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.


  1. Your point that 'Bad History' 'informs' Western Politicians is illustrated in the latest Libya 'deja vu all over again' move. 'The West' (including those recent Imperialists Britain, France, and Italy), in alliance with compliant, but anti-democratic, Arab states, are to 'save the Libyan people' in a 'humanitarian' intervention. My manic deployment of inverted commas reflects the tortuous selectivity of this 'doctrine' (how much oil is at risk?), and why it sidesteps other candidates like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia,(literally 'don't go there'), Yemen, and Syria (not much oil). Western 'Bastardry' (as you eloquently put it) is still twitching, despite 'Nihilist' Fergie's Jeremyclarksonesque claims...

  2. Thanks for providing the evidence I was too lazy to find! :P

  3. I am enjoying reading this, just pausing after this last one to say watch for it's/its. Not saying that in a "mistake-correcting" way, it just jolted my attention. There were a slew of them in a row - the theory's problem, it's lack of historicity, it's reductionism etc - and it took me out of what I was reading.

    I wasn't moved by your peroration on behalf of the beauty and mystery of history. I'm sympathetic to the idea, but it seems too general a thing to attach to this specific case. "Being a bad historian is a moral failing because history is an ideal we must live up to" is a bit grandiose in this context.