesn’t end, be patient. And in his conclusion, Fukuyama suggested that if ideological struggles did end, life would become so dull that we’d “get history started once again.” Either way, he’s right.

The End of History? offered a rough template for the end. Today, chances are, if your book is titled “The End of” something, it’s long, contradictory, disputable — but still feels irrefutable. And if you spend enough time with these books and articles, five distinct types of ends emerge, with varying degrees of credibility, bombast and persuasiveness.

In 2010’s The End of the Free Market, Ian Bremmer chronicles the showdown between traditional free-market capitalism and what he calls “state capitalism” — think China, Russia and the Arab monarchies, in which governments harness market forces but still control big chunks of the economy. The book, Bremmer says in the introduction, explains how this new form of capitalism “threatens free markets and the future of the global economy.”

It’s a good story, and Bremmer offers copious stats and anecdotes to support it. But in the final chapter, we get confusing news: Over time, he writes, “free markets will probably outlast state capitalism . . . just as they bested Soviet-style communism.”

Wait. So, in The End of the Free Market, the free market prevails?

Bremmer takes refuge in his subtitle: “Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations?” He believes free markets will win, he wrote in Foreign Policy, “but that’s a long-term process, and the outcome is far from certain . . . which is why the full title ends in a question mark.”

Ah, the question mark — the indispensable fig leaf of so many “the end of” arguments, shielding authors from the demands of consistency.

Richard Susskind deploys it in his 2008 book, The End of Lawyers?, which argues that information technology will upend the legal profession. On the first page of the introduction, he cautions readers: “As the question mark in the title should at least hint, I write not to bury lawyers but to investigate their future.”

Yet Susskind’s investigation yields a most definite ambiguity: “The future for lawyers could be prosperous or disastrous,” he concludes. “The arguments and findings of this book could support either end game.”

This may be the most popular type of end, and features some of its best-known works. Something doesn’t really have to end, but if it is changing in a meaningful way, then you can declare that it is the end of that thing as we know it. (And your title feels fine.)

Most authors are up front about this tactic. Early in The End of Power, Naim acknowledges that power has not disappeared and that some people still possess a lot if it. His point is not that power has disappeared, but that it is “decaying,” that powerful people, institutions and nations — constrained by new competitors and heavier scrutiny — aren’t as strong as they once were.

Similarly, Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men argues that the balance of economic power — from jobs to education levels — is flipping the sexes. “The modern economy is becoming a place where women hold the cards,” she proclaims.

Yet male power is far from ended, as Rosin writes: “Yes, the United States and many other countries still have a gender wage gap. . . . And yes, the upper reaches of power are still dominated by men.” But, she says, these disparities are “the last artifacts of a vanishing age.”

When I asked her recently about the title, Rosin offered some misgivings. “I’ve gone back and forth on whether I like the title many times — in particular, whether I should have used a question mark,” she said. “I come out just not regretting” the title.

It fits, she decided, because the book is about “the end of a presumption of male dominance,” she says. “The end of an idea of a certain kind of men.”

The end of power or of men? Not quite. Big changes in both? Sure.

Open The End of Sex and you’ll find that the college students Freitas surveys and interviews are scoring on nearly every page. They’re having “bad sex, boring sex, drunken sex you don’t remember, sex you could care less about, sex where desire is absent, sex that you have ‘just because everyone else is, too,’ or that ‘just happens,’ “ the author writes.

So, clearly, sex is still being had. Freitas’ point — an interesting one, certainly — is that among the college-age generation, all that hooking up has become unfulfilling, more detached — “sex for the sake of sex.”

So why not call it the end of romance? Or the devaluing of love? Why choose a title that might make readers imagine a book about, you know, people not doing it anymore?

It depends on what the meaning of “end” is.

“I’m not proclaiming the end of sex,” Freitas told me recently. “I actually use the phrase in a more philosophical context. In my world, with my academic background, we talk about ‘end’ — the purpose and meaning of something.” And given the misgivings that she says students have about hookup culture, she said, “young people need to ask that for themselves.”

Past writers have relied on this secondary definition of “end,” but it helps if they acknowledge it up front. In the preface to his 1995 book, The End of Education, for instance, Neil Postman says that end can imply “purpose” or “finish,” and he promises to address both.

Freitas acknowledges that people have not interpreted the title as she intended. “What has been surprising to me is that no one assumed the double meaning,” Freitas said. “Everyone assumes I am proclaiming that sex is over.”

It’s not hard to see why.

Concept ends are close cousins to as-we-know-it ends, with one difference: It’s not that something is changing; the way we think about that thing is changing. Concept ends travel almost exclusively in the world of ideas and cultural perceptions. (Some books, such as Bill McKibben’s 1989 classic, The End of Nature, or Barbara Kellerman’s The End of Leadership straddle both categories.)

The End of White America?, written by Vassar English professor Hua Hsu in the Atlantic in 2009, is an especially thoughtful example of the concept end. It keys off a census finding that by 2042, groups currently considered minorities — African Americans, Hispanics and Asians — will make up the majority of the U.S. population. But it doesn’t forecast the political or socioeconomic repercussions of this shift. Instead, it asks: “What will it mean to be white after ‘whiteness’ no longer defines the mainstream?” After a fascinating ride through whiteness as the new kitsch and multiculturalism as a new casting requirement, we reach Hsu’s answer: Not the end of white America, but a bridge to a nation that sees race “as just one of a seemingly infinite number of possible self-identifications.”

This one is worth reading until the end.

“We have the way to end wars,” writes journalist John Horgan. “We need only the will.” In his passionate yet methodical The End of War, Horgan shoots down many of the old explanations behind humanity’s propensity for war — genetics, scarce resources, cultural attitudes — and asserts that war is a choice. “War is not something that happens to us. We make it happen. . . . Wars all begin with human decisions.”

After running through his evidence of declining violence, Horgan makes his pitch: “If we want peace badly enough, we can have it . . . the choice is ours.” That choice entails slashing military budgets, abolishing arms sales, eliminating nuclear arsenals and banning the death penalty, for starters. “With imaginative, courageous leadership,” he affirms, “we may soon live in a largely disarmed world.”

Commendable, but not terribly convincing. That is the plight of the end books that blend prediction with prescription, policy with righteousness.

In The End of Poverty, for instance, Jeffrey Sachs declares that, given the riches and expertise that world can bring to bear on the problem, “extreme poverty can be ended not in the time of our grandchildren, but in our time. . . . I am not predicting what will, only explaining what can happen.”

These can be the most inspiring of the end books, but the most frustrating as well. If the authors are proved right, they’re prophets. But if they’re wrong (as I suspect they will be), it’s not their fault — it’s yours and mine, because we didn’t follow their advice. We failed to muster the will, resources and vision to reach the end.

So, will we ever see the end of “the end of?”

Lara Heimert, publisher of Basic Books, recognizes fads in book titles — from the Gladwellian monosyllables of Nudge and Blink to all those “The (Blank) that Changed the World” formulations, to the “What X Can Teach Us About Y” craze. But she remains a fan of the end.

“The job of a book title is to make the broadest possible claim,” says Heimert, whose publishing house released the Freitas and Naim books. “The title is not a place for lots of nuance. Subtitles are explanatory; main titles grab readers’ attention.”

“The End of” is a “catchy title,” she says. And, despite the echo effect, she believes the books preserve their uniqueness. “People don’t sit around collecting “The End of” books” Heimert notes. “I don’t think someone buys The End of History because they really liked The End of Sex.”

Maybe not. But after a while, these various ideas can blur into a self-perpetuating end state. A January New York Times article titled “The End of Courtship?” cited Freitas and Rosin to buttress the thesis that unfulfilling hookups have supplanted old-school dates. The opening chapter of Bremmer’s The End of the Free Market begins with a quote from Fukuyama’s The End of History? essay. Ravi Zacharias wrote The End of Reason as a rebuttal to Sam Harris’ The End of Faith — and says so in his first paragraph.

Bremmer thinks an uncertain era demands these kinds of arguments. “We’re in a time of geopolitical creative destruction . . . (and) the speed of change is increasing,” he said in an email. “The new emerging systems aren’t as clear as the fact that old structures no longer function.” So, he concludes, “one thing we won’t see the end of are these ‘end of’ books.”

Rosin, meanwhile, sees this proliferation of “the end” as an outgrowth of how we digest information and ideas. “Blogging culture is a big, grand debate,” she said. Although she is most proud of the characters and narratives in The End of Men, those don’t get much attention. But, she admits, “you could just read the title of book and have a big, broad debate.”

To break through the din, Rosin said, “you need big, strong ideas.”

Yet it also takes a certain kind of hubris to declare the end of something. In a critique of Fukuyama’s End of History? thesis, Samuel Huntington warned against the “errors of endism” — of putting too much faith in historical predictability and fleeting events. After all, he said simply, “current trends may or may not continue into the future.”

So, men may rise again, free markets may survive, power may concentrate, lawyers may thrive and sex may go forth and multiply. As Vassar’s Hsu put it to me, this type of idea “works best when it’s somewhat self-aware of its limitations.”

Except the entire genre undercuts that impulse. The more grandly you proclaim the end, and the more vast and undefined the thing that is ending, the easier it is to kill off. That’s why we see essays like Peter Theil’s The End of the Future, as ambitious in scope as it is dubious in argument.

If you’re contending that something specific has ended — well, the specific is measurable, observable and debatable. Specificity implies expertise. Generality is accountable to no one.

So let’s get it over with and declare, once and for now, the end of everything.

Carlos Lozada is the Outlook editor of The Washington Post.