Tuesday, 26 April 2011

A ridiculously petty post about the BBC's technology news coverage

Dear BBC: the shittiness of your tech coverage is getting ridiculous…

I love the BBC, and I’ll defend to the hilt from the brain-dead cryptoracists of the Mail and their cronies, but the tech coverage on the BBC news website is really starting to annoy me. Not content to reiterate tech stories roughly two years after they first become relevant unless it is something really like Second Life or Twitter, their coverage of the announcement that Nintendo is working on a new console shows a worrying lack of effort to either research or write it.

The headline declares that “Nintendo announces Wii 2 console” and the very first line claims that “Nintendo has announced it will launch a new version of its Wii console in 2012”.

So far it all seems perfectly simple. Except for the fact that Nintendo hasn’t announced they are making a new Wii.

The actual announcement states that “Nintendo Co., Ltd. Has decided to launch in 2012 a system to succeed the Wii” (emphasis mine). The distinction is important: they haven’t announced a new model of the Wii, or a console bearing the Wii name. They have announced an entirely new console that they intend to succeed the Wii, as the Wii succeeded the Gamecube and the ‘cube succeeded the N64. Although details about the console are currently thin on the ground, rumours suggest that it is extremely un-Wii-ish in nature and is unlikely to share the name (which was, lets face it, a profoundy stupid name).

The BBC story is presenting the new console as an update, in the same way the DSi improved upon the DS or- perhaps more tellingly- in the same manner as Apple updates its products every year. They actually state that “some observers had speculated that the Wii 2 would simply update the existing machine” without actually stating who these anonymous observers were and despite the aforementioned rumours that the next console will not just be a "gimmick" like the Wii.

I know this seems like a petty point- and, in the grand scheme of things, it is- but it just annoys me. It annoys me that Nintendo’s new console is presented as an Apple-esque update without evidence. It annoys me that is called the “Wii 2” even though it hasn’t been named. It annoys me that the “b” in “Xbox” is capitalised despite being used three times in the article, petty as that may sound.

The constant drip-drip of irrelevant, outdated or poorly researched tech articles suggests it is a low priority for the BBC. I can only conclude that whoever they have writing these articles is unfamiliar with the systems they describe or the broader trends in tech news. I know they are facing some pretty stringent cuts, and I know it isn’t the BBC’s job to provide the most in-depth tech coverage. That’s what Wired is far, after all, and its not like there aren’t literally hundreds of blogs and a surfeit of podcasts from which to get the latest videogame news. But I do expect a certain degree of fact checking and accuracy. I’m not a tech expert either, and even I’m noticing the low standard of tech news stories these days. Is it really so hard to believe that no one on the BBC News team plays video games extensively or makes it a point of professionalism to pay attention to game news? I mean, I manage it, and I’m an unemployed history graduate, not a professional journalist!


Monday, 11 April 2011

Is Niall Ferguson History? Part Six: All Work and No Facts Makes Niall a Disgrace to Thucydides

In the final episode of Civilisation: Is The West History, Niall Ferguson finally loses the plot completely.

When discussing the last episode I lamented that Ferguson has neglected to cover the role religion played in fuelling the West’s domination of the rest of the world. I suggested that, since he is primarily a financial historian, he might not be interested in the ephemeral minutia of spiritual matters.

It turns out I was wrong, for in this last episode Ferguson finally gets round to describing how religion gave the Western world the self-confidence to impose itself on the rest of the world.

As usual, he makes a dog’s dinner of it.

1. Weber of Lies

Ferguson states that he was raised atheist, but he always felt a certain affinity for Weber’s “Protestant work ethic”, which encouraged Westerners to work hard in the hopes of spiritual rewards, unlike the lazy Papists and those drug-addled Mohammedans that populate his version of non-Western world (or “Resterners,” as he names them, which surely must be an illegal slur). That statement should immediately set off a few alarm bells, not least of how hypocritical it is for him to later condemn Europe as godless and shallow when he himself is not a believer. But it also raises the question why Ferguson is so focused on Protestantism as one of the West’s- *sighs deeply*- “killer apps.” One assumes he was also raised a Ranger’s fan.

Certainly it is consistent with the definition of “the West” that he has hitherto failed to elaborate on: the Protestant sphere happens to overlap with Northern Europe and the Anglosphere but also includes his beloved Prussia. It also includes Scandinavia and parts of Switzerland and the Low Countries, but he never mentions them even though it might help his case. Probably because they are a bit foreign.

Equating the West with Protestantism at least explains why he is so dismissive of South America, which is overwhelmingly Catholic. And it allows him to do what he does best: dismiss non-Western cultures by suggesting they lack the virtues that made the West awesome- in this case suggesting- and, in the case of the Middle East, outright stating that it is lazy as well as ignorant and overly bureaucratic.

Here’s the problem with the Protestant work ethic theory: it’s bollocks. Wikipedia has provided a convenient summary of the criticisms of Weber’s theory, but what is relevant here is that it totally downplays the role of Catholics and their church in establishing Western supremacy. Ferguson may have been raised atheist with Protestant leanings, but I am a humanist raised Catholic, and I can tell him that the Protestant work ethic has nothing on the power of the Catholic guilt complex. Of course, one might argue that the distinction between working in the knowledge one will be rewarded in the hereafter and working to in the fear that failure will leave one consigned to the Inferno is six of one, half a dozen of the over, but the point is that I don’t think Protestants work significantly harder than Catholics. They’re probably just happier about it.

What is relevant is that “Protestantism”- which, incidentally, is a term that covers a broad spectrum of beliefs, some of which differ but a little from Catholicism- has historically been the minority faith in the Western Europe, limited largely to Britain, North America, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and northern Germany, whereas the Catholic powers have included Spain (the conqueror of most of the Americas), Portugal (the nation that gave the West its dominance of sea trade), France (the most successful non-Anglophone colonial power), Austria (the dominant central European power for most of the modern period) and Italy (the birthplace of the Renaissance). One might also point out that one of the constituent countries of Great Britain at its height- Ireland- remained largely Catholic despite attempts at Protestant colonisation, and that many areas of Britain with significant Irish Catholic immigrant populations- like Liverpool, Jarrow and Ferguson’s own Glasgow- were amongst the centres of industry that fuelled Britain’s global dominance.

To the concert of Europe we may add Russia, which, is neither Protestant nor Catholic, and Turkey, which isn’t Christian but did rule over all denominations in Eastern Europe and elsewhere with remarkable tolerance and famously drew its soldiers from them. We might even add the Papacy itself, since it did at least organise a rather significant experiment in European domination of a non-European populace in the Middle Ages.

We might also add the major non-Western economies of the twentieth century, such as Japan and the Asian Tigers, where Christianity has had a negligible influence. It would be hard to describe the Japanese as lazy, after all.

Finally, in focusing on Protestantism Ferguson overlooks the Jewish contribution to Western civilisation: men like Einstein, Oppenheimer, Kissinger, Friedman (hell, here's the damn list!) who were hardworking, brilliant, and incontrovertibly not Protestant

2. One Nation, Under God

So Ferguson is off to a rocky start in claiming the Protestant work ethic was a “killer app” for the West, since most of the West didn’t have it. As evidence for his ridiculous claim he invents a schism between Europe and the United States, saying the former has lost its way and is now only interested in shopping and pornography, too busy fapping its way into oblivion to realise its end draws near. For this he blames Freud in a bizarre and oddly self-important rant about how psychiatry has made Westerners selfish and godless. A cruel observer might point out that Niall Ferguson is in no position to criticise anyone for being self-absorbed, narcissistic and obsessed with money, but I am of course above such spiteful jibes. Perhaps he is secretly a Scientologist as well as a Ranger’s fan. I shall however point out that his weird Widdecombe-esque critique of “European” society says more about how Ferguson views the British than it does about Europe as a whole, where religion remains an important factor of society. Even in Britain, religious feeling remains strong enough to fuel sectarianism, as we have recently been tragically reminded.

Anyway, Ferguson contrasts godless Europe with pious America (home of the largest pron industry of the world, by the way) by visiting a church in Missouri which has a Christian rock band that reminded me all too much of Metalocaplypse and speaking to a pastor who (of course) is eager to reiterate the idea that religion makes people work harder and become better people.

Now here I must accuse Ferguson of deliberately misleading the audience. He is trying to equate economic prosperity with religious faith, despite the fact that in terms of national GDP the most important areas are a generally on the east and west coasts, where attitudes are more secular and Christianity is less influential, whereas the areas where Christianity is strongest are in what politicians patronisingly call “the heartland,” and tend to be more agrarian and underdeveloped. It is not entirely the case that religiosity is inversely proportional to economic importance- Texas has the second largest economy, for example, though it is also the second largest state. But it is certainly not the case that religious faith has gone hand-in-hand with economic growth.

In fact Protestant faith- and, to be fair, Catholicism- has done much to retard progress in the United States, in the realms of science (by opposing stem-cell research), legal rights (by opposing a woman’s legal right to do what she wants with her body- and in fact by opposing the well-being of women in general), demographics (by opposing birth control), the environment (by denying the link between carbon emissions and climate change) and education (by encouraging creationism be taught in schools alongside or instead of evolution). It also encouraged long, unnecessary and ugly foreign wars that diminished America’s reputation and exposed its weakness. It also barely needs mentioning that it was a Protestant nutter who inflamed the passions of idiots in Afghanistan to kill United Nations personnel by threatening to burn a copy of the Qur'an.

3. FYI, It Was The Franciscans Who Brought Christianity to China

Protestantism might therefore be charitably described as a mixed blessing to America and the West. Where Ferguson really loses touch with reality is when he starts talking about Christianity in China.

Put simply, Ferguson believes the Protestant work ethic is alive and well in China, and he points to a few Chinese businessmen who are Protestant.

Now, the number of Christians in China is disputed, with estimates ranging from 40 million to 100 million. Most are Protestant, but the number of Catholics is likely to be higher than reported, since Catholicism (or at least communion with Rome) is officially banned. What is apparent is that the total number of all Christians in China make up less than 4% of the population, way behind Buddhism, traditional religions and atheism and probably comparable to the number of Muslims, most of whom are concentrated in the west and are ethnic minorities like the Uighurs, Hui and Kazakhs. Officially the state is atheist, and it is hard to imagine that Protestants represent a significant presence either among captains of industry, the Communist Party, or the government in general. Ferguson claims that it is possible up to 30% of the Chinese population will be Protestant in thirty years: as far as I know, he has pulled this statistic out of his arse, for there is no convincing evidence to suggest that this is the case.

More to the point, I don’t think you have to make China Protestant to explain its productivity. Ferguson claims that the average Chinese citizen works longer hours than the average Westerner. This is true, but it has nothing to do with religion: it is to do with different working conditions, readily available cheap labour, government-set targets and poor human rights legislation that has allowed dubious work practices like sweatshops and extended working weeks. One would hardly call Foxconn a model of Protestant virtue (or, for that matter, a haven of worker’s rights), but one cannot argue with its output.

Lest we forget, China is officially communist, and communism has always exalted the role of the working man by calling upon him to work longer and harder for the benefit of the people and the state. That might result in terrible working conditions and appalling human rights abuses, but it definitely gets results, as demonstrated by the Soviet Five Year Plans. I don’t want to overstate the case, both because of the failure of programs like the Great Leap Forward and because of the monstrous human suffering it involved, but China’s communist history- and present- surely provides a more immediate and logical explanation for its work ethic than any fictitious Christian influence.

In fact, Ferguson never mentions communism in relation to China. Not once. One assumes he doesn’t want to give Marxism even that much: the possibility that a successful, modern and dynamic economy could possibly owe anything to its communist heritage is clearly so anathema to him he has to invent some bullshit about the Chinese becoming Christian, in one of the most flagrant examples of historical fiction I have ever encountered.

4. "They wouldn't follow him to India..."

Sadly communism is not the only subject that goes unmentioned. The other potential non-Western world powers go curiously unmentioned in this episode- Turkey and Iran (Turan? Irkey?) are once again thrown together to represent the Middle East as if either was in anyway typical, but otherwise the superpowers-in-waiting like Brazil (about 98% Catholic) and India (whose Christian population makes up less than 3% of the population) are nowhere to be seen. In fact, it has only recently dawned on me that Ferguson doesn’t mention India throughout the entire series. I don’t remember him mentioning it in passing, even as part of the British Empire, despite the fact it is surely a model example of the adoption of Western values, the largest liberal democracy on Earth, one of the fastest growing economic and military powers and has nuclear weapons. It even plays cricket! One can only assume he chose to use China and a homogenised Middle East as his principle rival civilisations because Muslims and communists are so much more frightening to his audience of middle class mail-reading pseudo-intellectuals than democratic Hindus.

5. Turns Out The West Isn't History At All

There is more problem with this episode worth mentioning: the end is frankly bizarre- Ferguson starts channelling Savonarola by quoting Revelations and wailing how the West tends to see its destruction everywhere in environmental degradation and economic hardship (and I would like the record to show out that I mentioned millennialism was part of his appeal in the last blog post), where children are not being taught science (which is a bit hypocritical, coming from him) and our greatest weakness is our own loss of self-confidence (again, a bit hypocritical since he has spent six weeks trying to erode that confidence). He concludes by saying the West still has an edge, but he isn’t sure of its place in the future. He states that it has another advantage: the freedom, that he so enjoys, to say what you want, that encourages invention and development. One wonders why he didn’t mention this seventh “killer app before”- presumably Channel 4 were only willing to give him six episodes. It is, in other words, a typical reactionary call to arms, about how our civilisation is fragile but special, with enormous potential but facing enormous threats from lazy and superstitious foreign tyrants. It’s a narrative that has been repeated throughout Western history, from Cato the Elder and Herodotus to Enoch Powell and Frank Miller: the West is special, but we have to be constantly careful those damn foreigners don’t come over and ruin it. Even though they never do.

There are other criticisms to be made, but I think I’ve made my point: the Protestant work ethic is a myth, and Ferguson spends an hour trying to make it seem real. His argument is confused, speculative, grossly oversimplified and in direct contradiction with earlier episodes that extolled the virtues of the scientific rationalism and consumerist society he now condemns in favour of Anglo-Saxon Christianity.

6. The Two Killer Apps

In making such a poor argument, Ferguson is at least consistent with the rest of his series. So the time has come to make a final judgement on his series. I think it’s clear that his central claim that the West is “history” is untenable: even he abandons it in the end, and the evidence he has provided for the forthcoming Gotterdammerung is sparse. That the West will face rising competition from the rest of the world is an economic and demographic certainty, but to read in that the downfall of our civilisation is scaremongering for ratings, pure and simple.

When it comes to the role of the “killer apps” themselves, his record is mixed: I agree wholeheartedly with assessment of only two of them- the first two, competition and science. I agree that capitalist competition between states and individuals drove Western domination of trade and industry, and I agree that liberalism and the Enlightenment paved the way for scientific progress that was turned into a profound military edge. Although I agree with his conclusion, I find his argument to be sloppy and full of contradictions.

I don’t agree that property laws were the reason behind Western expansion in Northern America: I believe it was driven by more complicated factors behind emigration from Europe and forced emigration from Africa. I don’t see how his discussion of medicine was relevant, and I don’t see how it is distinct from the conversation about science. I believe consumerism was a by-product and adjunct of the dominance of Western capitalism, not a cause of it. I think the idea of a Protestant work ethic is bullshit, and I find it insulting to the non-conformist contribution to Western civilisation. I believe the reasons for Western dominance are complicated and multifaceted, and not all of them are as glamorous as Ferguson intimates, as I have suggested in the past.

7. Why Niall Ferguson Is (Hopefully!) History

As for the man himself, he has done nothing to convince me he is not a lazy, ignorant and smugly self-satisfied arsehole obsessed with his own celebrity. Were he a financier, a banker or a political pundit I could perhaps live with him, as I have learned to live with so many Tory arseholes, by ignoring him. Unfortunately, he still maintains the pretence that he is a historian, despite the fact he never shows any evidence of knowledge of history before the fifteenth century, and even within his own sphere of knowledge his arguments are old-fashioned and fraught with errors.

Conveniently enough the man has provided an insight into his motivations in today’s Guardian in which, tellingly, he talks about his own status and reputation much more than he talks about history. He presents himself as the bogeyman of the left, the man they love to hate for his abhorrent political views and his arrogance, and justifies himself by stating that self-confidence is important to success: a fitting philosophy, since it accords so well with the conclusion of his series that the West has lost its self-confidence.

Niall Ferguson is an arrogant neo-imperialist Tory bastard, make no mistake. But I began commenting on his series to demonstrate that he is a bad historian, first and foremost, and I hope that I have mostly avoided simply dismissing him because I happen to disagree with him. There is a perfectly good argument that could be made in defence of Western imperialism, and an equally good argument that could be made that its place in the sun is coming to an end. Niall Ferguson makes neither argument convincingly. The fact that I disagree with him is a simple difference of opinion: it’s the fact that his argument is poorly made yet he remains so unrepentantly and arrogantly committed to it that makes him a bad historian.

His self-confidence is undeniable, but historians should not be self-confident: they must constantly question sources and interpretations for weakness and contradiction. They must even question themselves, or they risk becoming inflexible and parroting the same old tired arguments uncritically. They must not let their affection for a particular political system, culture or economic model get in the way of an objective conclusion- if they did, I would call for the immediate liberation of Constantinople from the Turk!

Ferguson dismisses the dangers of relativism for daring to teach that morality is not absolute as damaging to the fabric of Western civilisation. To question a system or an idea does not undermine it, but proves its strength if it resists scrutiny. The historian is obligated to approach her subject from a standpoint of moral relativism: there are no absolute truths, only different interpretations of the same evidence. The historian must be objective, open-minded, willing to accept that her interpretation may be faulty and willing to adjust it. She must accept that there is no single truth, that all opinions have validity so long as they are well made. She must be intellectually curious about other cultures, and prepared to revel in their differences from her own. Ferguson embodies none of these traits, instead choosing to be arrogantly certain of his believe in the superiority of Western civilisation and dismissive of the achievements of the rest of the world- including any part of the Western world he doesn't like. It’s as if he first learned history in the 19th century that the world needed to be ruled by the white man because it was better for all involved, and has remained stubbornly resilient to the passage of time and further research that has obligated more reasonable minds to accept a broader view of past events. Ferguson's conviction might make him a sound- if devious- politician; he might even be a great economist- I really have no way of knowing. What I do know is that he is a bad historian, and if we cannot stop him regurgitating half-baked theories then we should at least discourage his audience from mistaking his pseudo-intellectual posturing for actual history. His arguments are old-fashioned, and should be consigned to the dustbin of history, leaving him free to write columns for the Daily Mail.

A Big Thank You

Still, I suppose I should take this moment to thank Prof. Ferguson for giving me something to write about for the past six weeks. I estimate I may have written as much as twenty thousand words denouncing him, more than any of my dissertations, and in considerably less time. It has encouraged me to research, however briefly, aspects of history that I was previously ignorant. It’s provided some interesting conversations with other historians, some of whom agree with Prof. Ferguson, and others who do not, but all concerned about the state of history and its teaching in today’s Britain. It’s given me something to do on Mondays instead of pretending to find a job. It’s given me a chance to focus my rage on someone truly deserving and eminently dislikeable. Above all, it’s given me a chance to write something, it’s given me purpose to write this blog, and it has helped it take shape as a platform to escape the lies and deceits of bad historians around the media.

So let me make this as heartfelt as possible: Thank you, Professor Niall Ferguson BA (Glasgow). My second-greatest hope is that you continue to produce more tedious unhistorical lies for me to critique and expose.

My greatest hope is that you truly do become history, and I never have to see your conceited face on my telly again. Unless it's on Hole In The Wall.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Daily Mail forgets that Leonardo Da Vinci did not know Jesus personally...

"Is this the first ever portrait of Jesus?" asks Nick Pryer in Monday's Daily Mail

Now, it would be easy to pour scorn on the Mail's claims by pointing out the image in question is so vague and so worn by the passage of time that it resembles Tinky Winky as much as it does the Messiah, but the inscription of "Saviour of Israel," the dating to the first century and the location of the find all suggest it is at least feasibly referring to Jesus. And, in a rare display of journalistic integrity, the Mail falls short of actually claiming that the image is Jesus. Of course, I am forced to take their word for it that the codex is genuine, and I wouldn't trust the Daily Mail if they said the sky was blue.


Near the end of the article they provide an example of what Jesus is supposed to look like (as if their readership had conveniently forgotten) by reproducing the image of Him that appears in Leonardo's "The Last Supper", claiming that the codex image has "similar characteristics".

Now, I will admit that this is flogging a dead horse, but it reiterating that whatever Jesus may have looked like, He certainly didn't look like He does in "The Last Supper". He was Jewish, and He lived in first century Palestine. It is unlikely that He had fair, flaxen hair, pale skin and blue eyes. It is likely that He had a beard, since that would have been typical for a Jewish man living in the region at the time, but I doubt it was the neatly-trimmed goatee of Leonardo's imaginings. Leonardo was utilising an established schema that represented Jesus in a way recognisable to Europeans, many of whom would have never seen someone from outside their own racial grouping. To suggest that this early impression of a bearded figure is Jesus because it looks like Jesus is circular reasoning: by the same logic Saint Bartholomew literally walked around without his skin just because that was how he was portrayed in later art to distinguish him from other bearded holy guys.

As far the "similar characteristics", the only attribute they have in common is that the codex image might possibly have a beard maybe, a characteristic shared with plenty of other men, none of whom are regularly mistaken for the Alpha and Omega. The codex image is even described as having a crown of thorns, which personally I don't see, and which is notably missing from "the Last Supper" because- shockingly!- Jesus didn't wear a crown of thorns until his crucifixion! It's not like he wore it all his life to hide his baldness, like Caesar, or the Edge!

So all the Mail has established is that image that doesn't look like anything in particular also doesn't look like an image painted fifteen centuries later. The only evidence that it is in fact a image of Jesus is textual, but the Daily Mail is really clutching at straws to suggest it looks like a man whose definitive image had not yet been defined. It's a pity because it's unusually good history for the Mail undone by a small oversight. It's as if they couldn't stomach the fact that Son of Man probably looked a bit... well, foreign.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Is Niall Ferguson History? Part Five: How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love Denim Trousers

I really don’t know what to say any more…

At this point anything I have to say about Niall Ferguson’s Civilisation: Is The West History would be redundant: I would just be repeating myself. It would be much easier to just link to the four previous blog posts and ask the half-dozen or so people likely to read this to look there to see why Niall Ferguson is a complete hack of a historian who disgraces his profession every time he speaks.


I seem to be a minority in wanting the man gone. In the past two weeks Ferguson has appeared in several media outlets on a number of subjects tangentially related to history, ranging from telling teachers they need to focus even more on the fucking Nazis instead of all this girly Roman crap to stating the obvious that Colonel Gadaffi is a bit of wrong ‘un. He was even on Question Time, though I only learned about it after the fact, and I dread to think what rubbish he was spouting about how “The Muslims” need to be taught the value of Coke and genocide to a live audience.

Why is the man so popular when he is so clearly a self-important buffoon? Do media outlets not realise the man doesn’t need them to feed into his delusions of importance by giving him airtime? The man must already have difficulty fitting his massive swollen head into the shower in the mornings!

So, even though I know I will be repeating myself, I am going to outline the reasons why Niall Ferguson is a bad historian and his programme is a waste of time, using examples taken from the fifth episode, which is about consumerism. In it he describes the triumph of Western popular culture of the world, just in economic terms, as befits a financial historian. I would have focused on the nature of the culture itself, but that’s the difference between him and me.

Well, that and I actually try to research my poorly thought-out rants...

If anyone who reads this cares about history, or knows anyone who admires Ferguson or buys into his simplistic and triumphalist view of history, please feel free to dispute his claims and share this post with them.

If nothing else it will give me traffic.

Let’s start with something every historian should know…

1. He doesn’t seem to understand cause and effect.

Western popular culture- its films, music, dress etc- are dominant throughout the world. It would be hard to deny that fact, though I feel Ferguson overstates the case for homogeneity (I also think he takes entirely too much pleasure in the erosion of diversity in this shrinking world, but that’s the difference of opinion between his neo-imperialist agenda and my lefty xenophilia). But I feel that he is incorrect to assert that Western consumerism supported Western dominance. In fact, I would argue the inverse was true: that it’s political and military dominance allowed the West to impose its culture upon the world.

By the time popular culture and consumerism emerged in the twentieth century, the West was already unassailably dominant, having imposed its political, religious and economic structures on a majority of the rest of the world, including the entirety of Europe, Africa, the Americas and South Asia. This provided an immense potential market, even after the end of European empires, for it remained receptive to Western goods and advertising.

Indeed, a worldwide Western culture had already been exported to much of the world in the form of Christianity, and it would be very interesting to examine why Christianity became the dominant world religion and not Islam or Buddhism, both of which are as inclusive and universal as Christianity. The reasons are far too numerous and complicated to outline here, but I would very much like to do so one day. But Ferguson is ill-equipped to deal with the role of religion- he doesn’t list it as one of his “killer apps” (*sigh*), nor does he really discuss religion in detail. It’s understandable: as I said before, his specialisation is finance, not culture.

The point is by the time Ferguson picks up his narrative in this episode, the West is already in a position to export consumer goods to the rest of the world, that was comparatively poor but aspired to a Western lifestyle and that had already been conditioned to accept Western cultural norms. The new consumer society simply reflected an existing dominance.

2. He dismisses the achievements of non-Western culture

Nowhere is Ferguson’s contempt for the non-Western world made obvious in this episode: his attempt at a comedy Russian accent is unbearably offensive; his casual dismissal of Chinese communist dress as “ugly pyjamas” is utterly infantile; his statement that Emperor Hirohito of Japan aped Western fashions is meant to demonstrate the way in which Western commodities became dominant throughout the rest of the world.

However, Ferguson has picked the worst possible example of a non-Western nation adopting Western manners, since it reveals that the process was not entirely one-way: although it is true that modern Japan has proved receptive to Western consumerism, it has also produced its own share of popular brand names and its own internationally popular culture that reflects both Western and indigenous influences. Many Japanese exports have in turn greatly influenced Western culture: the case of a famous sengoku drama that influenced a certain independent filmmaker to produce a certain series of space opera movies is simply the most celebrated example of a broader trend.

The case of Japan raises some interesting questions that should be addressed: what was the role of Western consumerism in creating a new popular culture? Why is it that Japan has proven more successful at exporting its culture than other non-Western cultures? Is it an exception to the rule of Western dominance? Or will the growing economic clout of China produce a similar phenomenon, since they already produce most of the West’s consumer goods? What about India, whose film industry is already the largest in the world? These are all interesting and relevant questions about the role of consumerism in a globalised world: Ferguson fails to answer any of them; because it would contradict his narrative that Western consumerism alone has conquered the world.

3. His definition of “Western civilisation” is faulty

I have already discussed the problem with a definition of Western civilisation that includes Spain but excludes Spanish America and that places German military prowess on a pedestal one moment but condemning its imperial excesses the next. The same could be argued for his Cold War narrative, that contrasts the capitalist west (synonymous with NATO) with the Soviet-dominated communist east. There is a case to be made that Eastern Europe is indeed a distinct civilisation from Western Europe in terms of ethnicity, religion, political structure and cultural affinity, but there is also much that unites them in those very same spheres. The distinction between capitalism and communism was an ideological and an economic disagreement, it was not a fundamental cultural distinction the way that, for example, Western civilisation is distinct from Islamic or Chinese civilisation. Rather than seeing the Cold War as a clashbetween civilisations, it could be seen as an ideological conflict within civilisation. I’m not suggesting such an argument is true, merely that it is feasible.

The point is that Ferguson only defines Western civilisation in terms of what it isn’t. Western civilisation is not a political or economic model, since Japan follows similar patterns and is militarily allied with the United States; it isn’t a shared cultural history or ethnic identity, because both Eastern Europe and Latin America are excluded; it certainly isn’t religious identity, since Ferguson is reluctant to discuss religion at all except to sneer at the irrational backwardness of Muslims.

In failing to outline what he means by “Western civilisation”, Ferguson reveals himself to be incoherent at best, and dishonest at worst: the truth is that “Western civilisation” is whatever he wants it to be, regardless of the facts of history.

4. He grossly oversimplifies the narrative of history

Niall Ferguson is a financial historian: he views the historical narratives in terms of economic movements. That approach isn’t wrong in itself, but it does mean that he tends to find one root economic cause for historical events that are in truth extremely complex. In this episode, he claims that the Western consumerist culture was so attractive that it encouraged dissent in the Soviet Bloc. He essentially states that the appeal of jeans was the reason the Soviet Union fell. I’m not even paraphrasing: he actual dismisses the role of Reagan and Gorbachev in dismantling the Cold War as unimportant compared to the role of Levis.

He doesn’t even present the role of consumerism as the primary reason communism failed: he actually seems to believe it was the only reason. So there’s no reason for any historian to suggest that the Soviet Union’s economic system, it’s political repression, its inability to match American spending or a costly war in Afghanistan was to blame. It’s useless to claim that communism failed “because of its inherent contradictions”, or because of the role of repressed nationalism, religion or civil society. It all ended because the Russian proletariat wanted to dress like James Dean.

Bullshit: everyone knows it was Rocky Balboa that defeated the Soviet Union.

5. He is a self-aggrandising egomaniac

There is a moment in this episode where Ferguson reminisces about his time living in Germany in the late 80s, when he predicted that communism was about to fall; but when he told people, they just laughed and ignored him. But, of course, events proved that he was right all along.

Now it should be pretty obvious that this is extremely fishy: we only have Ferguson’s word that he predicted the end of communism whist the rest of the world ignored him. For all we know he spent his days in Germany hidden in a concrete bunker stocked with six tons of semtex and a missile casing full of pornography in case Ivan ever came over the wall to rape Mrs. Thatcher and force our children into wearing ugly pyjamas. I wouldn’t put it past him. Even if he did predict the end of communism, so what? He’s a right-wing Little Englander: he probably predicted the fall of the Soviet Union ten times before breakfast every day, like a Tory Alice. Just because he was right once doesn’t stop him being wrong about hundreds of other things.

But what purpose does this bizarre incident serve, except to inflate Ferguson’s already massively over-swollen ego? Ferguson has moved on from acting as the West’s cheerleader and now wishes to present himself as its unhappy prophet, fated to always be correct yet doomed to be ignored by his peers, like a Glaswegian Jor-El raging against the blindness of Krypton’s doomed society. It’s as if he is desperately trying to convince us that some new catastrophe is about to befall the world.

Oh, wait….

6. He doesn’t actually prove that the West is history: instead, he downplays diversity in the non-Western world

His evidence for the downfall of Western civilisation is pathetic. Fresh from assuring us that Brazil is becoming slightly less poor and Iran might possibly one day get a weapon first invented in the 40s, his evidence for the end of Western consumerism is that women in Istanbul are rejecting Western fashion trends in favour of the veil.

Except he doesn’t provide any statistical evidence for this: he just states that he noticed more women wearing headscarves in Istanbul than he did fifteen years ago. Now, I am no scientist, but that sounds like something that one could prove empirically by citing statistics, or running a poll, or even interviewing some of these women to see what they thought about Western fashion. Ferguson does none of these things. We just have to take his word for it that there are fewer women in tank tops and boob tubes than there were in the 90s.

What we get instead of actual evidence is a very ugly, EDL/BNP friendly film that shows women buying veils and looking scared in dramatic freeze-frames whilst Ferguson drones on about “the thin end of the wedge of Sharia law,” as if every hijab came with compulsory genital mutilation. It’s intended to terrify, to act as a dog-whistle for the Daily Mail, to inform the audience “IT’S TIME TO PANIC! THE MUSLIMS AREN’T BUYING COKE ANYMORE, NEXT THEY’LL BE BLOWING UP PARLIAMENT.” It’s a cheap, dirty trick and Channel 4 should be ashamed for letting this sham of a historian get away with it.

But even if we accept Ferguson’s unsubstantiated report that the women of Istanbul are rejecting Western dress, that doesn’t prove anything. Istanbul is not Turkey: it is an extremely atypical European city whose historical legacy is profoundly influenced by European civilisation. It isn’t even Turkey’s capital city.

And Turkey isn’t “the Muslim world” (if such a term is even valid)- it’s profoundly atypical. Secular, non-Arabic, Western aligned, a proud member of NATO and an aspiring member of the European Union. True, it has a poor record on human and minority rights, but that hardly seems reason to exclude it from the halls of the West, especially given Western Europe’s own history in that regard. I don’t know what Ferguson has against the place, but this is the second time he’s sought to present it as backwards and barbarous without really doing his research.

And Turkey certainly isn’t the entire non-Western world. Even if we take Ferguson’s fallacy to its ridiculous conclusion and assume that all one billion Muslims in the world reject Western dress, what about the rest of the world? India, China, Japan, South America- all are still perfectly receptive to Western consumerism, and there is so far no evidence to suggest they will reject the Western model. They might in future, of course, if local nationalism comes to the fore, but this is pure speculation that has no basis in current trends. It would be intellectually dishonest to suggest the majority of the world is going to reject the West simply because one city might be, but that is the conclusion Ferguson wishes his audience to draw.


Given that Niall Ferguson is so obviously and so demonstrably a bad historian, one has to wonder why he is so popular. It is certainly the case that he is made for television; the man is certainly photogenic, and had I not been conditioned by his idiotic statements to retch every time he speaks I might describe his voice as oddly attractive. Even I must admit that he is a cuddlier prospect than David Starkey, not to mention better at hiding his prejudices.

He’s certainly colourful: everything he says is calculated to get woolly lefties like myself riled up and writing angry letters and blog posts in response (hang on…). Making controversial statements, however idiotic or ill thought out, certainly gains attention, both for the broadcaster and the arrogant, self-important historian. He is also able to cloak his witless statements in the guise of intellectualism, which I fear has convinced some poor souls that the man is genuinely witty and intelligent instead of a worthless hack recycling theories that were rejected by real historians decades ago.

He ticks a few diversity boxes: admittedly television has no shortage of straight middle-class white men, but it’s somewhat lacking in Scottish Tories, a sight even rarer than golden eagles in modern Britain than golden eagles. He can represent absurd right-wing views whilst claiming the objectivity of a historian, therefore allowing him to present a “balancing” opinion on well-meaning BBC political shows. Naturally real Tories love him for affirming their prejudices and providing intellectual credibility.

But I think the real reason why Ferguson has been so ubiquitous in the last week has to do with the tagline of his series: Is The West History? This is an age in which the self-confidence of the West’s elite has been profoundly shaken by an ongoing financial crisis, by the resultant civil unrest, by protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, by the growing economic muscle of China, by renewed instability in the Middle East and by a tragic natural disaster in Japan that has challenged the reliability of the only currently viable alternative to foreign oil. Niall Ferguson appeals to a Western mind that sees internal stagnation and external chaos and concludes that, once again, the barbarians are howling outside the gates of civilisation.

But this cultural zeitgeist is fleeting. The West isn’t doomed- Ferguson has yet to provide any compelling evidence to suggest that it is. The West may be overtaken in the next century, but there are healthier ways to cope with that fact than blind panic: one should never forget the many advantages (or-*sigh*- “killer apps”) the West still possesses and will continue to possess as the century progresses. Doomsayers like Niall Ferguson are simply exploiting the spirit of their age, fuelling the paranoia of the insecure in order to make a quick buck or draw attention to themselves and their ridiculous theories about the clash of civilisations.

Unless, of course, he actually believes it all. Now there’s a scary thought…