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.


  1. Have you not seen his other doc series on the British Empire? I thought his acknowlegdment of western attrocities was pretty standard for him. He appologizes for their flaws, and then explains how the colonized are better off now...somehow. And yes, i agree Niall must possess some odd fondness for Kipling - he features Kipling favourably in the other series as well. But for all his good qualites, he shows himself to be a complete idiot with that comment about man-made climate change. Its fitting that he's broadcast on the same channel that brought us the thoroughly debunked piece of trash "The Great Global Warming Swindle"

  2. Nicely argued. I don't think he is anywhere near as racist as you make him out to be, but your other criticisms are spot on. In particular this is undoubtedly right wing history with a definite agenda.

  3. Well I don't think he ever comes out and says white people are better than brown people, but a lot of the imagery and subtext he uses contrasts strong, intelligent white men with malnourished, backwards Africans. It made me a bit uncomfortable.

  4. In Vile's defence he would probably say 'Like Richard Littlejohn, I'm not a Racist but...those filthy Nazis who took a time-machine back to C19th Africa ,and staged a coup against those Prussian exemplars who were running the show according to strict 'Fredthegreat' principles, in order to do a dry run of the Holocaust, went just too far...oh and that 'Climate Change' is a global conspiracy..I read about it in this book 'The Protocols Of The Scientists Of The UN' British? The natives loved us...ask the Irish, the Boers, the Kenyans, the Arabs, the Indians..they openly wept in the streets when we left...I had Reason in the back of me cab once ..wot a tosser!'

  5. This is a great post. I'm glad you brought up the point in the series about belief in man-made climate change, because this comment more than any seemed to reveal his unwillingness to stray from his idealogy, and the fact that his voice is well heard makes these views very dangerous. He simplifies history so that it sits comfortably around his very comfortable life.

  6. You are a fruitcake - the science is not settled on climate change - the climate changes dailt on its own, without our interference, as it has since the dawn of time. You should stop pontificating and start putting some worthwhile information on your post.