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Civilization: The West And The Rest With Niall Ferguson debuts tonight on PBS. It will air at 8 p.m. Eastern in most markets, but you should check local listings.

Niall Ferguson is public television’s idea of a party reptile: a good-looking bloke with a full head of dark hair and an air of solemn glibness. Ferguson entertains interviewers by talking about how he chose his political leanings on the basis of what side he thought would be more fun to piss off, and how he likes working in the United States because that’s where the money and star power are. If he thought he could swing it, he’d probably have his agent insert a clause into his contract with Harvard stipulating that roadies have to remove all the brown M&Ms from the candy dish in his office, so that he can trash the faculty lounge in the event they ever forget. His new two-part, four-hour PBS series allows him to take 500 years of history and wedge as much of it as he can into a mold designed to flatter his neo-imperialist worldview. It’s a public service: The show is airing at a time when, with the 2011-2012 TV season coming to a wrap, some people may be tempted to find out what public broadcasting looks like on days when Downton Abbey’s not on. Five minutes of Ferguson should send them scurrying away in search of something more intellectually and spiritually rewarding, such as a Mixed Martial Arts tournament.


The series opens with Ferguson in a classroom, asking a bunch of kids to “help me understand what made Western civilization dominate the world for the last 500 years.” At first, it may look as if he’s put off doing his research until the cameras are on him and he’s prepared to take whatever the little mouth-breathers throw his way and run with it. But he’s really just indulging in the celebrity intellectual’s passion for inviting representatives of the great unwashed to tell him what the conventional wisdom is, so he can either deride it or improve upon it. (One kid says of his European forefathers, “They had the attitude they should probably get on boats and go invade other countries.” Ferguson, writing on the blackboard, translates that as “Exploration.”) Showing them how it’s done, he tells the youngsters that he’s boiled it all down to “six killer apps” without which Western dominance could not have happened. He lists them on the blackboard: “competition,” “science,” “democracy,” “medicine,” “consumerism,” and the “work ethic”. The show itself then breaks down into six segments exploring each of these points, with the relevant word flashing on the screen so that those who’ve been keeping score will have a rough idea of how much longer this crap will go on. Well, five of the words on the blackboard show up again, but when Ferguson gets to the segment that should be devoted to “democracy,” it’s the word “property” that flashes onscreen. This tells you a lot about where his head is at, and also how far he thought he could push it with the school kids without them pelting him with Mentos.

The segments themselves take the form of a “Go for it!” Hollywood narrative in which the plucky, good-hearted hero bests the villain despite facing what look like insurmountable odds. For instance, there was a time there, around the peak years of the Ming Dynasty, when China was kicking sand in England’s face. The Chinese were beavering away, inventing the clock, card games, the suspension bridge, and the wheelbarrow, and Nanking was “a pretty pleasant place to live.” Meanwhile, in London, a little something called the Black Death was giving everyone the blahs. Henry V ruled over a land that, “in some ways, was still mired in the Dark Ages,” and, as a handy illustration shows, had the haircut to prove it. It wasn’t so much a sceptered isle as a septic isle. (This is an example of Ferguson’s top-shelf wordplay, a taste of which can be found in the series’ title. My favorite comes when he drives through Springfield, Missouri, marveling at all the churches, and gurgles, “Now, it’s not your kicks you get on Route 66, it’s your crucifix.”) But what did Henry got that they didn’t got? Courage! No, sorry, that was Bert Lahr. Henry and the rest of Europe had the virtue of competition, which died out in China as the government started throwing its weight around and, drunk on the power to make noxious regulations that cripple small business, made it a death-penalty offense to have a ship with more than two masts.

A strong believer in the Great Man theory of history, Ferguson has never met a complicated series of events and consequences that he couldn’t reduce to a face-off between two competing figures. Why did the Islamic nations, after a strong showing early on, fall so far behind in the development of science? It must have something to do with the fact that Prussia was, for a time, ruled by Frederick the Great, a model statesman who saw it as his duty to subordinate his personal desires to the needs of his country, whereas the Ottoman Empire was saddled with Osman III, who “lived a life of clustered indulgence,” caring only for “sex and Turkish delight.” Because this is television, Ferguson is able to drive home the contrast by cutting from some paintings of shapely odalisques to what appears to be a white marble bust of F. Murray Abraham. This may not nail it as hard as he thinks it should, but Ferguson is famously indifferent, if not hostile, to art and aesthetic virtues. He also blames the decline of scientific advancements under Osman to the fact that the culture was so slow to abandon calligraphy in favor of the printing press. He obviously has a point, but the pages from hand-written, illustrated books that he shows while sneering at the stupidity of the calligrapher’s art sure are pretty, and are certainly no more useless than many products of the modern printing age—such as books by Niall Ferguson.


Civilization gets duller and duller as it gets closer to our time and more America-centric, and Ferguson has more chances to show how many ways he has of getting the United States wrong.  He falls back on free-market rhetoric when explaining how the Protestant work ethic has enriched America and helped keep it a vibrantly religious country while religious life has stagnated in Europe: European countries have “nationalized” religion, while the separation of church and state here has the paradoxical effect of strengthening faith by forcing churches to compete for business. And all this, he says, works out better than the role of Islam in many Middle Eastern countries, because it goes on without any cost to the nation’s embrace of scientific advancement. He’s soon conducting a friendly interview with the leader of a Springfield megachurch, inviting him to expound on how people who believe in God are just naturally rewarded for it financially; maybe he should have tested his impressions about how well this sort of attitude coexists with science by asking his interview subject for an opinion on climate change.

A few minutes, later, though, he’s doing a backflip, acknowledging the financial meltdown that resulted from having attempted “capitalism without savings,” and reporting that China is set to become the world’s dominant economic power, because it mastered the killer apps and is handling them better than we the United States. This would be interesting if it were true, but if this were to happen, why does Ferguson say that we would take it lying down “at our own peril?” The “rest” of the world, as Ferguson calls it, didn’t disappear when the West was riding low, and a comeback tour for the Black Death seems unlikely. What would be so horrible about letting someone else take the headaches that go with being at the forefront of civilization for the next half-millennium? They have TV and universities in Hong Kong, and surely if that becomes where all the money and star power are, someone there will throw Niall Ferguson a bone.

Stray observations:

  • Ferguson has some worthwhile, if unoriginal, things to say in the “consumerism” section regarding the pivotal role that lust for the right kind of consumer goods played in the fall of the Soviet Union, along with a few precious seconds of vintage, black-and-white film of The Plastic People Of The Universe. But then he says that, based on these insights, he accurately predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall shortly before it happened—but he failed to get his insights into a newspaper article because the editor, he recalls with a smirk, accused him of listening to “too many Ronald Reagan speeches.” I’d love to hear these speeches in which Ronald Reagan insisted that the secret to ending the Cold War would be to spend less on defense and more on getting hippie rock bands and bootleg Levi’s behind the Iron Curtain.
  • Ferguson’s defense of the European-colonial tradition has gotten him accused of racism, a charge that he hotly denies. I don’t especially want to go there myself. However, it’s hard to avoid mentioning that, in the “property” section, the role of “the West,” a.k.a. the positive example, is assigned to the United States, and “the rest,” a.k.a., the negative example, is Latin America. Considering that most of the show compares and contrasts European and North American culture with Asia and Africa, this contrast between two cultures that share the same continent feels like a stretch, unless you put a lot of stock in the importance of… well, things like skin color and a common language. In case you’re wondering, the United States rocks because we had George Washington, whereas Latin America had to make do with Simon Bolivar. If that’s not enough for you, well, Washington believed in “liberty,” but Boliver was all about “liberation.” This is the sort of thing that gets you tenure nowadays.