February 20, 2011


Niall Ferguson: 'Westerners don't understand how vulnerable freedom is': Niall Ferguson is one of the world's leading historians, but his pro-colonial views have been heavily criticised. Here, he explains why he's now targeting a younger audience (William Skidelsky, 2/20/11, The Observer)

Ferguson's latest book, published next month, is called Civilization: The West and the Rest (the accompanying six-part Channel 4 series starts on 6 March). Coming just eight months after the Warburg biography, it's a book that belongs at the more populist end of the Ferguson oeuvre. In fact, he says, he wrote it largely with his children in mind. (He has three, two sons and a daughter, ranging from 11 to 17.) "The book is partly designed so a 17-year-old boy or girl will get a lot of history in a very digestible way, and be able to relate to it," says Ferguson, who, along with the many other irons he has in the fire, is advising his friend Michael Gove, Britain's education secretary, on how to redraft the history curriculum. "I have a sense that my son and daughter's generation is not well served by the way they are taught history. They don't have the big picture. They get given these chunks, usually about Adolf Hitler, so I wanted to write a book that would be really accessible to them."

Civilization sets out to answer a question that Ferguson identifies as the "most interesting" facing historians of the modern era: "Why, beginning around 1500, did a few small polities on the western end of the Eurasian landmass come to dominate the rest of the world?" In other words, the book attempts to explain the roots of something – western power – that has long fascinated its author. Although Ferguson's background is as a financial historian – his research at Oxford and then Cambridge in the late 80s and early 90s was into German hyperinflation and the history of bond markets – he has, over the past decade or so, drifted increasingly into writing about empire. In two consecutive books, Empire and Colossus – published, not by accident, around the time of the Iraq invasion – he charted the respective imperial histories of Britain and America, concluding not only that Britain should be prouder of its colonial past, but that the world would be a better place if America imitated Victorian Britain and became a fully fledged liberal empire. Though both books were bestsellers and won Ferguson scores of new admirers, especially in the US, they also, not surprisingly, drew heavy criticism from the left.

Civilization, too, starts from the premise that western dominance has been a good thing. In order to explain how it came about, Ferguson deploys an unexpectedly cutting-edge metaphor. The west's ascendancy, he argues, is based on six attributes that he labels its "killer apps": competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic. Each chapter of the book (and each episode of the TV series) sets out to explore how it was that western nations possessed one of these "apps", while other nations failed to acquire it. So, in the chapter on competition, he shows how the political structure of western Europe in the early modern era encouraged rivalry both between and within states, while the monolithic rule of the Ming dynasty led China to rest on its laurels. Likewise, in the medicine chapter, he argues that the civilising goals of western European empires produced pioneering medical advances that ultimately benefited the whole world.

Ferguson is clearly more than a little in love with his "killer apps" conceit, as well as his "west versus the rest" dichotomy, which he slips into conversation at every available opportunity. (In the TV series, he even starts talking at one point about "westerners" and "resterners".) Doesn't he worry that this kind of thing detracts from his standing as a serious historian? "No," he says. "Apart from anything else, this terminology is absolutely ubiquitous. And I think it captures something quite important. We actually had a good argument when I first came up with the killer apps concept. Not everyone at Channel 4 liked it. But I just thought it was an absolutely great idea. You explain this book to any group of people and what usually happens is there's a competition to see if I've missed something out. People love it. It's like a game: play Civilization Killer App! It's designed to be slightly annoying, so that you talk about it."

Ferguson is not, it seems, a man given to self-doubt. When I suggest that his views have changed somewhat in the past decade – one moment he was calling on America to establish an empire, now he talks in terms of the west's "civilisational software" being "downloaded" by other countries – he replies: "I'm not sure my position has changed so much as the circumstances."

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 20, 2011 6:54 AM
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