Culture War

By John RomanoFebruary 17, 2012

Culture War

Civilization by Niall Ferguson

A DOZEN YEARS BACK, I FELL into conversation in a bar room in one of America's most diverse zip codes (New Orleans) on the subject of diversity. My companion was a jazz musician in his seventies, mostly blind and mostly black, and I've never forgotten what he said: "The nice thing about jazz is, when you're making a list of the all-time greats, you don't have to remind yourself to include some black cats. You just tell it the way it went down, and there they are." No doubt he meant many things by this — isn't that the way a jazz riff works? — but one of them, surely, was that the only way to get to real cultural diversity is to tell stories in which the diversity is real. Anything else — anything resembling the attempt to be inclusive as an end in itself — is just you trying to make yourself sound good.

His remark raises a question for readers of Niall Ferguson's latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, on how those quaint peoples gathered along the western edge of the Eurasian continent between 1500 and 2000 B.C. came to dominate the rest of the globe. The West's rise to dominance in that period is, of course, a fact — even though that dominance might now be seen as fizzling out, to what extent we can't yet tell. Unexpectedly, perhaps, given the tone of his earlier book Empire (2003), Ferguson is clear both about the mix of good and ill brought on by Western ascendancy (his disgust at the abuses of nineteenth-century colonialism is as palpable as Adam Hochschild's in King Leopold's Ghost) and also about the emergent signs of its decline.

The question, however, is whether Ferguson's explanations for the West's rise and (incipient) fall are a case of "telling it the way it went down," or an effort to make himself sound good — in this case, not to the establishment progressives at dinner in Santa Monica or Hampstead, but to that other establishment, the conservative one at, say, the American Enterprise Institute, or on Fox News, or in the few remaining literate corner offices of Wall Street. To determine whether it is Ferguson the gifted, dispassionate historian or Ferguson the conservative Cultural Warrior who is mainly responsible for this book isn't easy. I can't bring myself to question Ferguson's intention to provide a fair-minded, informative account. It's reassuring that right off the bat he distances himself from Kenneth Clark's 1969 book of the same name, criticizing its exclusion of pre-Christian civilizations and those of the East, as well as Clark's "high and mighty" privileging of "High Visual Culture." By contrast, Ferguson writes, "my idea of civilization is as much about sewage pipes as flying buttresses, if not more so, because without efficient public plumbing cities are death traps, turning rivers and wells into havens for the bacterium Vibrio cholerae."

Work in the observatorium of Taqi ad-Din

Work in the observatorium of Taqi al-Din (Detail). Authored approximately 1574-1595 Wikimedia Commons PD-1923 US

But Ferguson lives, like the rest of us, in a world of bitterly divisive political discourse: to express an opinion is to find that you've joined a team, as Philip Roth once complained, and there are too many places where Ferguson can be found contriving arguments for, even perhaps courting favor from, the Conservative team he's chosen. This is a grievous mistake on his part, because much of what he offers in the way of analyses and prescriptions would be of real service to progressive goals on a global scale. By choosing to wrap them ina clash-of-cultures context only a neocon could love, however, Ferguson almost insures that they won't get a hearing among liberals, which is a damn shame, since he has a sharp eye for solutions that have worked, historically — and lives, in the meantime, are at stake. The cholera caused by the above-mentioned bacterium, that is to say, has no politics except in what we do, or don't do, to combat it, and it is creditable to neither party to shut out workable strategies because of their suspected ideological associations.

Medicine, it so happens, is one of the six "Killer Apps," as Ferguson somewhat too colorfully calls them, around which the book is organized: areas of competence by which the West achieved, expanded, and for a while hung on to, its domination. The other "Apps" are Competition, Science, Property, Consumption, and Work. How Ferguson handles competition will give a sense of the book's argument. He sees competition at every level as a thoroughgoing, foundational aspect of Western life, proceeding from the fact that Europe never united into a single, non-squabbling whole under a stable institution or set of ideas. Not even the church, despite appearances, can really be said to have served as such a unifier Since, from the moment it first pretended to real political power, it found itself thrashed by violently divided princes and barons. In the Reformation, it devolved into the Protestant myriad of warring factions. The result was an enforced, permanently uncomfortable, permanently enriching culture of toleration, reached through cataclysm and bloodshed.

Competition also marked the race for a Spice Route that pitted Spain, France, and Portugal against one another. Could England simply stand by and watch? As Ferguson notes:

when the Turks advanced into Eastern Europe ... in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there was no pan-European emperor to order the Portuguese to suspend their maritime explorations and focus on the enemy to the east. On the contrary, the European monarchs all encouraged commerce, conquest, and colonization as part of their competition with one another ... . [Their] political fragmentation ... propelled Europeans to seek — economic, geopolitical, and religious — in distant lands. You might say it was a case of divide and rule — except that, paradoxically, it was by being divided themselves that Europeans were able to rule the world.

As for European thought, "competition" is too mild a word for the way in which every thinker who came along challenged or simply threw out the ideas of the ones who came before. The result of this displacement of known authority by the vigorous use of one's own noggin is, of course, "Killer App #2: Science," from which a new cascade of advantages would follow, up to and including penicillin. It would be hard to challenge this book's assertion that "nearly all the major nineteenth and twentieth century breakthroughs in healthcare, including the control of tropical diseases, were made by Western Europeans and North Americans."

Ferguson is careful everywhere to present a context of comparison to the other parts of the world who took their turn at domination, and then lost it. China is his most elaborate example. In 1420, when London was a backwater, Nanjing was the world's largest city, and Ming China "had an incontrovertible claim to be [its] most advanced civilization." That it was a center of learning he makes plain with a typically entertaining detail: the Emperor tasked 2,000 scholars with creating "a compendium of Chinese learning" that "filled more than 11,000 volumes," which was "surpassed as the world's largest encyclopedia only in 2007 ... by Wikipedia." So what happened? Seeking an answer, Ferguson tells the moving story of the sea voyages, in the early 1400s, of Zeng He, who ought to be better known to us. He was sent to far corners of the world by Emperor Yongle on seven commercial trading missions whose purpose was to display China's wealth and power, but also, equally, to bring home knowledge of how things were done abroad. When Yongle died, however, China's interest in the outer world died with him: a  haijin decree banned all oceanic travel, and even building a capable ship became a capital offense. The cause of this isolationist turn is hard to determine, according to Ferguson; it might have been financial, or due to a sudden suspicion on the part of Confucian scholars of the "odd things" Zeng He brought home (including a giraffe from Kenya). But the result was that China denied itself the profits, in every sense, of what it had begun, the sort of open-eyed voyages of discovery from which Europe would benefit decisively in the coming century.

Similarly, in his chapter on Science, Ferguson celebrates the once-great technological sophistication of the Muslim world by his story of the brilliant Takiyuddin of Damascus and Cairo. At a time when astronomy and astrology still intermingled, he nonetheless designed accurate astronomical clocks, among other things, and even toyed with steam power. The observatory built for Takiyuddin in Istanbul was on a par with Tycho Brahe's in Denmark. But what ensued was as lamentable, and as instructive, as China's cutting short of Zeng He's one-man Age of Exploration:

On 11 September 1577 the sighting of a comet ... prompted demands for astrological interpretation ... Takiyuddin interpreted it as a harbinger of a coming Ottoman military victory. But Sheik ul-Islam Kadikaze, the most senior cleric of the time, persuaded the Sultan that Takiyuddin's prying into secrets of the heavens was as blasphemous as the planetary tables of the Sarmarkand astronomer Ulugh Beg, who had supposedly been beheaded for similar temerity. In January 1580, barely five years after the completion, the Sultan ordered the demolition of Takiyuddin's observatory. There would not be another observatory in Istanbul until 1868.

The telling point here is not that Islamic clerics wielded such anti-intellectual, anti-scientific power — neither greater nor more irrational than that which Galileo faced. Rather it is that, unlike Turkey, Europe could triumph over its bishops and build on the work of its scientific martyrs. And yet, pace such critics as David Bromwich and the routinely brilliant Pankaj Mishra, I can find no accents of Eurocentric triumphalism in Ferguson's account. Instead, there is melancholy and a sense of loss, since not only the non-Western world but the world as a whole would be better off if the genius of a Takiyuddin had been nurtured instead of thwarted.

Alas, Ferguson is not always so balanced, and there are places where the Cultural Warrior gets the better of him. His chapter on the work ethic is the most disappointing in this respect, and not only because of his almost willful misreading of Freud on civilization's discontents. While his observation that the rise of productivity in China can be linked with the rise of Protestantism there is convincing, his assertion of the same correlation in the West is over-familiar — it's Weber and soda-water — and questionable, besides. For one thing, Ferguson lacks Max Weber's eye for the distinctions among types and kinds of Protestantism, not all of which made for a successful work ethic. For the sake of argument, we might agree that Protestantism as a whole from the Reformation through the nineteenth century gave the West the right mindset for pulling off the Industrial Revolution, and that it was responsible in part for the success of an energetically Christian America. Nevertheless, by the time you get to the end of the twentieth, it also breeds an America that, though perhaps the most churchgoing nation anywhere, finds itself prevented, on many fronts, from reaping the benefits of the work ethic by the moralistic straitjacket being forced upon it by religionists. (The political obstacles facing stem-cell research should suffice to make the point.) As the power of religion grows, the nation is further restricted in its pursuit of the kinds of excellence described in Ferguson's "Apps": in science, for instance, or in medicine, both of which are being pulled under by a dogmatic, regressive tide, which Ferguson never mentions.

Instead, he speaks off-handedly, almost dismissively, of developments like abortion rights and gay marriage as if these "recent" ideas might be passing phantasms in the Western mind, rather than what they really are: crucial to the fulfillment of the promise of App #3, the rights of "Property," whose definition he usefully expands to cover the individual's rightful governance of her or his own person, in the pursuit of happiness. That chapter is one of the book's strengths; there, in charting the success of North American, as compared with South American political-economic arrangements, Ferguson is more Locke than Hobbes, and, against all odds, powerfully convincing. So it's dismaying that he trashes his own best insights the moment religion raises its head. Plainly he does so in a fit of right-leaning Political Correctness; it is a genuflection and nothing less. Maybe he means to make amends for some other, distinctly liberal emphases in his book, such as its implied but omnipresent disavowal of the reborn isolationism of American conservatives, and its explicit call for increased public investment in education and research.

Elsewhere Ferguson is simply boring and partisan, as when he chooses to speak of American fears of global climate change as millenarianism, rather than as the output of that same hard science he urges us to admire. Or when he labels, in the legend under a photograph of the little bow that Barack Obama made to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, the "end of Western predominance." Here the Fox News pundit trumps the writer's best self.


We all enjoy saying that history is written by the victors — and Civilization: The West and the Restis nothing if not victor-written history. But it's not a bad idea to ask ourselves what really follows from this favorite truism of ours. Omissions and distortions do, naturally enough. But victors might also have a better grasp of how historical forces operate, since that may be one of the reasons why they won. Of course, it sounds better to say that the victors had bigger guns, but often they didn't (the Turks had bigger ones than the Europeans, for instance). There is truth, of course, to Jared Diamond's demonstration, in his bien-pensant bestseller, Guns, Germs, and Steel, that the geographical endowment of peoples can play a large, sometimes decisive, role in determining their fate. But too often that argument is allied with a desire to downplay the role played by ideas. If, like Diamond, we are tempted to shun the obvious fact that ideas matter for historical outcomes, it's because we don't want even to seem like we're saying that victors are innately smarter. That, in fact, is by no means Ferguson's claim. Rather, his emphasis is on the institutional and cultural readiness of a people to encourage and profit from ideas that might arise anywhere. By ignoring this distinction, Pankaj Mishra, in the London Review of Books, is able to imply that Ferguson is a racist, a continuator of the "banner of white supremacy." But that is to ignore as well the whole evolutionary advantage of having a frontal lobe. Ideas are what enable us to do what we do with the geography we inherit, and where and how to deploy our (sometimes smaller) guns.

The best thing about "Apps," one should also see, is that they're downloadable: that's why Ferguson chooses the silly metaphor to begin with. And downloading them is just what the "Rest" of the world began doing towards the end of the book's historical period. We all know the consequences: the economic "miracles" of Singapore, Brazil, South Korea, and India; the prospect that China may surpass us economically and otherwise in a few decades; and so on. But the download isn't always easy. When my wife and I were traveling in India, we visited a grammar school serving poor students in a remote countryside. Impressed with all we saw, we asked the headmistress what obstacles the school faced. She answered that there was only one: her kids were coming down with polio. When we asked about the availability of the vaccine, she said she had a tanker full of the stuff out back, but that when she sent her teachers out to villages to administer it, local shamans followed them around and warned the parents that being vaccinated violated religious and ayurvedic strictures. The shamans, she said, always won. Ferguson would no doubt blame this on one of his favorite bugbears, Gandhi, who famously wisecracked that Western civilization was a contradiction in terms and discouraged Western medicine as part of the pernicious package. Whatever the cause, the download wasn't "taking" in rural Rajasthan, with the result that the headmistress looked on helplessly as her students fell victim one by one to a disease rendered preventable by Western science half a century ago. We should think of them when we deplore the vastations wreaked on traditional cultures by the monolith of civilization.

Ultimately, Ferguson is optimistic, assuring us toward the end of his contentious, furiously intelligent book, that our decline — from well-being, if not from dominance — can still be averted by renewing in ourselves these six competences, as the rest of the world continues to join in and contribute to the benefits of civilization. Nor should we object that these benefits are merely the ones that the West defines. The most uncompassionate thing we ever say is that such goals as a decent life expectancy, the availability of clean water, or the chance to thrive as a person regardless of gender are cultural constructions rather than, always and everywhere, rightful expectations; especially when, having said so, we still pretend to offer our support for the realization of those goals. Nasty stuff, that. What Ferguson traces, co-extant with the advance of Western civilization, is the progress of the claim for the universality of what is humanly good. He helps us see that it's an idea the West stumbled on and spread, mostly without meaning to, in the course of taking over the world. It would be a catastrophe if, as our domination passes, this idea too went missing from this still self-fashioning globe.


LARB Contributor

John Romano is a screenwriter and a writer-producer for television. His features include The Lincoln Lawyer with Matthew McConaughey, the Coen Brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty, and most recently, an adaptation of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. He's been writer-producer on over 20 TV shows, from Hill Street Blues to Monk, including three of his own creation, among them Sweet Justice starring Cicely Tyson. Formerly he taught English at Columbia and wrote a book on Charles Dickens. He appeared on Charlie Rose with Salman Rushdie for Dickens’s bicentenary, and testified before Congress after 9/11 about Hollywood’s influence on America’s image abroad.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!