First aired on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight (12/12/11)
The idea that the days of Western civilization are numbered is one of the themes of Niall Ferguson's controversial new book Civilization: The West and the Rest. In it, he sets out to answer some epic questions, like "What made the West — meaning Western Europe and North America — the masters of the modern world for centuries?" and "Have some of those heights of Western power been eclipsed by the likes of China and Brazil?"
Ferguson grew up in Glasgow, made his way to Oxford and earned a name for himself in the realm of counter-factual history, posing "what if" questions: What if the British had stayed out of the First World War? What if Hitler had stayed a painter and out of politics? But Ferguson has attracted the most controversy with his argument that colonialism wasn't all bad. Critics say he's advocating for stronger American imperialism and that he's dividing the world along racial lines. Ferguson stopped by George Stromboulopoulos Tonight recently to defend himself from those charges.
But in asking why the Western world rose to such strength and prominence, can there be actual right and wrong answers beyond mere opinions and speculation? Yes, according to Ferguson. There are certainly wrong answers. "The wrong answer is racial superiority. That's clearly the wrong answer. The wrong answer is geography, that doesn't really work," he said. "It's not the weather either. And it's not religion, because, after all, Europe had Christianity for about a thousand years without much happening."
So what's the right answer? "This book comes up with practical answers to this question," explained Ferguson. "Things to do with institutions and ideas and things that change — people can make them and unmake them." In the book, Ferguson talks about "six killer apps" that led the West to such prominence: competition, consumerism, science, medicine, democracy and the Protestant work ethic.
But has the Western way played itself out? "I think there's a danger that it's entering a period of crisis, and I think we need to be much more self-critical about what has gone wrong in our societies," said Ferguson. "Certainly the inequality that has become such a focus of Occupy Wall Street is a symptom of something that has gone wrong in terms of diminishing social mobility."
For example, look at the dire quality of education in an average high school in a poor neighbourhood, Ferguson pointed out. Meanwhile, school test scores show that Asian countries are surging ahead in terms of their quality of education.
"China, India, Brazil — these big countries have started to modernize their institutions, they've 'downloaded' the killer apps," he said. "And it works, proving that it's nothing to do with race. If you get the right institutions and incentives, whether it's in your universities or your law courts or your stock markets, then things will take off."
Ferguson welcomes this growth and change around the world, but is concerned for how the Western world's own institutions seem to be eroding. "I'm hugely supportive of the emergence of these big societies from poverty," he says. "What I worry about is the way in which our institutions are degenerating."
As a "white Brit" talking about colonialism, Ferguson does receive his share of criticism. But he claims that he has a problem receiving criticism and reviews from people who haven't read his book. "Some of the criticism has been distinctly unfair," he said. "Some people have said I'm nostalgic for empire, an impossible Scottish reactionary. That's not reading my book!"
by Niall Ferguson
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From the publisher:
"From one of our most renowned historians, Civilization is the definitive history of Western civilization''s rise to global dominance-and the "killer applications" that made this improbable ascent possible."
The rise to global predominance of Western civilization is the single most important historical phenomenon of the past five hundred years. All over the world, an astonishing proportion of people now work for Western-style companies, study at Western-style universities, vote for Western-style governments, take Western medicines, wear Western clothes, and even work Western hours. Yet six hundred years ago the petty kingdoms of Western Europe seemed unlikely to achieve much more than perpetual internecine warfare. It was Ming China or Ottoman Turkey that had the look of world civilizations. How did the West overtake its Eastern rivals? And has the zenith of Western power now passed?
Read more at Penguin Canada.