tue 02/09/2014

Civilization: Is the West History?, Channel 4 | TV reviews, news & interviews

Civilization: Is the West History?, Channel 4

Niall Ferguson on how the West was lost

Niall Ferguson in front of the sunset of the WestChannel 4

The two are not wildly far apart in their appreciation of the wonder of the West; indeed, Ferguson's accompanying book is subtitled The West and the Rest. Clark saw the peak of culture in the judiciously spent gold of the Medici, while Ferguson wants to understand quite why the Medici became so rich in the first place. What made the West power ahead after 1500, when China and the Islamic states had previously been so successful? After all, most Western "inventions" are easily confounded by an Eastern antecedent.

It is almost as if he sneers at his modern Western audience while illustrating why our forebears were so much more sophisticated and advanced than us

While his answers are defensible - competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumption, the Protestant work ethic - the methods he uses for presenting them are not. He talks in the programme of these explanations being "the six killer apps", the patronising tone of which phrase at least educates us as to what it must be like being an 18-year-old at Harvard, where Ferguson lectures. In an interview with The Guardian, he said that the book was written so his teenage children could understand the past five centuries, but I fail to see why he couldn't drop this tone in a prime-time slot on Channel 4, with his talk of "uploading the apps". It is almost as if he sneers at his modern Western audience while illustrating why our forebears were so much more sophisticated and advanced than us.

Nevertheless, Ferguson has picked an important question to answer, and goes at it like a man scaling Everest before breakfast; nothing is inexplicable in history but that he chooses not to explain it. He starts with the strength and boldness of China 500 years ago and shows how it crumbled from within, even as the Portuguese got uppity and set out for spices.

His view of the West seems even more limited than those four letters imply, since he refines it from the competition of the fragmentary, emulous mini-kingdoms of Early Modern Europe to an Anglo-Saxon idea of property and Protestantism. Basically, the British, French, Dutch and Germans - and our colonial cousins - have kept the world spinning. It is hard to argue the facts, but the morality is different, and Ferguson seems to have little time for those trodden in our march to the 21st century.

The irony of our situation, Ferguson wants us to understand, is that we have gone this far in 500 years only for the Chinese to benefit from it and beat us at our own game. Explanations for the rise of China, India and (soon) Africa hinge on their huge populations utilising (our) science and medicine and technology to thrive, and Ferguson seems to think we have engendered our own downfall in exporting them. Perhaps, but he is unwilling to perform a utilitarian calculation, weighing up saving billions from brief, poor lives against the risk of diminishing our own dominance. Again there is the sneer.

An interesting alternative view to Ferguson's pride is Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, which, while far more deterministic than Ferguson, is at least not triumphalist. He looks through the history of the world, through evolution, and sees the advantages the West's geography and nature have given us; he does not consider Western man better or cleverer, as Ferguson seems to - just luckier.

Finally, one single letter in the title of the series is revealing: note the 'z'. This may seem like an orthographic trifle, but it tells you that he is coming from an American perspective. However, the perspective he has picked is out of date. Instead of the contemporary crisis of confidence we see across the Atlantic, Ferguson looks out from the shining era of the Eighties, when American civilisation actually meant something (for good or ill). Ferguson seems to want his series to be seen as a celebration of the West, but it comes across rather as an insensitive eulogy. The historian is stuck in history.

Ferguson has picked an important question to answer, and goes at it like a man scaling Everest before breakfast

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At least Fergusson mentioned the Situationists and May`68. Over on the internet there`s better coverage on Youtube and at www.gothicmoonrecords.co.uk there`s an artists and musicians view. If only we could put the future behind us.
Another example of imperialist nostalgia...
In episode 2, Ferguson claims that at a religion in Turkey was causing retarding of scientific discovery, it was being rewarded and embraced in Europe. Many would qualifiy Ferguson's sweeping statement. One example is the treatment meted out to Galileo Galilei. After 1610, when he began publicly supporting the heliocentric view, which placed the Sun at the centre of the universe, he met with bitter opposition from some philosophers and clerics, and two of the latter eventually denounced him to the Roman Inquisition early in 1615. In February 1616, although he had been cleared of any offence, the Catholic Church nevertheless condemned heliocentrism as "false and contrary to Scripture",[10] and Galileo was warned to abandon his support for it—which he promised to do. When he later defended his views in his most famous work, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, published in 1632, he was tried by the Inquisition, found "vehemently suspect of heresy", forced to recant, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.
"And as for his brief dismissal of the opium wars as a 'reaction' to something done by China to the British, as if they were mere passive unwilling participants, absolving the Brits of any responsibility ... " of course he doesnt mean it like that. he is just emphasisng the power of the british, so powerful that a simple act like that have serious consequences!!!!
Some thirty years ago I travelled to Manchester to attend my son’s graduation award of a B.Sc. in Electronics from UMIST. A pleasant family occasion but I could not help but notice that, among his classmates and fellow graduands, there were an inordinate number of names that clearly originated in China or other parts of South East Asia. Electronics and related disciplines were, at that time, seen as the science of the future and, while my son went on to have a successful career in the electronics industry, it seemed to me, even then, that these fiendishly clever Chinamen were poised to take over his future and then the world.
Haven't seen Ferguson's program. But I do find it interesting when critics focus on how things are said rather than what was said. Maybe Ferguson's perspective is "American" (whatever that means). How he says what he says and where he is coming from really doesn't matter. What matters is whether whether the West is in deep cultural and economic decline and whether it is history or not, and what if anything can be done about it. I assume the unwillingness to address this question forthrightly means Spero either thinks we are not in decline or if we are it is not an important enough topic to comment on. Whether one agrees with him or not at least Ferguson is trying to say something about a possibilty with immense implications.
Thanks Josh. You've saved me the bother of having to post on the first of this series at mine. (Although, as I write this I fear I might commit bloggery after all.) Shallow, patronising and chauvinistic are three adjectives that sprung to mind watching the programme. I also think you are right about the triumphalist aspect. I eagerly awaited his explanation as to why China closed down in the 15th century. Answer there came none. And as for his brief dismissal of the opium wars as a 'reaction' to something done by China to the British, as if they were mere passive unwilling participants, absolving the Brits of any responsibility ... how does Ferguson get work?
Wow, lots of comments, thanks. @gdo I'm not at all saying his reasoning is wrong, but it's the method of his presentation which irritates. Also, I was taking a view not just on the programme but on the entire theory he is expounding, on TV and in the press and in the book. @llouki I'm glad he's convinced you - I find him too triumphalist for my taste. @soupdragon I'm not sure that that's true - it's fairly well-established (and most English newspapers agree) that -ize is American. Plus, when it's a deliberate reference to Clarke, the subtle difference is important.
@historyscientist, as you and Spero will probably know, British English allows the use of both -ize and -ise, although the z is preferred when the word is of Greek or Latin origin, with the s version being for words of French origin. The -ize vs. -ise argument is often just an ill educated attempt at expressing authority.
Fergusson 'neutral and objective'? Are you having a laugh? This is ego-driven 'got to have a theory to make a reputation' historianism, and always has been. Repellent.
Hey Josh, I believe Fergussson is neutral and objective in his presentation, yes as mentioned before we might not have watched the same program. I belive the point with China as it might have been the case with another monolithic power such as the Persian Empire is that bureacracy and inwardness are counterproductive and leads to inflexibility and ultimatively to decay. The West got its advantages from a fierce competition that lead to dynamism, pragmatism and continued improvement.
I don't see any particular contradiction between Ferguson's account and Diamond's. This programme was a bit superficial but that is the way of television. Good point about the spelling of civilisation though.

he [Jared Diamond] does not consider Western man better or cleverer, as Ferguson seems too - just luckier.

You weren't watching the same programme that I was. Or maybe you were, and just didn't understand it.

I saw nothing of the sort. I saw him explaining why the Chinese lost an opportunity to dominate the world purely because the West was fragmented and seething with competition - and the Chinese state was monolithic. Despite its enormous achievements - it just couldn't move fast enough.

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