Civilization: The West and the Rest

Civilization: The West and the Rest

Western civilization’s rise to global dominance is the single most important historical phenomenon of the past five centuriesHow did the West overtake its Eastern rivals? And has the zenith of Western power now passed? Acclaimed historian Niall Ferguson argues that beginning in the fifteenth century, the West developed six powerful new concepts, or “killer applications”—co...

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Title:Civilization: The West and the Rest
Author:Niall Ferguson
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Edition Language:English

Civilization: The West and the Rest Reviews

  • Ian Robertson

    Prolific Oxford, Harvard and Stanford professor Niall Ferguson continues his excellent string of publications with a well researched and erudite tour of the past 500 years of western civilization. The book is very, very detailed (over 700 end notes, plus a 30 page bibliography), but extremely readable. Its many facts are both interesting and woven together logically and chronologically to support a central thesis - that the West has predominated because it developed six killer apps: competition,

    Prolific Oxford, Harvard and Stanford professor Niall Ferguson continues his excellent string of publications with a well researched and erudite tour of the past 500 years of western civilization. The book is very, very detailed (over 700 end notes, plus a 30 page bibliography), but extremely readable. Its many facts are both interesting and woven together logically and chronologically to support a central thesis - that the West has predominated because it developed six killer apps: competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society, and the work ethic.

    Not just another book trumpeting the West’s superiority, Ferguson highlights the West’s good luck as well as it’s superior political and economic structure. He notes the West’s willingness to have its killer apps downloaded by other countries, which will mean more wealth for all but also a change in the balance of power.

    Like all history books, the content is filtered through the author’s particular lens - in this case a right wing, British Empire loving polymath and wit - but Ferguson is thorough in supporting his thesis, confronting other historians’ theories and mistakes head-on, and documenting his own views with ample political, economic and cultural references and a fair amount of humour. The prolific references range from esoteric to pop-cultural (e.g. Sid Meier’s Civilization computer game).

    There are some minor flaws - the chapter on medicine is mostly about subjects other than medicine; the slave trade to the Americas listed as beginning in 1450, almost half a century before Columbus’ voyage to the New World; and Ferguson seems curiously unscientific in his footnote musing that genetics may explain Jews’ disproportionate success in arts, science and commerce - but on the whole this is an excellent, densely packed historical tour.

    For those familiar with Ferguson’s other works, Civilization falls somewhere between his story filled and highly readable “Ascent of Money” and his more academic “The Pity of War”. A broad, detailed canvas with the most interesting of stories laying the foundation for us to speculate about the future of western civilization and the rise of China.

    Much better and more thought provoking than other, often economics oriented, books heralding the decline of the West. Civilization the television series will surely cross the Atlantic to North American viewers, just as “The Ascent of Money” did, but read the book for its rich detail. Buy it, read it, and reflect on the future of both the West and the Rest.

  • James Murphy

    This is a story that can be told in many ways. It's history, a history of the European dominance in world affairs and the reasons for it. It's geopolitics told through Ferguson's prism which receives the vast record of European history during the last several hundred years and projects it into a patten. The West has dominated, he explains, because they differed from the Rest, or excelled while the Rest didn't, in 6 key areas: the spirit of competition, the scientific revolution in the West, stro

    This is a story that can be told in many ways. It's history, a history of the European dominance in world affairs and the reasons for it. It's geopolitics told through Ferguson's prism which receives the vast record of European history during the last several hundred years and projects it into a patten. The West has dominated, he explains, because they differed from the Rest, or excelled while the Rest didn't, in 6 key areas: the spirit of competition, the scientific revolution in the West, stronger social and political systems based on property ownership, the medical breakthroughs of the West, the demand and creation of cheaper goods, and greater capital accumulation through the work ethic.

    In 6 chapters devoted to these ideas, Ferguson explicates his thesis. I was a little surprised to find the Rest wasn't always the undeveloped nations of the world. Different examples of the Rest illustrate each of the 6 main points. Africa, for instance, is the Rest in comparison with the West's leadership in medical advances and disease control. South America is the Rest when he contrasts the differences in property ownership. In explaining the West's domnance in manufacturing and consumption the Rest becomes the communist political system.

    As I say, the story can be told in different ways. It has been before and will be again. Ferguson's book is a system of understanding the West's global dominance. But it's a system that works. Ferguson is a learned historian and writer able to fill a book like this with many aha moments and fresh ways of seeing. Religion is mentioned quite a lot. The Protestant ethic drove part of the West's success, he says, and now declining interest in religion is resulting in a less stringent work ethic. In another example, he writes that European geography with its many rivers and mountains dictated the formation of more numerous, smaller states necessitating the competition among them which was at the heart of European exploration and drive for empire. He compares this to China's large single-government rule and less complex geography.

    Is he right? I don't know. His ideas are one way to explain it. They're convincingly laid out and argued, and in ways providing an interesting, gripping read from beginning to end.. I suspect there's room for disagreement within the community of historians and geopolitical experts at his level, and I suspect there are detractors.

    He himself is an admirer of Samuel P Huntington. He mentions his thesis of "clash of civilizations" more than once. And agrees with Huntington that such things as the economic rise of China and the rise of Islam held up against the decline of Christianity are direct threats to the West. Like Huntington, too, and many others, he subscribes to the notion that civilizations rise and fall in cycles. Ferguson's conclusion deals with the West's downward trend in the cycle. All civilizations fall, he says, and their fall is always accompanied by and trumpeted by fiscal difficulties. Every time. Like we see on the news and read in the papers. Ferguson says the fall is swift, too--decades, a generation. Cycling upward? China, of course, though he admits there's room for them to stumble. But even with China dominating the globe economically and militarily, it's not the end of civilization. It's geopolitics.

  • Usman Hickmath

    “In 1412, Europe was a miserable backwater, while the East was home to dazzling civilizations. So how did the West come to dominate the rest?”

    Ferguson has picked up competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumerism and work ethics as the reasons for the domination of West during last five centuries and supported his argument with ample historical evidences. This book is a proof for Ferguson’s ability to tell history in an interesting way: even with so much of historical information an

    “In 1412, Europe was a miserable backwater, while the East was home to dazzling civilizations. So how did the West come to dominate the rest?”

    Ferguson has picked up competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumerism and work ethics as the reasons for the domination of West during last five centuries and supported his argument with ample historical evidences. This book is a proof for Ferguson’s ability to tell history in an interesting way: even with so much of historical information and over 20 pages of end-notes, it never sounded slow or boring.

    From the exemplary violence Europe engaged in to capture the spice route to the embracing of Western manufacturing and consumption models by East, from the failure of clergies of Ottoman Empire to accept and adopt science to the developments in property right practices of US, the journey through this book was so thought-provoking.

  • Vaishali

    A must-read for history buffs. Surprising factoids, especially the impressive stats on China (!) Ferguson loses credibility only when he opines that tall height is a western introduction. (Colonial New England diaries are full of encounters with 6-ft Native men, and East Africa's Maasai male warriors average 6-7 ft.)

    Wow moments :

    -----------

    “In 1500… the biggest city was Beijing, with a population of 600,000 to 700,000.”

    “As late as 1776, Adam Smith could still refer to China as ‘one of the riche

    A must-read for history buffs. Surprising factoids, especially the impressive stats on China (!) Ferguson loses credibility only when he opines that tall height is a western introduction. (Colonial New England diaries are full of encounters with 6-ft Native men, and East Africa's Maasai male warriors average 6-7 ft.)

    Wow moments :

    -----------

    “In 1500… the biggest city was Beijing, with a population of 600,000 to 700,000.”

    “As late as 1776, Adam Smith could still refer to China as ‘one of the richest, that is, one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, and most populous countries in the world … a much richer country than any part of Europe.’ "

    “By the time his chief engineer Bai Ying had finished damming and diverting the flow of the Yellow River, it was possible for nearly 12,000 grain barges to sail up and down the Canal every year. Nearly 50,000 men were employed in maintaining it.”

    “It had taken… more than twenty years to build the wall around his capital and it extended for as many miles, with gates so large that a single one could house 3,000 soldiers. And it was built to last. Much of it still stands today, while scarcely anything remains of London’s medieval wall.”

    “In 1086 Su Song added a gear escapement to create the world’s first mechanical clock, an intricate 40-foot-tall contraption that not only told the time but also charted the movements of the sun, moon and planets.”

    “Weng Zhen’s 1313 ‘Treatise on Agriculture’ was full of implements then unknown in the West.”

    “With a combined crew of 28,000, Zheng He’s navy was bigger than anything seen in the west until the First World War… (Vasco de Gama's) four small ships… could quite easily have fit inside Zheng He’s treasure ship.”

    “The compendium of Chinese learning Yongle commissioned took the labor of more than 2000 scholars to complete, and filled more than 11,000 volumes. It was surpassed as the world’s largest encyclopedia only in 2007 - after a reign of almost exactly 600 years - by Wikipedia.”

    “In East Asia, an acre of land was enough to support a family. Such was the efficiency of rice cultivation, whereas in England the average figure was closer to 20 acres.”

    “… China was ruled from the top down by a Confucian bureaucracy recruited on the basis of perhaps the most demanding examination system in all history… 3 stages of grueling tests conducted in specially-built exam centers… observed by soldiers in a look-out tower. The only movement allowed was the passage of servants replenishing food and water supplies for removing human waste.”

    “The Caliphates also produced what some regard as the first true hospitals… in 707… designed to cure rather than merely house the sick.”

    “The Ottoman (war) encampment was itself a statement of confidence. Kara Mustapha had a garden planted in front of his palatial tent. The message was clear : the Turks had time to starve the Viennese into surrender if necessary…”

    “The abandoned Ottoman coffee was used to found the first Viennese cafe.”

    “… The Quran was translated into Latin and published in Basel by the printer Uranus Operinus. When in 1542 the Basel City Council banned the translation and seized the available copies, Luther himself wrote in Operinus’ defense ‘Set this book free…’ ”

    “Printing, too, was resisted in the Muslim world. For the Ottomans, script was sacred (due to) a preference for the art of calligraphy over the business of printing… In 1515 a decree of Sultan Selim I had threatened with death anyone found using the printing press. This failure to reconcile Islam with scientific progress was to prove disastrous. Having once provided European scholars with ideas and inspiration, Muslim scientists were now cut off from the latest research.”

    “In all, between 1500 and 1800, precious metal worth roughly £109 billion at today’s prices was shipped from the New World to Europe or via the Pacific to Asia… The Spaniards had literally found mountains of silver in Mexico and Peru.”

    “Mexico City had 100,000 inhabitants in 1692… Boston had barely 6,000. Twenty-five Spanish American universities were founded, like the one at Santo Domingo, which predates Harvard by nearly a century.”

    “What made the Royal Society so important was not so much royal patronage as the fact that it was part of a new kind of scientific community, which allowed ideas to be shared and problems to be addressed collectively through a process of open competition.”

    “Frederick (the Great) maintained only a small retinue of staff at Sanssouci… In Frederick’s opinion, regal robes had no practical purpose, and a crown was as merely ‘a hat that let the rain in.' "

    “But abolition was only the first part of this revolution in French Africa. It was also announced that the newly freed slaves would get to vote, unlike the natives in British colonies.”

    “Not only did the French extend their own public healthcare system to the whole of French West Africa, in February 1905 Governor General Rhume issued an order creating a free healthcare service for the indigenous population, something that didn’t exist in France.”

    “Yet the scramble for Africa was also a scramble for scientific knowledge, which was as collaborative as it was competitive… Now every European power with serious imperial ambitions had to have a tropical medicine institute.”

    “We were what we wore… These days people in the world dress much in the same way… the same jeans… What is it about our clothes that people can’t resist? … It’s about freedom, the right to dress or drink as you please, even if that turns out to be like everyone else.”

    “That quantum leap in material standards of living for a rising share of humanity had its origins in the manufacture or textiles… a dynamic consumer society characterized by an almost infinitely elastic demand for cheap clothes.”

    “The worker was also a consumer. The wage slave also went shopping… the result is one of the greatest paradoxes of modern society : that an economic system designed to offer infinite choice to the individual has ended up homogenizing humanity.”

    “Marxism took Carlisle’s revulsion against the capitalist economy and substituted a utopia for nostalgia. Marx himself was an odious individual. An unkempt scrounger and savage polemicist, he liked to boast that his wife was 'née Baroness von Westphalen’... He depended on handouts from Engels for whom socialism was a hobby along with fox hunting and womanizing… running one of his father's cotton factories in Manchester. No man in history has bitten the hand that fed him with greater gusto then Marx...”

    “Japan’s institutions were refashioned on western models… The Japanese even started eating beef, hitherto taboo… The most visible change, however, was in the way the Japanese looked. It began in 1870, with the formal ban on the blackening of teeth and shaving of eyebrows at court.”

    “Here’s one of the many puzzles… The Indians were introduced to the textile mill, steam engine, and railway long before the Japanese… Yet industrial development failed to take off in India… ‘Everywhere it was apparent there was little or poor supervision and an entire lack of discipline,’ lamented one American visitor to a Bombay mill."

    “No less creative was the live, recorded and broadcast music business, once white Americans had discovered that black Americans had nearly all the best tunes. Jazz approached its zenith in the swinging sound of Duke Ellington’s big band, which rolled out hit after hit even as the automobile- production lines ground to halt."

    “The naked body has been an integral part of western art since the ancient Greeks, a reminder that what we don't wear is often as important as what we do wear.”

    “Before the war most clothes were made to measure by tailors, but the need to manufacture tens of millions of military uniforms encouraged the development of standard sizes.”

    “About 15,000 women participated in a survey conducted by the National Bureau of Home Economics of the US Department of Agriculture. It was the first large scale scientific study of female proportions ever undertaken…. The results were published in 1941 as USDA Miscellaneous Publication 454 “Women’s Measurements for Garmet and Pattern Construction.” Standardized sizes allowed civilian clothes as well as uniforms to be mass-produced and sold…”

    “The key from the outset was the association between jeans and youthful misbehavior… In 1944 Life magazine caused a storm by publishing a photograph of two Wellesley College women in jeans. By the time Levi’s competitor Lee introduced zippers, the reputation of jeans as sexually arousing was established.”

    “The Protestant ethic… provided the capitalist with sober, conscientious, and unusually capable workers who were devoted to work as the divinely willed purpose of life. For most of history, men had worked to live, but the Protestants lived to work.”

    “In 1941, over 55% people in what is now Kerala were literate - a higher proportion than in any other region of India , 4 times higher than the Indian average… This is because Protestant missionaries were more active in Kerala, drawn by its ancient Christian community, than anywhere else in India.”

    “The question is: has the west today - or at least a significant part of it - lost its religion and the ethic that went with it? Europeans today are the idlers of the world. On average they work less than Americans and a lot less than Asians.”

    .

  • Paul Bryant

    THE ACTUAL REVIEW AS OPPOSED TO THE COMPLAINT ABOUT THE TITLE

    Niall Ferguson is exhausting. He leaps, darts, pirhouettes, swandives, uses statistics as Molotov cocktails, he quotes, he hectors, he nudges, he booms, he hollers, he balances, he bulldozes, his book is like 500 years of history considered as a switchback ride, most of which is spent upside down going at 120 miles per hour.

    The argument of this book is clear. NF wishes to explain why the West dominated the Rest for the last 500 years,

    THE ACTUAL REVIEW AS OPPOSED TO THE COMPLAINT ABOUT THE TITLE

    Niall Ferguson is exhausting. He leaps, darts, pirhouettes, swandives, uses statistics as Molotov cocktails, he quotes, he hectors, he nudges, he booms, he hollers, he balances, he bulldozes, his book is like 500 years of history considered as a switchback ride, most of which is spent upside down going at 120 miles per hour.

    The argument of this book is clear. NF wishes to explain why the West dominated the Rest for the last 500 years, and then ask if the West's time is now up. He identifies six features of western civilisation as essential. Here they are.

    1. Competition. At the beginning of this story, in 1500, the Western European territories were occupied by a nasty bunch of uneducated murderous louts who would have cut your throat for a ducat but who died of plague before they found their cuirass. Over in the East there were the empires of China and Ottomania which had the science and the tourist attractions. It was clear where civilisation was. But then Westerners discovered the New World and some really violent Portuguese merchant adventurers began creating havoc, followed by Spanish and English versions of the same. Urgent competition broke out between the petty European states. At the same time China stopped trading with the outside world and declined Western approaches.

    And this is often how it goes in this book – yes, this outbreak of early colonising fervour in South America and elsewhere was vital to what came next, as was China's inward-turning. Exactly

    these things happened remains obscure.

    2. Science. Christianity accepted a church/state division of power –God and Caesar, the pope and the emperor, spirit and matter – and this allowed a secular science to eventually flourish, once Gutenberg had re-invented printing. In contrast, Islam recognised no such division. Science had flourished under Islam but just at the time Western scientists were freed by printing Muslim theologians were successfully shutting down science in Islam. In 1515 Sultan Selim threatened anyone using a printing press with the death penalty. In the 1570s a scientist Taqi al-Din , who designed astronomic clocks and experimented with steam power, got permission to build an observatory. It was the equal of the famous Tycho Brahe's observatory in Denmark. On 11 October 1577 a comet was sighted over Istanbul. They asked Taqi for an interpretation. He said it prophesied a great Muslim military victory. Theologians then said to the sultan that such peering into heavens and prophesying was blasphemous. In 1580 the sultan ordered the observatory to be abolished. End of Islamic astronomy.

    This translates to the following statistic – between 1980 and 2000 the number of patents registered in Israel was 7,652. The number of patents registered in all Arab countries for the same period was 367.

    3. Property. The history of North and South America provides us with a perfect experiment to see which economic system – the Spanish/Portuguese or the British – worked better. Why did South America not become the economic superpower that the USA did? Because, says NF, of property rights, followed by the rule of law, followed by representative government. Which the North got and the South didn't.

    Imagine if Britain had discovered Mexico and Peru and had captured their gold and silver instead of the Spanish. Then the British monarch would have had this vast source of private wealth which would have freed him from dependence on Parliament to vote him his tax revenue. The importance of Parliament itself would therefore have dwindled. Democracy would never have got going. Gold and silver killed democracy in Spain and Portugal.

    Labour was scarce in North America and plentiful in the South. Emigrants to North America were given land if they were freemen or if (as most were) they were indentured servants, they could work off their indenture in five or six years, and then be granted land. In South America the Crown owned all the land and simply granted the rights to exploit it to a small conquistador class who immediately turned into the idle rich. They did not plant and farm, as in the north.

    The North American Revolution created a federal republic . The South had their revolution 40 years later yet this consigned the whole area to 200 years of division, instability and underdevelopment.

    4. Medicine. NF says that imperialism was not all bad – look at the war waged by the colonialists against tropical disease. But some of it was absolutely awful. This chapter was actually a survey of Western imperialism in Africa, and I discovered the story of German Namibia. Here's a great review of the book NF used for this part of the story :

    4. Consumption.

    (What's that sound – could it be Gibbon and Macauley spinning in their graves?)

    Here we run into another conundrum as we read about the remarkable explosion of human activity called the Industrial revolution, which began in Britain, spread to Europe and then north America. In one century, say 1750-1850, everything went off the charts – factories appeared, population doubled and trebled, wages increased, workers abandoned the countryside for the cities, appetites were discovered and attended to, such as the insatiable desire for clothes and crockery, and in general the idea came about that everyone gets rich if everyone can afford to buy the stuff and then work more and earn more to buy more stuff from more factories, and as we know, this tendency has not stopped, the gadgets and must haves have kept on a-coming, so the name of this chapter is consumption, which is also the name of a disease.

    Is this the shape of the Industrial Revolution? :

    World's largest cities : in 1800 seven out of ten were in Asia. Peking was bigger than London. In 1900 only one was Asian, all the rest European or American. In 2012 seven out of ten are Asian again. Only one European/North American (New York).

    Ferguson lurches ever more hectically from one topic to another as the book proceeds – talking about the post-World War One period he goes from national self-determination to the Bolshevik Revolution to Fascism to the US economy to Hollywood movies to Duke Ellington to Federal banking policies to Keynes to the USSR to the nude in Western art all between pages 227 and 232.

    5. Work. NF says it was Protestantism's work-and-save ethic which built up the capital which created the powerful economies in the West. I did not get how frugality, working all the hours and saving co-existed with the consumerism whose demands also created the powerful economies. It seemed a contradiction. But this is what NF is like, by the time you're formulating an objection to the points he slings out right and left, he's off onto something else.

    NF gets some kind of prize for the most ridiculously eclectic pop-cultural referencing to be found in a modern history book. Quoting from The Hombres' 1967 single "Let it All Hang Out" he footnotes that the song was later covered by Jonathan King, who is "also noteworthy for having produced 'Leap Up and Down (Wave Your Knickers in the Air)'". From Immanuel Kant to Jonathan King in one book.

    And finally :

    NF dismisses the conventional notion that civilisations begin, bloom, fade and die in a cyclical manner, slowly, over centuries. He says the USSR is actually the model - civilisations can actually disappear within a decade. Happened to the Incas, happened to the Ming dynasty, various others too.

    So, yes, it could happen to "the West" - but since the world had now downloaded our killer apps, whoever takes over from the West, if they ever do, will already be as Western as makes no never mind.

    After sounding like another library-snorting Jeremiah to add to our collection, he ends with a sardonically raised eyebrow.

    THE PREVIOUS COMPLAINT ABOUT THE TITLE

    What was it someone was saying about everything being

    these days? Look no further, my friends, look no further, should you be seeking proof. I ordered this new history book about the rise of the West and when I ordered it, it was called

    but when I unwrapped the paperback version, lo! it's been retitled :

    O Niall Ferguson, should I ever encounter you in a public place, I will mock you.

    - I've now uploaded the cover so you can shake your skinny fists towards heaven and curse along with me.

  • David

    Audio book cage match! Niall Ferguson vs. Jared Diamond! Two explanations of western domination of the world go in, only one comes out!

    Ferguson and Diamond are public intellectuals, conservative and liberal, respectively, in the modern-day US political sense of the c- and l-words. Both of them have, with great effort, constructed historical folk narratives of how the world got the way it is, whether that way is a good thing, and what will cause that way t

    Audio book cage match! Niall Ferguson vs. Jared Diamond! Two explanations of western domination of the world go in, only one comes out!

    Ferguson and Diamond are public intellectuals, conservative and liberal, respectively, in the modern-day US political sense of the c- and l-words. Both of them have, with great effort, constructed historical folk narratives of how the world got the way it is, whether that way is a good thing, and what will cause that way to continue or fail. (To be completely clear, Diamond's narrative is

    .) Ferguson's book is later, and he talks intellectual smack about Diamond's contention that current prominent place in the world held by the West is a result of happy geographical accidents. No, no, no, says Ferguson, Western domination is the result of superior ideas, referred to somewhat annoyingly as “killer apps”. (This last has been so completely mocked by the reading public here at Goodreads and elsewhere that I feel no need to ridicule it further. Maybe it was something his editor suggested at the urging of the marketing department.)

    The question simplified: How did the West end up on top?

    A gross oversimplification of Diamond: we (Westerners) got what we got more or less by luck (e.g. where we were on the face of the planet) and superior intelligence or morality had little or nothing to do with it. Therefore (Diamond doesn't say the following, as I remember, but it is implied) we didn't really earn it and don't really deserve it, therefore maybe we should cut the rest of the world some slack and be receptive to other ways of doing things.

    A gross oversimplication of Ferguson: we got here by inventing superior institutions, we thought of them and implemented them ourselves, we justly reaped the fruits. The rest of the world will prosper in direct proportion to how completely and sincerely they adopt our way of doing things. Those who reject our way of doing things are condemning themselves, and often their neighbors, to poverty and backwardness.

    Most of Diamond's causes of the triumph of the west are based on things that happened thousands of years ago (domestication of horses, innovations in agriculture, early exposure to viruses), whereas most of Ferguson's causes of the triumph of the west are relatively new (property rights, the Protestant work ethic). Here's a crazy idea: both of them are right – in sequence. The West got a leg up on other civilizations by dint of lucky breaks. Then the West took those advantages and widened the gap through the creation of Ferguson's six (forgive me) “killer apps” of Western Civ.

    Diamond came first, so the worst he can really be faulted for is not talking about Ferguson's rest of the story. However, Diamond's book is already a great fat tome already, and it took him years to even get the first half right, so maybe he gets a pass. Ferguson, on the other hand, would have to have been fairly myopic not to notice that his book often covers a significantly different period than Diamond's, but he chose to ignore it. Why? Probably because Diamond's view cheesed him off greatly, and he couldn't pass up a good opportunity to take an ax-handle to it.

    In short, it is a liberal-conservative story-telling problem. It seems like both explanations account for part of the phenomena. Ferguson won't admit it because admitting that your opponent could be partially correct doesn't play well in the English public-school debating society political culture which his mind seems to be helplessly stuck. A shame. Another opportunity to go beyond the usual political name-calling missed.

  • Emily

    It's not a good sign when you spend an entire book wondering "What exactly are you getting at?" I admired Ferguson's

    and Jared Diamond's much more famous

    , so I expected to enjoy this. While it does have some novel discussions (for example, comparing how England, France, and Germany comported themselves in the treatment of their colonies), I was generally unimpressed by Ferguson's failure to tie his observations into a larger

    It's not a good sign when you spend an entire book wondering "What exactly are you getting at?" I admired Ferguson's

    and Jared Diamond's much more famous

    , so I expected to enjoy this. While it does have some novel discussions (for example, comparing how England, France, and Germany comported themselves in the treatment of their colonies), I was generally unimpressed by Ferguson's failure to tie his observations into a larger argument. For example, he lionizes a particular town in the American Midwest for having a huge number of churches, but doesn't explain why this is good. It would seem that he lumps together secularists and fans of aromatherapy and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in one bucket, as bad Christians, but this seems facile to me (secularists might be productive scientists; aromatherapy devotees might be entrepreneurs) and besides, who cares, if you can't actually elucidate why Christianity produces a better society? To be clear, I don't dispute that the factors he cites (e.g. medicine, science, consumption) are key factors that differentiated Western society from others or tended to make European cultures more outgoing; I do disagree that this was uniformly desirable and frequently failed to see how Ferguson's discussion tied into that point.

    Since I liked his other book so much, I'm not sure where this leaves me with this author. I would probably avoid his other general-history books, but perhaps read his work on the Rothschilds or his controversial book on the British Empire.

  • Scott Gates

    ,

    . Decades ago, Edward Said noted Western Europe’s tendency to claim Greek, Roman, and even aspects of Egyptian civilization as its own. The Roman Empire has long been seen (perhaps anachronistically) by the West as a “Western” phenomenon, but it could instead be seen as a Mediterranean phenomenon. Certainly at the time Rome had less to do with the druids and barbarians in present-day northern Europe than it did tradesmen and soldiers from northern Africa and the Nea

    ,

    . Decades ago, Edward Said noted Western Europe’s tendency to claim Greek, Roman, and even aspects of Egyptian civilization as its own. The Roman Empire has long been seen (perhaps anachronistically) by the West as a “Western” phenomenon, but it could instead be seen as a Mediterranean phenomenon. Certainly at the time Rome had less to do with the druids and barbarians in present-day northern Europe than it did tradesmen and soldiers from northern Africa and the Near East. In fact, you could easily take the Goths’ destruction of Rome as the first documented instance of “the West” destroying a foreign civilization: the destruction of a Mediterranean empire brought on by what we would now call militants/terrorists from the West.

    But the Roman Empire was successful, so let's just say it was Western. But even in Ferguson’s descriptions of “Western Civilization 1.0” you can see the tension in maintaining that the Roman Empire was distinctly Western: It was an empire that arose “in the so-called Fertile Crescent stretching from the Nile Valley to the confluence of the Euphrates and the Tigris....” So, Egypt, Syria and Iraq were part of the West?

    So much for ancient history. What exactly “the West” refers to today is also not that easy. Ferguson falters when discussing, for example, whether Central and South America are considered part of the West. It would seem that by any definition they should be considered the West. After all, this is a portion of the world that is indeed as geographically Western and Christian as North America, and was largely colonized by Spain and Portugal, the westernmost European countries. And yet, Ferguson does not seem to think Central and South America make the cut.

    That’s because for Ferguson, the West basically means whichever countries are economically the Best, and so this book is primarily concerned with four countries to the exclusion of all others: France, Germany, and especially the UK and the US. These four interconnected, economically strong republics are the primary reasons for the West’s ascendancy, and so they are the only countries Ferguson is concerned with. The rest of Europe is an afterthought, as are Central and South America (to say nothing of places like Canada and Australia).

    Since this is a book whose purpose is to indoctrinate the youth and/or appeal to the general public, Ferguson employs young-folks terms (“killer apps”), uses alliteration whenever possible, and comes up with simplistic “what-ifs.”

    Concerning the organization of the book, there is no organization. The chapter on the “killer app” medicine contains mostly a long harangue against the French Revolution and a breathless appreciation of the “prophetic” Edmund Burke. In each chapter he picks one opponent (in the first, it’s the Chinese, then the Arabs, and so on…) and then shows how the West beat them in this one thing. (

    is usually represented solely by nineteenth-century England or twentieth-century United States.)

    There are several stretches in this book that are perceptive and compelling, but unfortunately these are undercut by Ferguson’s insistence on rallying the troops for his political ideology. He writes compelling stuff concerning the thriving of faith in the US compared to culturally similar Europe, for example (the difference is competition). And his thought that “we ... seem to doubt the value of much of what developed in Europe after the Reformation” does accurately reflect a kind of disenchantment and lack of appreciation for the rich, extraordinary culture most of us are embedded in.

    Ferguson is provocative, as they say, but not in a way that effectively challenges prevailing opinion; no, Ferguson’s “provocative” is more of a pretentious, partisan near-idiocy. Too often, he comes off not as an historian you can respect, but rather a wannabe American who spends too much time talking on TV.

    Concerning empire, his critique of the Iraq invasion early on is telling: the problem was (1) manpower deficit—in Ferguson’s view hundreds of thousands of troops were not enough to destroy an already poor and depleted country; and (2) attention deficit—in Ferguson’s words there is unfortunately “not enough enthusiasm for long-term occupation of conquered countries.” This lack of enthusiasm is not surprising: outside of neo-cons, the arms industry, and right-wing think tanks, the majority of Americans fully support defending this country, but usually not colonizing and invading others.

    Seeking to control/exploit the affairs of other nations is perfectly okay we learn, as long as you do it the right way. Ferguson takes the moral high ground when it comes to Chinese investment in Africa: He is appalled that China is willing to do business with “military dictators, corrupt kleptocrats or senile autocrats....”

    This is searing hypocrisy. There’s no need to belabor the point: the US supported Franco in Spain for decades; Saddam Hussein in Iraq; paramilitary death squads, far-right military dictators, and anti-democratic coups throughout Central and South America; Marcos in the Philippines; and continues to do business with dictators whenever convenient (Egypt and Saudi Arabia come to mind). The US has no leg to stand on here.

    Ferguson, always looking on the bright side when it comes to warfare, nuclear weapons, and colonialism (especially when practiced by the British or the US), claims that “the Bomb’s net effect was to reduce the scale and destructiveness of war, beginning by averting the need for a bloody amphibious invasion of Japan.” The US’s bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed over 200,000 people, and the effects of the bombings have lived on for generations. And its impact on current warfare is purely speculative.

    Whenever he delves into current affairs, the level of thinking lowers. He is strident and panicked over Iran, to an extent that is out of whack with reality. The double standard with which he takes Iran to task for legally enriching uranium and opening its doors to inspectors under the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is absurd, especially if you consider that, against international law and the NPT, the US supplied Israel with the only nuclear arsenal in the region, thus guaranteeing that other countries in the region would seek such weaponry.

    Or when he compares today’s science supporting the human impact on climate change to last century’s pseudo-science of racial superiority: “Racism was not some backward-looking reactionary ideology; the scientifically uneducated embraced it as enthusiastically as people today accept the theory of man-made global warming.”

    Soon after that, he contends that Jews as a race likely have a genetic superiority over other races. I take it Ferguson is scientifically uneducated, at the very least.

    The level of thought sometimes lowers when covering the past as well. When discussing Marx for example, Ferguson just can’t help himself, he has to gossip about the man’s private affairs. Without saying anything about the atrocious factory conditions that

    was written in protest of, Ferguson refers to Marx, needlessly, as “the son of an apostate lawyer....” I guess Ferguson thinks that people who convert from another religion to Christianity, or who are more interested in Kant and Voltaire than the religion they were born into, are apostates. He then goes on a long ad hominem rant about this “odious individual” and gleefully reports that he had an illegitimate son by his maidservant. (Presumably the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Fords of the world are without such moral failings). Ferguson will go as low as needed to tarnish the name of someone who has an ideology he disagrees with, a not uncommon tactic.

    Here’s how he characterizes protests against the Vietnam War (which as Ferguson grudgingly acknowledges had lost majority approval in the US) and racial inequality:

    “They [young people in the 60s] had every reason to be grateful to their fathers’ generation, which had fought for freedom and bequeathed them opportunity. Instead they revolted.”

    Nothing is safer than lionizing a generation that is currently dying off. Young men also enlisted in the military and died in high numbers in the Vietnam War, for seemingly no reason. The claim that the US joined WWII to fight for an abstraction such as “freedom” is naïve and ahistorical. I’d expect to hear such assertions from a patriotic citizen who has little concern or interest in the actual complexities of global affairs—not from a supposed historian.

    Based apparently on the fact that you can see burqas on the streets of Instanbul and that the Turkish government allows this instead of imposing a law curtailing their freedom to do so, Ferguson compares contemporary Turkey’s place in the world to “the days of the Ottoman power.” You can see burqas in the US as well, obviously, since the US to its credit is loath to pass laws that limit people’s religious freedom. Such lazy comparisons don’t do any favors for Ferguson’s arguments.

    Nor do snotty Ivy-League remarks like this: “He was not uneducated, insofar as a degree in sports science from Leeds Metropolitan University counts as education.”

  • Harpal

    Ferguson’s latest book, grandiosely entitled “Civilization”, is a vapid, meandering, and mostly pointless effort that falls woefully short of its ambitious goals. His stated intention is to explain the rise of “the West” from the 15th century backwater that was pre-renaissance Europe to the utterly dominant powers they became in the 19th and 20th centuries. Not only does he offer no novel explanation or nuanced interpretation, but his very answer is incoherent, disorganized, and downright simpli

    Ferguson’s latest book, grandiosely entitled “Civilization”, is a vapid, meandering, and mostly pointless effort that falls woefully short of its ambitious goals. His stated intention is to explain the rise of “the West” from the 15th century backwater that was pre-renaissance Europe to the utterly dominant powers they became in the 19th and 20th centuries. Not only does he offer no novel explanation or nuanced interpretation, but his very answer is incoherent, disorganized, and downright simplistic. Moreover, though meticulously referenced, Ferguson pays little heed to the enormous treasure of stellar scholarship that already exists on this question and, more importantly, adds nothing to it.

    Ferguson argues that “the West” rose above “the Rest” (his own tedious language, complemented with references to “Westerners and Resterners”) for six key reasons: competition, science, property, medicine, consumption, and work. These six themes are the titles of his six chapters. Of course, upon seeing the generality of the chapter headings, one rightly expects to find the original theses buried deeper within, and yet one never discovers them. Instead, in his usual fashion, Ferguson unfurls dubiously generalizable anecdotes to argue his broader points, which in of themselves are dull and unoriginal. Yet it gets even worse. Some of his tangents veer so far off course as to have no recognizable relation to any broader point. His nine-page treatment of the French Revolution comes under the “Medicine” chapter, as do his thoughts on the First World War. And yet they are hardly thoughts at all, but a regurgitation of basic facts and agreed upon truths. “Yet there was little else that was backward-looking about the empire Napoleon sought to build in Europe. It was truly revolutionary . . . French rule swept away the various privileges that had protected the nobility, clergy, guilds, and urban oligarchies and established the principle of equality before the law.” You will not find any disagreement from me, but nor will you from the legions of high school students worldwide who have already been taught the same thing. Is this first-rate scholarship or an introductory high-school text?

    A final point. While I have often appreciated Ferguson’s wit and flippancy, he has crossed the line into frank glibness. For instance, of the French colonial attempt to stamp out native faith healers, he writes “herbs and spells are singularly ineffective against most tropical disease.” Of the 1968 rebellions, he writes “there was one very practical demand that spoke volumes about the revolution’s true aims, and that was for unlimited male access to the female dormitories – hence the injunction to ‘unbutton your mind as often as your fly’.” This is history writing at its finest.

    In short, “Civilization” adds nothing to the scholarship on one of the most important questions in the study of modern history. I am tempted to write that it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. An apt description this might be were it not for the sobering truth that the author is no idiot, but rather one of the most prolific and influential western historians of the last decade, a prodigious mind who has now forsaken true scholarship ostensibly in pursuit of more venal ends. Here lies the body of Professor Ferguson. May he one day rise from the dead.

  • Karl Rove

    I read everything this man writes that I can lay my hands on. He’s an opinionated, deeply informed, pungent, pugnacious, provocative and often surprising writer. On these scores, his latest book doesn’t disappoint.

    A companion volume to British television series of the same name, this trans-Atlantic historian (he teaches at Harvard and Oxford and this year at the London School of Economics) argues the West grew to world dominance because it embraced competition, the scientific revolution, the rul

    I read everything this man writes that I can lay my hands on. He’s an opinionated, deeply informed, pungent, pugnacious, provocative and often surprising writer. On these scores, his latest book doesn’t disappoint.

    A companion volume to British television series of the same name, this trans-Atlantic historian (he teaches at Harvard and Oxford and this year at the London School of Economics) argues the West grew to world dominance because it embraced competition, the scientific revolution, the rule of law and representative government, modern medicine, a consumer society and the Protestant work ethic. He suggests much of the rest of the world (particularly China) is embracing these same “killer aps,” as he calls them, leading to a relative decline of Western power. The question is whether this relative decline will suddenly turn into a complete collapse, as other once dominant world powers suffered.

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