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…

1 comment:

  1. I concur with your point that 'East/West' split of the 'Cold War' was a rift within a shared EUROPEAN culture. I always reckoned the 'Social Democratic' tinge of the pre-89 EEC/EU was a calculated ideological response ('tolerated' by the USA)aimed at weaning European labour away from the 'attractions' of Communism (see France, Italy, Spain, Greece), and once the Wall came down the focus would shift. Subsequent EU Treaties have centred on a Corporate friendly 'Single Market'. The precipitous collapse of Communism was 'bad' for European Social Democracy, but a gift for unbridled Capital. In my youth, I fondly hoped for a steady amelioration of conditions in 'Communist' Eastern Europe, and the emergence of a vital, progressive and (genuinely) Social Democratic unified whole Europe. A Europe that might be good for its people, and good for the world.

    Should I need evidence to cite this did not happen- step forward Vile Ferguson, 'Public Intellectual', peddling his right-wing propaganda with all the shameless alacrity of a Stalinist Commissar.

    Another excellent, well argued, and thought provoking post- a necessary antidote to Ferguson's poisonous nonsense.