Monday, 28 March 2011

Is Niall Ferguson History? Part Four: Paging Doctor Feelgood, MA, PhD*

*Note that Niall Ferguson has neither an MA nor a PhD...

I was going to leave Niall Ferguson alone this week. I didn’t want to bore the handful of people who read this crap (many thanks to you all) by banging on about the same thing week in and week out. Ferguson clearly has no interest in becoming a better historian, and I’m not so self-absorbed as to believe I’m actually going to discourage Channel 4 from commissioning his little-Englander bullshit. Better to put the matter to bed early and move on to something else.


The fourth episode is not only bad, but it is so awful, so insulting to the intelligence of the audience, so demeaning to the victims of Western imperialism, so dripping in racist undertones that it necessitates some sort of response. Ferguson himself seems to have given up on his central thesis that the West might soon be eclipsed; having apparently realised he was on flimsy ground claiming that Gehenna was nigh because Iran wanted a bomb and Brazil’s economy is growing, he now makes no effort whatsoever to suggest the non-Western world might take the lead in medicine (or genocide- it’s not quite clear what this episode is about), once again bringing into question why he subtitled his series “Is The West History”.

1. Stop doing the work for me!

This episode is dedicated to how medicine helped the West dominate Africa, but as usual he doesn’t do a very good job of explaining how or why Western medicine became more advanced, or how it helped Europeans in the Scramble for Africa. Instead, he spends much of the episode outlining how medical science was twisted by Europeans to justify racism. It’s grossly oversimplified, but it’s a valid point, and I applaud him for finally acknowledging that Western dominance was based in part on the willingness to be enormous pricks.

But… isn’t he supposed to be arguing about how the West came to dominate Africa? Eugenics programs and genocide are terrible, of course, but they are simply evidence of Western dominance, not proof of the cause. All he’s really doing is proving why the West deserves to be history, seeing how it used its global hegemony in such an atrocious manner, a point I made in response to the first episode. I’m glad he’s decided to make my argument for me, but it does leave me rather confused as to why his tone has suddenly changed. I’d like to imagine it was a genuine change of heart; more likely it was mandated by Channel 4, a condition for paying to send him to Africa. Ordinarily I’d expect him to whitewash the issue of Western abuses entirely, but here it is presented in all its terrible glory.

Why? Because it makes the Germans look bad…

2. The hierarchy of the West (again!)

One of the themes I’ve noticed in the series is that Ferguson often identifies the best of Western imperialism with the Anglosphere. Nowhere is this clearly than in this episode, in which racism, eugenics and genocide feature heavily and British imperialism is conspicuous by its absent. Instead, German imperialism takes centre stage (or “center” stage).

There’s some mention of the French use of Senegalese soldiers as cannon fodder in the Western Front, but Ferguson is charitable enough to outline the positives of French imperialism, such as access to healthcare and grants of French citizenship. Even here, there are shades of Kipling in his belief that Western civilisation was a genuine force for good, a “civilising influence” that is reinforced by the (hopefully unintentional) racist vibe of the episode that compares superstitious and tribal “Africa” (homogeneous and culturally monolithic, as ever) with the brave, upstanding white men who have come to make their lives better, whether they like it or not. But however misplaced his admiration for French involvement in Africa, one does get the impression it is at least genuine.

The Germans are not so lucky, for Ferguson speaks at considerable length about the many unquestionably awful things that German imperialism in Africa wrought. I don't want to downplay the fact that German imperialists did some pretty shitty things in Africa, but it is profoundly disingenuous for Ferguson to pick one European power for special criticism. I don’t know if Ferguson has seen Blackadder recently, but I will remind him that in 1914 “The British Empire [encompassed] a quarter of the globe, whilst the German Empire [consisted] of a small sausage factory in Tanganyika,” and that Germany was hardly the only- or even the worst- perpetrator of crimes against native peoples

I’d ask what Ferguson has against the Germans, but instead I have to remind him once again that the German state he condemns so viciously is not the same as the Nazi state, any more than it is the Prussia of Frederick the Great that he spent so much time praising in the second episode. He appears to be confused: praising the merits of German militarism when contrasted with Ottoman stagnation but condemning it becomes apparent that he must link it with the road to Auschwitz. He wants to have his cake and eat it: promote Germany as an exemplar of Western superiority when compared to the non-Western world but condemn it as barbaric when German atrocities risk making the whole of the West- especially the English-speaking world- look bad.

3. Some genocides are more equal than others

The other advantage of talking about Germany is that it allows him to link German atrocities in Africa with the Holocaust, the genocide that is likely best known to his audience but with which conveniently the British had no involvement. In Ferguson’s mind the mistreatment in Africa was a trial run for the Final Solution, where amoral German scientists practiced their craft of human experimentation and racial engineering. He even goes so far as to suggest the Germans invented genocide, that this was as “the first genocide, before the word was even invented,” a statement of such profound historical ignorance and of such crass insensitivity to the many, many, many, many, many, MANY examples of pre-twentieth century genocide in a just world it would cause any decent historian to be thrown out of the halls of academia post-haste.

It’s an extremely vile tactic that equates pre-war Germans with Nazis, reinforcing the old lie that there is something evil about the German national psyche, something dark and primeval that suggests that all Germans, everywhere, should and must take the blame for the actions of their government between 1933 and 1945. It’s not only xenophobic, it’s unhistorical and unsympathetic, for it ignores both broader historical trends and the specific circumstances of the 1930s and 40s that caused and triggered the Holocaust. As usual, Ferguson wants simple explanations for large events, and for him the explanation of the Holocaust is that the Germans were (and, perhaps, still are) simply evil. Once again, this is the same Germany he praised so fulsomely in the second episode.

But there is a more sinister racist undercurrent in viewing African genocides as practice for the European sequel: it downplays the importance of crimes against humanity. For Ferguson, what matters is that they contributed to genocide in Europe, not that they were terrible in their own right. It is a sad truism that history- like the media- simply doesn’t care about crimes committed against black people; it’s what allows vile carcinogenic parasites like Richard Littlejohn to state about the Rwandan genocide that “If the Mbongo tribe wants to wipe out the Mbingo tribe then as far as I am concerned that is entirely a matter for them”.

Ferguson’s problem is that he has to see history in parochial terms: for him, history is the story of the triumph of the West, and events are only important if the West is somehow involved. The terrible crime of African genocide is not that thousands of people died needlessly and pointlessly to satisfy a sick ideology, it’s that it allowed another, bigger genocide to be committed on European soil.

4. Equating racism with climate change (no, really!)

In a casual remark, Ferguson attests to the universality of theories of racial inequality in the 19th century by stating that people believed in it ‘as readily as people believe in man-made climate change today’.

The unspoken implication is that “people believed in one theory that turned out to be rubbish, just as they believe in a theory today that I don’t agree with that will be proved rubbish.“

I wish I was making this up.

I shouldn’t have to point out why this is stupid. Race theory is pseudoscience: it was a social construct that was supported by a false scientific methodology to lend it credence and which was conclusively disproved by rigorous scientific analysis. Climate change is an established scientific fact, denied only by fruitcakes: the overwhelming body of evidence claims that it is man-made, with the only major dissenting views coming from the energy lobby and God-botherers whose motivations are, at best, suspect.

I see what Ferguson is trying to do: he wants to present science as “fashionable”. He wants to say it was once fashionable to believe in a geocentric universe, that it was once fashionable to believe white men were better than black men, that it is currently fashionable to believe humankind is harming the planet. The implication is that, just as racism became unfashionable after World War II, so climate change will one day be dismissed as pseudoscience, and the whole world will look back and sigh that it ever believed anything so ridiculous. In doing so he has shown a profound ignorance of the process of scientific enquiry.

It’s ironic that he spent the entire second episode outlining how Western rationalism contributed to scientific progress, yet here he rails against the consensus of most of the world’s scientists by suggesting that one day they will fall out of favour and be proven wrong. For a man who believes that science is the basis of Western dominance he doesn’t seem to put a lot of faith in scientists themselves.

It might seem like a petty point to make, but its indicative of the problem with this episode, this series, and Niall Ferguson himself: he is utterly incapable of approaching history dispassionately. He is by inclination a right-wing conservative, an economic neo-liberal so enthralled with the idea of wealth he wrote a book about it (accompanied by a TV series here) that curiously only started in the fifteenth century. For him, he ideal world order is the current one: dominated by rich, white, middle-class men, like him. And for him history is the study of rich, white, middle-class men like him, and how they came to dominate the world. All of past events must be seen in terms of how they contributed to modernity, and history must be presented in a way that makes the current world order look like the best of all possible outcomes. If there is to be a world power, we are to be grateful that it’s us, and not those backwards Muslims, those authoritarian Chinese, or those superstitious Africans.

A true historian puts her prejudices aside: Ferguson uses his to paint he whole of history the way he wants it to be. And that bothers me, because I don't think any man so obviously incapable of understanding history has any business advising the government on how to teach it to the next generation.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Where Eagles Dare (oh yes, I went there!)

Film-makers, we need to talk about Hadrian's Wall.

First things first: The Eagle is nowhere near as bad as the marketing made it out to be: there's no Godsmack in the soundtrack, there are some interesting themes about the nature of slavery and cultural identity, and its a fun, well-acted romp with some gorgeous Scottish scenery.

Okay, it's not perfect: it seems to be employing some sort of reverse-Bechdel Test where women are shown for less than a minute of the film with no dialogue, and the plot takes some strange leaps where the audience has to believe that Caledonian tribesman can run faster than two dudes on Horseback. But it isn't terrible, and it's pretty fun to watch.

It isn't even all that historically inaccurate, at least not as far as I can tell: there are a few nitpicky points I could make, but they don't really serve to sink the film. It's certainly no King Arthur, which not only had the gumption to be terrible but was also rife with bizarre anachronisms (like having the Anglo-Saxons invading Berwickshire instead of, y'know, England!) whilst claiming- in-movie, no less- to be a faithful interpretation of historical events.

But there is one thing that the Eagle shares with King Arthur, and Braveheart, and Highlander, and just about every film set in pre-modern Scotland: it confuses ancient Caledonia with the Chaos Wastes

Hadrian's Wall was, to some extent, a cultural frontier, a way of dividing Roman-occupied Britain from the unconquered north. It was also a means of projecting power upon an unruly province that required four legions to be stationed there- the same number as guarded the Rhine, Danube and Persian frontiers. It was also a customs barrier that controlled trade and immigration between both sides, not unlike the frontiers between the US and Mexico today. It was not primarily a defensive fortification, and it certainly was not the edge of the Roman world. There were no signs saying "Caledonia: No Civilisation for one hundred miles": there were almost certainly Romans and British living and working on both sides of the wall. It is not true that "no Roman can survive north of the wall," as if the very air was a poisonous fume and the frontier was patrolled by Shelob.

To whit: why do films insist on presenting Northern Britain as a barren near-tundra filled with fur-clad- or in this case- almost nude savages? The Caledonians of the Eagle are shaven headed, mohawked and painted so that they look like the Na'vi crossed with hardcore punks. Visually they have more in common with Zulus than Asterix, which gives some of the fight-scenes an eerily racially-charged imagery to them. And they sleep outdoors, uncovered, despite the fact they live (apparently) on the West coast of Scotland and it's winter, judging by the constant rain, snow and fog.

On the subject of the whether: this film was made by Film 4, a British company. It stars Jamie Bell, who's from Stockton on Tees, for God's sake! It was even filmed, on location, in Scotland. Did no one tell the producers that Northern Britain is not constantly assaulted by the elements, and that when the weather is bad even Geordies do not sleep outside wearing loincloths? For that matter, why not head north during the summer to find the aquila? The weather would be better, and you'd have more hours of daylight available.

I know it's more dramatic to contrast the civilised south with the barbaric north, and would like to reiterate that this is not King Arthur, where the Grampians were somehow confused with the Alps to ensure the film could be comprehended by an audience unfamiliar with Britain's geography. This film at least presents Scotland as it is. But it focuses only on the highlands at their most inclement whilst presenting the people as utterly divorced from reality as possible, even by the standards of the somewhat biased accounts of the British people provided by the Romans.

It's a little thing, really: the film isn't bad, or even all that inaccurate. Maybe I'm being oversensitive, as might be expected of a northerner by birth who lived in Scotland for six years. But it reinforces the ancient view held by many people who have never visited northern Britain that it is a land apart, a land of beautiful scenery but hostile weather, full of savage brutes that do little but drink and fight and don't wear enough clothes in winter. There's some truth in the stereotype, but it still needs to be challenged, not reinforced, especially in an age of government cuts where the ruling government is dominated by middle-class southerners who do not understand the needs of the North.

I might be over-thinking this: here's a fanservice shot of Jamie Bell to make up for it.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Is Niall Ferguson History? Part Three: Whose West is it?

Niall Ferguson is a cunning son of a bitch, I’ll give him that.

I’ve already discussed how his argument that Western civilisation achieved global dominance due to its inherent magnificence is incomplete and simplistic, but I was hoping that with the third episode centering on the role “democracy” played, I was finally going to take the gloves off. Oh, I had such an argument prepared: the moment he started banging on about the inherent superiority of liberal democracy to other systems I was going to point out that even in the West it was the exception, not the rule until 1945, and it was not until 1991- within my own lifetime!- that it became a universal ideal that still has not become a universal reality. Ferguson wasn’t going to know what hit him: when I was through with him, he’d be a quivering wreck of a pseudo-historian, barely fit to teach a kindergarten the basics of the Norman Conquest!

Then the bastard cheated by talking about property laws and Latin America. He even mentions the slave trade, the crafty git!

I shouldn’t have been surprised, really: Ferguson is a historian of finance first and foremost, so it makes sense for him to speak of history in financial terms, and his latest series has shown a strange tendency to arbitrarily compare one Western power with one non-Western power as if they were comparable- though in this case at least, they were. But as a medievalist interested more in social history than economics, I was always going to be caught flat-footed by any discussion of indentured servitude or sub-prime mortgage borrowing or whatever.

I also know precious little about the history of the Americas, either North or South, except that they had one: playing Illusion of Time/Gaia on the SNES as the child engendered some fascination with the pre-Columbian inhabitants of Mesoamerica and the Andes, and I learned everything I know about the American Civil War from Iced Earth, but that’s about it.

So I confess that I am probably not the best person to challenge Ferguson’s assessment that English property laws were the reason the US became a world power, except that I’m sure, no matter what he suggests, that it wasn’t the only reason, because there is never any one reason for anything in history. Nor can I say with certainty whether Latin America was overshadowed to an indolent aristocracy that had to turn to British soldiers for its liberation, except even I know a continent with twelve countries and thousands of ethnicities cannot be discussed in the homogenous broad strokes that Ferguson uses. It also sounds a little bit racist to suggest that the greasy, lazy Dagos had all the luck ,dealing with a fabulously wealthy land already populated by compliant natives whilst the hardworking English settlers laboured and toiled in the barren wasteland of North Carolina whilst fighting of Injuns with absolutely no contribution from French, Russian Irish, Chinese, African and- yes- Hispanic immigrants whatsoever.

And that’s before we get into Ferguson’s schizophrenic handling of slavery.

I would recommend dedicated research into the history of the Americas rather than relying on me, but for what there worth, here are my thoughts on Ferguson’s third episode:

1. Defining “Democracy”

In the first episode Ferguson listed "democracy"as the third of the West's "killer apps"- and yes, I really wish he would stop using that phrase. But the third episode is entitled "property", and Ferguson tries rather pathetically to link the two by claiming property ownership granted voting rights in the British American colonies, encouraging indentured servants to work hard to get their own land and partake in the "democratic" process. I'll have to take his word for this being true, but I would appreciate it if someone could correct me if this is horseshit.

The problem is that this is not really talking about democracy, but about property; Ferguson draws a correlation between property rights and democracy that doesn't necessarily equate causation. I assume his thinking was that he could tie democracy to property, and since democracy is erroneously considered a universal good, it follows that property laws are a good thing. He wants to conflate democracy and prosperity, to link one to the other, in a manner that might make George W. Bush proud but is only considered superficially.

Ferguson's argument seems to be that freedom and democracy (which, incidentally, are not the same thing) were the cornerstones of American prosperity. An obvious counter is to point out that they weren't universal: that voting and property rights were limited or non-existent for women, Native Americans and slaves. I assumed he was glossing over this little inconvenience because it would take the shine off his rose-tinted view of imperialism.

I was more than a little surprised when he actually brought it up.

2. Slavery

I said Ferguson wouldn't have the balls to address the darker side of imperialism. It seems I was wrong. He dedicates ten minutes to the issue of slavery in the USA and its legacy of racial segregation, in a rare moment of clarity that reveals he is at least open to the idea that Western imperialism should not whitewash its crimes.

He still doesn't do a very good job of it, mind.

Ferguson knows he has to discuss slavery, and that he has to be seen to condemn it. The trouble is he says one moment that American property owners profited from slavery and then said they didn't have to. In essence, he says slavery was essential to provide manpower and then says it wasn't essential because... it's bad. Aside from being an inherent contradiction, it's a pretty weak argument to say that slavery wasn't "essential" to Western imperialism: it wasn't "essential" to sell opium to the China at the point of a gun. It wasn't "essential" to tear down the Templo Mayor and replace it with a cathedral. Ferguson's argument can be summarised as "yeah, we used slaves... but it's okay, really. We could have used humane manpower if we had wanted". Just because bad things didn't have to happen didn't change the fact that they did, or that the Western world profited immensely from the exploitation of the rest of the world, and continues to do so. I applaud the fact that Ferguson finally has addressed some of the shitty things the West has done, but he still seems to want to exonerate the West of its crimes rather than face them head on.

3. Defining “The West

This is something that's been bothering me for a while: what is Ferguson's definition of "the West?"

It's already been established that Ferguson likes history to be simple. He wants civilisations, not countries: to him, the Ottoman Empire might as well be the entirety of Islamic civilisation. Likewise, in this episode, "Latin America" is treated as a homogenous whole. Mexico and Cuba aren't mentioned at all, and Brazil- which is culturally and linguistically distinct from the rest of the continent- is presented as typical. I understand that Ferguson wishes to employ shorthand, but it's still a bit misleading to lump every culture on a continent together and label it "Latin America." It's even more misleading to imply that "Latin America" can represent the entire non-Western world. But Ferguson is not racist (at least in that regard): at least he generalises about The West too!

How does one define Western Civilisation? Is it based on religious origins? Cultural similarities? Political and socioeconomic systems? A shared history? The definition could be broad, and include not only Western Europe and North America, but also former European colonies, the former Soviet bloc (communism was, after all, devised by Germans living in London) and those non-Western nations that have adopted Western models to an extent and are Western aligned, like Japan and South Korea. It almost certainly has to include Israel. Or the definition could be much narrower, and refer to those nations that aligned with the US and NATO during the Cold War.

The point is that any discussion about the place of "the West" in the world has to define what "Western Civilisation" means. And Niall Ferguson has not only failed to provide a definition, but his conception of the West is profoundly muddled.

Put simply, it is open to debate whether or not South America is part of the West.

There is an argument to be made that South America is not part of the West: it is politically, economically and ethnically distinct from the United States and Western Europe, and has spent the majority of its history in the shadow of colonial powers; but is also religiously, culturally and linguistically part of the West, with obvious historic ties to Europe via Spain and Portugal and to the United States via the Monroe Doctrine, which considers the entirety of the Americas within a United States sphere of influence.

It is certainly more Western than the other civilisations discussed hitherto. China and the Muslim world evolved independently of Europe, and though the latter is a product of the same Graeco-Roman and Abrahamic traditions, it has emerged as its own distinct sociocultural bloc. Latin America- and the United States, for that matter- are a product of Western culture imposed upon a conquered native population. Right from their foundation they were indelibly stamped with the values and attitudes of European civilisation, and though they have experienced their own unique circumstances they remain recognisably the heirs of their colonial masters.

The problem is that Ferguson has hitherto taken a broad definition of Western civilisation, but is narrowing it. In the first episode, when talking about European competitiveness Spain and Portugal were mentioned as leading the way in the age of discovery. Two episodes later, and former Spanish and Portuguese colonies are no longer defined as Western. One might argue that Latin America was and is distinct from their former colonial overlords, since they contain a sizeable non-European populace and occupied a distinct economic position; but one can say the same thing about the United States, which (contrary to Ferguson's assertions) is not populated solely by white people. Both South America and the USA took a lot from their former colonial masters: Catholicism and football are as much part of Western civilisation as parliamentary representation and property laws.

The point is that the United States and South America are their own individual entities: but if the US and Britain are both to be considered part of the same civilisation, it follows that Latin America and Iberia must be be as well. Unless Ferguson has changed his mind and declared Spain is no longer part of Western civilisation- which would be a bizarre definition indeed- it follows that Latin America is also part of the West: unique, and certainly different, yet nonetheless demonstrably part of the same civilisation.

That being the case, the comparison between the United States and Latin America is not a comparison between a Western and non-Western culture, but between two distinct but related parts of the Western world, whose similarities arguably outweigh their differences. Indeed, much of the modern United States was formerly owned by Spain and experienced significant Hispanic immigration: a case could be made that the US is more a Latin American nation than a British construct

The problem is that it is is becoming clear that Ferguson tends to equate "The West" the the Protestant Anglosphere, yet is happy to use non-Engish-speaking nations to prove his point. He creates a hierarchy of "Western-ness" where all Europeans are Western, but some are more Western than others. It makes his gushing over Prussia in the second episode seem even more bizarre and out of place: surely undemocratic and militaristic Prussia is at least as alien to the English-speaking Founding Fathers as America as Brazil?

Ferguson has defined Spain, Portugal and Germany as part of the West: is it not a tad perverse to suggest their colonies are not part of the same civilisation as Britain and their colonies?

Besides, if only English-speaking countries are Western, democracy was not even invented by Western civilisation

4. Is the West history?

About two minutes from the end Ferguson remembers to play profit of doom and warn the view that the West may soon be eclipsed by the rest of the world. His evidence this time?

Brazil's economy is catching up to America's

That is literally all he has to say on the subject. There is no mention of the fact that Brazil has the world's eighth largest economy but is still 64th for per capita GDP. There is no mention as to why Brazil is now catching up to the US, or when it is poised to overtake it. There is no mention of the political ramifications the growth of Brazil may have on South America and the wider world. And, as ever, there is no mention of the emergence of democracy or new property laws in the wider world.

And, of course, Brazil is presented as completely typical for not only South America, but the entire non-Western world.

One sentence. Absolutely no context or explanation.

Is the West history? We've no way of knowing: Niall Ferguson apparently doesn't want to discuss it. Which is surprising really, given that the downfall of the West is implied from the title of the series!

Would it really have killed him to just name his series "Civilisation: Why The English Are Awesome and Foreign Women are Sexually Unsatisfied"?

Monday, 14 March 2011

Is Niall Ferguson History? Part Two: Your Argument Makes No Damn Sense!

Niall Ferguson is a bad historian.

It’s obvious why he’s a bad historian: he’s an attention whore whose argument is predicated on getting attention from tabloids, not in provoking thought or even intelligent debate in anyone interested in history; he lets his personal predilections affect his political judgment- since he thinks neo-liberal business economics are great, he retroactively applies them to past societies: he’s an unashamed little Englander, whose provincialism leads him to dismiss the achievements of any non-white culture as inherently inferior whilst downplaying the atrocities committed by Western imperialism; he is a political realist, who views history as a clash for power and wealth with no regard to sociological, cultural or religious trends; his focus is incredibly narrow- basically, if it didn’t happen to white people in the modern period, he isn’t interested. He is, in short, everything a historian should be: biased, provincial, ethnocentric, sensationalist and politically minded with a tendency to view history in narrative terms with the creation of the modern world as its ultimate goal without examining past societies on their own merits. He’d probably find a lot in common with structuralists like de Ste Croix…. apart from the Marxism thing.

The problem is that Ferguson is so bad that I’m having difficulty refuting him, simply because his argument is so bizarrely at odds with the argument I would make were I him. I’ve played matches of Soul Calibur in which I try to utilise the moves I’ve spent hours upon hours learning and rehearsing, only to fall to Brother Munro’s unceasing tirade of button-mashing: I know I’m better than him, but his approach is so idiotic, so brazenly primitive that I can grapple with it. Ferguson does the same: lashing out wildly with dramatic but factually inaccurate, irrelevant and often contradictory statements and comparisons to prove “The West” embraced modernity whilst the rest of the world regressed into despotic barbarism.

Perhaps part of the problem is that I don’t substantially disagree with his argument, at least as presented so far. I’m pretty sure I will disagree more strongly when he completely loses touch with reality and starts bleating about “democracy” and “the work ethic” in latter episodes (and I’ve already pointed out some of the factors that he hasn’t and will not mention), but it’s hard to argue with the thesis of the first episode that western adventure-capitalism encouraged exploration and colonialisation of the New World and domination of oceanic trade routes that meant the West controlled the lifeblood of the world’s that both encouraged and allowed the economic, military and political control of the rest of the world. Except Ferguson’s argument didn’t really mention any of the above: he just says the West was “competitive” and therefore somehow better without really explaining how or why it was competitive, or how this was an advantage, in any meaningful way. Basically I’ve put a better case in one sentence than he has in forty-five minutes (I’m also prettier than him, yet as such Channel 4 hasn’t picked up my proposed documentary series Byzantium: Why It’s the Best Civilisation Ever and the Rest of the World are Ungrateful Bastards).

Likewise, it’s hard to argue with the supposition with Episode 2's supposition that The West encouraged scientific rationalism that they turned into a distinctive military advantage. It’s hard to deny that guns tend to win out over spears, though it is worth pointing out that spears can occasionally win out when they outnumber guns by thousands to one. Niall Ferguson has apparently never seen Zulu.

In addition to its military applications, science also was (and is) a significant socioeconomic advantage that helped improve the lives of people in the West and helped spread Western culture across the world via mass media. Unfortunately Ferguson has no time for such post-structuralist woman’s talk! He likes war! Guns! Jets! The shameful massacre of thousands of brown people! That’s what SCIENCE is for! Sir Isaac Newton: the deadliest son of a bitch in space!

The fact that “The West’s” scientific advancement was translated into politico-military advantage is incredibly obvious: we see it every day when the US Air Force drops bombs on Taliban insurgents cowering in caves with Soviet-manufactured AK-47s. It is in fact so blindingly obvious that I hardly think it needs an hour-long documentary to explain it to us. Except…. that is precisely what Ferguson does: he lists examples of Western military supremacy, usually by comparing Prussian artillery with Turkish, um,… harems. Yes, that happens: Ferguson’s argument is essentially half an hour of him arguing that “we had guns: the Turks didn’t, BECAUSE THEY WERE TOO BUSY FUCKING!” That is an argument so basic and obvious it is basically immune from criticism: I can’t very well argue that the Turks actually had giant death-rays hidden in the minarets of the Blue Mosque that they conveniently never told anyone about.*

One would expect a professional historian to go a step further than stating the bleeding obvious: one would expect him to explain him to explain why the West was more fertile ground for the rise of science. He pays some lip service to the idea of religious tolerance and secularism, but not in any detail. Even if the religious status of Europe was the whole reason (which it isn't), this would have been an interesting opportunity to wonder why Catholic/Protestant Europe led the world whilst Muslim Turkey was left behind. He could point to the West's philosophical tradition, the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas and Erasmus. He could look to the foundation of universities as centres to teach canon law. He could look at the many schisms and heresies that have riven the Christian community and perhaps made it tolerant of deviance by necessity. He could point to the often rocky relationship between faith and science: how Leonardo, Newton and Einstein, all of them theologically heterodox yet brilliant scientists who achieved broad acceptance, were driven to discover by their conception of God, whilst scholars like Galileo and Darwin were persecuted for daring to challenge the traditional conception of the universe and whose ideas are still not universally accepted even in the West.

There are a thousand and one explanations for why scientific rationalism triumphed in the West, some crazy, some less so, but Ferguson could pick any one of them and revel in them for entire episodes at a time.

But he doesn't.

Because he's a bad historian.

So let's turn to some of the arguments he does make in Episode 2, all of which are very poorly made and incoherent.

1. How did we get here?

Ferguson begins his narrative in 1683, with the Ottoman siege of Vienna, the high-water mark of Turkish power in Europe. Had the Austrians lost, he says, all of Europe might have been Muslim (he is apparently unaware of the fact that of all the modern European states that were once under Ottoman dominion only three -Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina Albania- have a Muslim majority). But the Viennese proved victorious, due to their successful application of SCIENCE! in the city's defences that allowed a grand Christian coalition to relieve the city. I'm not an expert on the Ottoman wars, but a quick glance at Wikipedia suggests that bad planning, poor tactics, unreliable allies and overstretched supply lines hampered the Turks as much as Vienna's modern defences. I'm also curious as to how the nations of Eastern Europe were able to unite against the Ottomans for more than five minutes, something they abjectly failed to so when the Turks took Constantinople, Belgrade and Rhodes (but managed somewhat when Rome itself was threatened)

1683 is a strange place to start: in the central narrative of a clash between the Ottoman Empire and the West, Ferguson could have picked the battles of Lepanto or Malta as evidence of early Western victories, and then picked up the narrative of how the West went on to eclipse the Turks in the following centuries by colonising the New World and establishing control of trade routes. But by 1683 the struggle is already won: the Ottoman Empire was already past its peak, reached under Suleiman the Magnificent, who died in 1600 and was followed by a series of feeble successors. By the time the Ottomans made their (second) bid for Vienna the Spanish and Portuguese dominated South America, European warfare had been transformed by the Italian Wars and the Thirty Years War, the Renaissance was complete, the religious divisions had been largely solved by the Peace of Westphalia. The West's star had already risen, and Europe was able to unite more effectively against the Turks now that old divisions had been overcome. Ferguson discusses none of this.

Instead, focusing on the reign of Frederick the Great, so he doesn't the seventeenth century and the wars of religion which would fatally undermine his argument that Europe was a secular, rational society with great tolerance for dissenting views. That way he can focus on all the lovely things Frederick did (and there were a lot).

No context, no explanation for why the West pulled ahead of the Ottomans. We are presumably to suppose Europeans are naturally smarter than those beastly Turks. One wonders if Ferguson thinks 300 is a documentary?

On the subject of Frederick...

2. Why the obsession with Prussian militarism

This point is a bit nitpicky, but why is Niall Ferguson so fascinated with Prussian militarism? He spends about fifteen minutes of this episode banging on about how fantastic Prussian militarism was, for no reason other than it appeals to him, which I find strange. It's also a bit creepy that he uses footage from an unnamed 1930s film about Frederick to illustrate his point. I think he wanted it to provide evidence of the way Europeans applied scientific discovery to warfare: but he seems to have overlooked the fact that the government of Germany at the time (dammit!) hijacked the reputation of Frederick for their own agenda. It seems strange for Ferguson to identify himself as an admirer of Prussian nationalism with material made by another of its famous fans.

But Prussia was hardly typical, and its militarism routinely found itself competing militarily with other ideologies like Russian autocracy and Napoleonism. Prussia did succeed in uniting Germany, but it was ultimately defeated by liberal democracies in the First World War. It could be argued (though I wouldn't) that Prussian militarism ultimately informed European Fascism (dammit!), which was defeated by an alliance of liberal democracies and communism. So if Prussian militarism was so great, how was it that it was ultimately defeated? We are never told

Frederick's Prussia accomplished a lot militarily and culturally, but Ferguson is mistaking his Prussian nostalgia with an argument for Western supremacy: he thinks because he likes something, then it is a success. He hasn't considered the ramifications that his chosen ideology didn't succeed in conquering Europe, let alone the rest of the world.

3. Is the West History? In a word: no.

By the end, Ferguson believes he has constructed a watertight argument outlining (if not explaining) “The West’s” scientific lead and its application to warfare. But then, almost as an afterthought, Ferguson remembers he is supposed to be arguing that ”The West” is doomed to be surpassed by “The Rest” and begins to argue that the Western scientific lead may soon be lost. His argument basically boils down to two points:

1. They teach science in Middle Eastern universities. They even let women learn (imagine!)
2. Iran wants an atomic bomb.

Quick! Someone! Tell the President! Iran wants the bomb, something they’ve been seeking for the past thirty years! Truly the end days are now upon us!

I shouldn’t have to point out how stupid these arguments are. Firstly, as ever, Ferguson seems incapable of focusing on more than one part of “The Rest” at a time: the focus is on scientific learning in the Middle East, with no mention of higher education in, say, China or India.

Secondly, though it is obviously true that science is being taught more readily in Middle Eastern universities, sciences are still dominated by the major universities of Europe and America: the Ivy League; Oxford; Cambridge; Hull. All names known throughout the world as centres of academic excellence that draw in thousands of foreign students (and will have to draw in thousands more now that they’ll be charging nine thousand pounds a year to English students for tuition- thanks for that, Nick) whilst the number of Western students attending students outside Europe and America remain much smaller and limited to linguists and students of Asian culture.

Thirdly, there are still parts of the world where scientific education is unavailable to women: Ferguson is neglecting to mention that although it may be legal for women to study in the Middle East, it remains difficult due to ongoing social attitudes about gender roles. The ratio of male to female students remains, for the time being, heavily unbalanced. Hopefully this imbalance will be corrected in time.

Finally, I fail to see how Iran’s quest for the bomb indicates the twilight of the West: the first nuclear bomb was developed in 1945, hardly cutting edge technology. Frankly, it’s a minor miracle that so few countries have nuclear weapons when the technology has been available for six decades. Even with the bomb, Iran would be unable to directly threaten the West without a delivery mechanism: it could perhaps intimidate the Western-allied states on its periphery, but any attack on Israel- another nuclear power- would be suicidal. I suppose we are to infer that Iran might provide terrorists with a bomb, but the argument goes unstated: Ferguson clearly wants us to be absolutely terrified of the very idea that “The Muslims” might be after weapons of mass destruction.

Except… there is already a nuclear-armed Muslim majority state with the bomb, and they are a western ally: the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Ferguson would also do well the remember that despite the fact that nine states are known or suspected of having nuclear weapons, nuclear Armageddon has yet to befall us, even at the height of the cold war. Ferguson wants us to believe that non-Western powers having nukes signals the end of Western civilisation, despite the fact that non-Western nuclear states have, by and large, proved level-headed and cautious about their use, whereas the only two cases of the use of nuclear weapons in warfare was by a Western nation against a non-western power that had no nuclear capacity of its own. Perhaps if the West were “made history” the rest of the world might treat each other with greater civility.

4. The Clash of Civilisations

There is something else that bothers me about how Ferguson ends his documentary: throughout the last hour, he has been talking about Ottoman Turkey: it’s early modern peak, its decline, and its adoption of Western ideas under Ataturk. But when discussing the scientific progress of the Middle East, he switches to the education of women in Saudi Arabia and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, as if it was a logical continuation of his narrative. In this way, he presents the Middle East as a monolith, dominated historically by the Ottomans but now divided into independent nations, all of whom apparently have the same agenda: because women can learn in Saudi Arabia, they can learn anywhere in the Middle East; because Iran wants a bomb, it follows every Middle Eastern state must. The entire region is mushed together into one amorphous blob labelled “The Middle East”, with no regard for the distinctions between nations. No discussion of the fact that neither Turkey or Iran are Arabic, and a mutually antagonistic: Turkey is a secular democracy, Iran a theocratic republic, more or less; no mention of the historical divisions between Ottoman Turkey and Salafid Persia (the latter are not mentioned at all when Ferguson dicusses Ottoman domination of “the Islamic World”); no mention of divisions along sectarian or ethnic grounds, or alignment of the West, or the fact that most of the Middle East is firmly against Iran and their nuclear goals. It is telling that Ferguson is happy to show the mosques of Istanbul (a European city- the largest European city, in fact) but does not show the Christian cathedral that inspired them, because that would complicate his message: "They’re all the same, these Muslims: all acting in concert to overtake and overthrow the West". Stripped of its academic veneer and it’s little more than a Daily Mail article, an EDL leaflet, a rant by Glenn Beck.

I’m being unfair: Ferguson has clearly been very influenced by Huntingdon’s theory about “the Clash of Civilisations” (available here): the idea that after the Cold War solved the dispute between ideologies, the next stage of history would be dominated by conflicts between competing politico-religious groupings. Huntingdon in particular outlines the Muslim civilisation as a potential source of conflict, since it has the most ill-defined and “bloodiest” borders.

There’s a lot wrong with the theory, and refuting it here would take a whole book’s worth of material; besides, other people have taken the theory to task for it’s lack of historicity, it’s reductionism and it’s borderline racist view of human history. What matters here is that it’s simplistic. It plays into the old stereotype that other races and cultures are all the same, but “our” culture is unique in its plurality. This simply isn’t born out by fact: one could spend hours pointing out the pluralities of Western civilisations, it’s different religious, political, cultural and linguistic groupings, its competing ideologies, it’s petty rivalries. But ask a non-European to describe a white person and they’d probably say we were fat, greedy and obnoxious, with weird-coloured hair and girly skin. Then they might point to a nation like India, the birthplace of at least four world religions that I can name off the top of my head, with dozens of political subdivisions and a rich history of cultural and ethnic diversity but often dismissed as an impoverished and over-populated hell-hole fit only for Microsoft’s call centres. Ferguson himself refers to China (specifically the Ming Dynasty) as a monolith, a position the Chinese government would eagerly like to agree with but not born out in reality, even if they have abandoned the pre-communist/Taiwanese concept of five “official” races in China (Han, Manchu, Mongol, Tibetan and Uygher), the Chinese government now recognises freedom of religion, because despite their best efforts protests in Tibet and Xianjing demonstrate that it is simply not possible to impose uniformity on two billion people.

It also simplifies the conflict between the West and the Middle East as one of conflict, when it was also marked by periods of cooperation: Francis I allied happily with the Ottomans; France and Britain came to the support of Turkey against another European power (though Ferguson does not state whether he includes Russia within his ill-defined "West"); and of course, the same militaristic Prussia that Ferguson so admires, the same Prussia that united Germany, allied with the Ottomans during the First World War. Cultural boundaries rarely get in the way of international politics.

Ferguson, likes Huntingdon, wants history to be simple: West versus East; Christianity versus Islam; science versus religion; fundamentally, “us” versus “them”. History isn’t like that. It’s really fucking complicated, full of rich diversity and surprising contradictions that don’t make sense no matter how you try to sort them. Events never happen for one reason; they happen for a hundred. The truth is neither X nor Y, but usually some weird, inexplicable fusion of both. And it takes a lot more than six reasons to explain anything so huge and so important as the West’s domination of the globe. That’s what makes history special: it is the human story, and it presents humanity in all its magnificent, colourful, frustrating complexity. Ferguson and his ilk want to do away with that, to cut the intractable Gordian Knot of history’s thread and congratulate themselves for their ingenuity, without realising they’ve taken away from the mystery and beauty of the knot. And that they no longer have anything with which to pull their cart.

But there’s something more insidious to this oversimplification of history: it means simplifying the world. It means simplifying humanity, and there is already far too much of that in the world. It allows foolish politicians to think they can follow the old adage that he learns from history shall repeat it, without realising that history never repeats because each situation is unique. It gives idiot football fans excuse to riot because they can only see the world in terms of how the other fans are different with no regard with how the complexity of the world makes us all marvellously unique. It allows racist newspapers to publish racist stories about how a Muslim ate a baby and so every person with a different skin colour can be tarred with the same racist brush, without regard for their diversity or individuality.

Niall Ferguson is a bad historian. And bad history makes the world a worse place to live in.

* I should point out that in the period prior to the age under discussion Ottoman artillery was notoriously sophisticated: the famed walls of Constantinople did not fall, after standing unbreached for a thousand years (Latin treachery notwithstanding!), because Mehmed II beat Constantine XVI in a tiddlywinks contest. Awesome as that would have been.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Civilisation: Is Niall Ferguson History? Part One...?

I don’t like Niall Ferguson.

To be honest I’m inherently suspicious of any historian who agrees to be on the telly. * The fastest way for a historian to get famous is to make some bold, controversial or ludicrous statement, like claiming the Romans invented Walkmans or Napoleon was responsible for the invasion of Iraq. That might grab headlines, but it rarely means good history. There’s also a tendency to try to “draw lessons” from history, to compare older societies with modern ones when they are best studied in isolation, with the end result that both are grossly oversimplified and distorted.

It would be easy to dismiss Ferguson as another self-important, self-publicising narcissist, not least because he has put his photo on the back of his latest book in place of a blurb. He certainly fits the profile: his fawning regard for (British) imperialism is out of place with the rest of academia, which is a little embarrassed that the West once conquered, plundered and enslaved the rest of the world, and continues to do so. But Ferguson is not (just) an egomaniac: he honestly seems to believe that it is not only natural, but preferable, that Western (which one might well interpret as “white”) supremacy over the world is not only natural, but also desirable.

Naturally, as a Guardian-reading, muesli-munching, sandal-wearing pinko commie I object to his thesis and try to avoid the lurid, self-congratulatory television programmes that Channel 4 insists on producing with Ferguson at the helm. But I couldn’t really avoid looking into his latest paean to the White Man’s Burden, entitled Civilization (sic): Is the West History? (whose very title seems intended to get the Daily Mail’s knickers in a twist) because 1. I thought it would cover the early modern period, which I’d been reading about a lot last year in preparation for NaNoNoWriMo, and 2. I have just started a blog whose purpose, so I originally envisioned, was to point out examples of bad history in the media (and if anyone happens to find any, feel free to email me).

So I watched the first episode, and it’s…. bad. Really, really bad. Much worse even than I thought it would be. Frankly, I could probably write a doctoral thesis on everything wrong with the first hour of this series, but I don’t have the time and I doubt the potential audience has the patience. As it was, I already clogged up my Twitter feed with a bilious stream of hatred for which I must know apologise: if I annoyed anyone by filling your inbox with reams upon reams of my hatred, then I am sorry. I’ll try not to do it again. Much.

But the factual accuracies alone would take pages and pages, to say nothing of the frightening logical fallacies, missed opportunities and incomplete narratives Ferguson presents, to say nothing of his tendency to state the obvious (“The West overtook the rest of the world in the early modern period”) without really addressing why. Entire centuries- the age of the Renaissance and the Reformation- are just skipped by in his mad rush to get to the British contribution to imperialism so that it appears without adequate context.

As I tried to wrap my head around the sheer scale of Ferguson’s false argument, I realised two things. 1. I could never hope to cover it all in a single post without dying from exhaustion and 2. The sheer stupidity of his argument kind of made it hard to argue against. For example, the first episode compares and contrasts the ascent of Western Europe with the stagnancy of Ming China. As if they were competing. As if they were even aware of each other as anything more than dimly remembered half-legends. Since the first episode focused on competition as a contributing factor to the West’s success, one would have expected it to cover other potential world powers with whom the West competed in the early modern world, such as Ottoman Turkey and India.

The point is that it’s going to take more than one post just to discuss the first part of Ferguson’s series, so I’m going to save some criticism for later. Future posts might talk about his central theory that the West is going to be eclipsed by the rest of the world, specifically China, which is both simplistic and, in Ferguson’s case, extremely self-defeating; and with Ferguson’s bizarre fascination with contrasting “The West” (which he has not defined) and “The Rest” (which is a an insultingly reductionist description that lumps the vast majority of the planet’s populace- their religion, culture and way of life- into a homogenous and backwards mess)

For now, I’m going to talk about the reasons the West became dominant that Ferguson doesn’t cover, because it would be damaging to his thesis that Western imperialism is the best thing that ever happened to the world. It’s possible that Ferguson might mention them in passing, but so far he has remained silent, and I very much doubt he will cover them. Even if he does, let it be on record that I called him on it first!

Ferguson defines the reasons for the West’s post-medieval global dominance in terms of six “killer apps” (I know, I know, just go with it) that he names as follows:

1. Competition
2. Science
3. Democracy
4. Medicine
5. Consumerism
6. Work Ethic

There are a few problems with these straight away. Firstly, that’s four apps, not six: competition and consumerism can be summed up as “capitalism”, and medicine is surely a by-product of science. But six factors allow him to stretch his series out for six weeks and receive a bigger cheque, so we’ll let it slide. Second, I have no idea what some of those are doing there. Some of them are sound, like the West’s competitive adventure-capitalism and its technological sophistication, but even then they are incomplete. Some of them just don’t make sense: what role did “democracy” play when for most of five hundred year period of the West’s global dominance democracy has been the exception, not the rule. Likewise, the Western “work ethic” (with it’s unspoken prefix “Protestant”) looks rather like it is intended to undermine the contribution of Catholic Spain, Portugal and France to Western domination. But we can come to those criticisms once specific episodes roll around. What these factors have in common is that they are all aspects of a stereotypically Western character: financially competitive, rational, legally and democratically minded. Contrast with the monolithic superstitions of other societies is implied, but not stated. What it boils down to is that there is something inherent to the Western character that made Europe- and later North America- the logical leaders of the world. Basically, he argues Europeans are better than other people.

And now I’m going to point out some other factors- the rather more literal “killer apps” that Ferguson doesn’t cover and won't cover, because if he did it would make the West look like a right bunch bloodthirsty arseholes who were lucky to be at the right place at the right time. Which is probably true.

(I should point out, I am not saying these are the only reasons the West became dominant. I’m going to let Ferguson cover the factors that make Europeans look good: I’m more interested in the reasons why we were such utter pricks)

1. Geography

This one is so obvious it’s hardly worth mentioning, but since Ferguson doesn't bring it up I'll have to do it for him. Ferguson spends much of the first episode explaining why Ming China never dominated the world, even though it sent out hundreds of exploration expeditions. The implied question is “why didn’t the Chinese discover America?” A quick glance at a map reveals the answer: the Pacific is much larger than the Atlantic. It takes a lot less time to reach Hispaniola from Cadiz than it does to reach California to Nanjing. Similarly, it’s much easier to reach Africa from Europe by crossing the Mediterranean or sailing the Atlantic coast than it is by navigating around East Asia. I’m also told by better informed minds than mine that Europe benefits from prevailing east-west winds in the Atlantic that make sailing westwards from Europe much easier than sailing eastwards from China.
As to why other powers didn’t head out to sea in search for spices, the answer is they didn’t have to. India had ready access to spices, and China had access to a much easier overland route. The Ottomans sat upon the major east-west and north- south trade routes by controlling the Black Sea, the Red Sea and the Bosporus: spice would come to them naturally. But Europeans were forced by the pressures of climate and distance to seek new ways of finding spices. This drove exploration and domination of trade routes that fuelled Western domination of the world’s finances. Put simply: everyone else could just walk down to Tescos: Europeans had to sail there. Or something…

Geography also explains why the greatest sailors and merchants of the medieval world- the Italian cities- weren’t involved in the initial rush of Western dominance, since they lacked direct access to the Atlantic (okay, Columbus was Genovese and Amerigo Vespucci was Florentine, but they were sponsored by Spain and Portugal respectively). It’s also worth pointing out that the Italian cities- like the German states- lacked central leadership: there was no king to sponsor exploration or take a lead in opening up trade routes as there was in Spain, Portugal or (later) England. The most competitive businessmen in Europe were limited to the Mediterranean and embroiled in internecine warfare with each other for most of the modern period. Ferguson is correct to identify competition as a driving force of Western power, but it was also a double-edged sword: too much localised competition inhibited exploration, whilst nations united behind an enthusiastic ruler were free to take the lead.

2. Disease

This factor comes up a lot in discussion about the Aztecs, but Ferguson hasn’t mentioned it once. In fact, he barely mentions the Spanish conquest of the Americas. I’m not surprised, because the whole affair casts a long, ugly shadow on the history of Western imperialism that fatally undermines his argument that Western domination is a net positive. The exchange of disease is part of a larger transfer of produce between Europe and the Americas called the Columbian exchange: Europe got potatoes, chocolate and coffee, America got horses, apples and olives. Likewise, the disease pools of the two biozones were distinct: there is some (questionable) evidence that syphilis, which first appeared in the 1490s during the Italian wars, was brought back by Columbus. Possibly personally. But the Eurasian disease pool is much larger, since it contains such delightful gems as cholera, malaria, bubonic plague, typhoid and smallpox, the last of which in particular devastated Mesoamerica after the Spanish conquest, fatally undermining the capacity of the indigenous peoples to resist Europeans, who had built up immunities over the centuries.

Admittedly none of this was intentional. It also doesn’t explain Western dominance in parts of the world with a similarly large disease pool, like Asia and Africa. For that matter, it doesn’t fully explain the conquest of the Americas. But it is an easily overlooked factor, yet Ferguson can’t discuss it because it cheapens the achievement of Western imperialism significantly.

3. Native complicacy

This is a case of simple mathematics: how did a few hundred Spanish conquistadores conquer the Aztecs, whose capital dwarfed most European cities? How did the British manage to conquer India, a country whose population was orders of magnitude larger? Answer: they had help.

Cortez landed in Mexico with barely a hundred Spaniards, yet was savvy enough to exploit dissatisfaction with Aztec rule by allying with their enemies. Pizarro wandered into a succession dispute amongst the Incas that he fully exploited. British played the Indian kingdoms against each other, allying with some against others. The Portuguese and the Dutch sold guns to the warring factions of Japan, giving the sides they favoured a distinct advantage over those too conservative to see their value. It’s a practice that still goes on in the modern world: consider the support the alliance between the Western coalition and the Northern Alliance in Taliban, or with the Kurds in Iraq. Hell, William Hague claims he was trying to reach out to the opposition in Libya by sending in the SAS, though it seems he lacks the knack that Cortez had.

Everywhere they went, Western powers interfered with local politics, encouraged faction and allied with aggrieved sectors of society against the ruling class. There was always someone who had something to gain from the Western overlordship, and it is telling that Western influence was always less successful where they couldn’t exploit faction.

4. Faith

This is not a factor anyone wants to admit to, but people do some awesome, magnificent and terrible things in the name of God. Christianity is an extremely sophisticated religion, with a highly complicated structure and a powerful sense of destiny. It can also be extremely ruthless, and is notoriously tolerance of other faiths and even deviations within itself. It’s not unique in this regard, but certainly contrasts with the various local faiths that Europeans discovered when exploring the world.

Spain is a useful example: in 1492 Columbus launched his first voyage. In the same year, the recently united Spanish kingdom conquered the last Muslim state in Western Europe; the Jewish population of Spain was expelled by order of Ferdinand and Isabella; and a Spaniard, the odious Rodrigo Borgia (famed for his turn as the villain of Assassin’s Creed II) was elected pope. These are not entirely coincidences: each represents the arrival of Spain as the dominant power in Western Europe. Within a generation it would create the first world empire by conquering the Americas.

It was also reveals that Spain was fanatically Catholic: after centuries of warfare, Christianity had triumphed over Islam in the Iberian Peninsula; having defeated the infidel without, the ruling classes inaugurated the Spanish Inquisition, bringing the full force of the Catholic bureaucracy upon their recently conquered subjects with paranoid brutality.

And then Columbus discovered a whole new continent full of pagans who practiced human sacrifice to make the sun come up.

It is worth noting that the church objected to the subsequent genocide, but did little to stop it, and were often complicit in it. But more than the simple loss of life, the church sanctioned the annihilation of entire cultures through forced conversions and widespread destruction of non-Christian places of worship. The conversion was complete, but not total: the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration on All Souls Day pays silent homage to the tenacity of Aztec belief, for example.

It is important to remember that the Western conquerors fully believed in the righteousness of their cause: that they honestly believed the rest of the world was blinded by superstition and barbarity and that they had not only the right, but also a moral duty to civilise them. It was an obligation inspired principally by faith, and it took many forms besides the conquistadors’ insistence that the Mexicans convert or die. The building of churches and the introduction of cricket came from the same impulse: the unshakeable faith that Europeans shared that their way was not only the best way, but the only way, and that the rest of the world must share in it, by force if necessary. Which helps to explain their….

5. Ruthless, bloody-minded bastardry

I’m using this as a catchall term for all the many shitty things that Westerners did to establish dominance over the rest of the world. The slave trade is a big one, and needs no further explanation, since more erudite historians than I have covered it in depth. The eradication of bison by the United States to deny Native Americans a viable food source is another. The use of concentration camps during the Boer War- a war between the established Western interlopers and a whole new set of Western interlopers, no less!- is a third. I could go on. I would invite the reader to add their own list of Western dickery if they can think of any I’ve missed.

Ferguson is not entirely ignorant of this, to his credit: he does mention the ruthlessness of Portuguese traders in forcibly establishing a trade route around Africa to India. But it’s in passing, and he doesn’t dwell on it: frankly, he comes across as slightly admiring of the European’s determination to succeed in business. Basically he treats the Portuguese as Thatcherite neo-liberals who put profit before humanity; it never seems to occur to him that lives were ended as a result.

But one textbook example of the moral depths to which Europeans were prepared to sink is brought up, albeit, I suspect, unintentionally, by Ferguson himself. Whilst he continues his bizarre contrast between early-modern Europe and Qing dynasty China, he brings up that the Western populace were taking stimulants like coffee whilst the Chinese were wasting their time in opium dens. Leaving the irrelevance of that argument aside (how does drinking coffee make a country more powerful? And has anyone explained to him that the Chinese drink rather a lot of tea?), he has been foolish enough to bring up the opium trade. It’s true that China faced an enormous problem with opium addiction in the nineteenth century: so much so they passed laws banning it. Laws, which damaged the extremely lucrative British opium trade, so much so that the British bombarded Chinese cities with ironclads until the Chinese government was forced to sign unfair treaties and reopened the opium trade.

Yes, Niall, the Chinese were addicted to opium. Because we sold it to them. Because we went to war with them to insure they remained addicted to it. Was that what you meant when you brought it up? It doesn’t seem likely Is the fact that the British Empire acted like an angry drug dealer faced with a profitable client going to rehab really something you, of all people, want to bring up? You, who has so passionately argued that British imperialism was a force for good? It worked, and it reveals how far the West was prepared to go to retain its stranglehold on the rest of the world. And I am willing to pay money Ferguson doesn’t have the balls to mention it again.

Of course, acting like a total cock is hardly a quality unique to the West. That is precisely my point: Ferguson wants us to believe that there is something special about the West; something magical. Something that makes Europe and America the natural leaders of the world. When the truth is that they are just as vicious, devious and cruel as the rest of the world, just in more expensive suits. That’s what frightens Niall Ferguson: the possibility that the West isn’t exceptional, but typical. And lucky.

*I am of course making an exception for Robert Bartlett, whose brilliant series on the medieval mind is both insightful for historians and accessible to layman. Full disclosure: I have been taught by him- I attended his lectures as an undergraduate at St Andrews and he supervised one of my modules. I’d often see him out and about walking his dog, wearing a sweet leather jacket and saucy beret. We called him RobbyB.**

** We didn’t.