The decline of the West… again

A few years ago Niall Ferguson thought Islam would bring about the end of the West. Now he’s scared of China.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

In Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, the trendy young historian Irwin tries to spice up a lesson by sudden reference to Christ’s foreskin.

His clever-clever students, drilled on their old-school teacher’s academic discipline and trained in rebuffing his sexual advances, are unimpressed by what they see as a duff attempt by their young teacher to be down with the kids. But Irwin, undeterred, carries on with his discourse, explaining that his example is not a presentational affectation to get their attention, but the sort of surprising factoid they should be focusing on in history. In Bennett’s critique of contemporary education, Irwin stands as the symbol of the modern obsession with novelty and style over truth and meaning: we know from the outset that he becomes a TV historian, drafted in to advise the government over how to spin the suspension of trial by jury.

Given that Bennett has admitted that the character of Irwin was directly inspired by Niall Ferguson, it’s not surprising that there was more of a hint of this scene in the Harvard professor’s new Channel 4 series Civilisation: Is the West History? He began in a school classroom, which was a televisual prompt that this was a serious-yet-accessible educational programme, but perhaps also a nod to Ferguson’s role in advising his old friend Michael Gove on the new history curriculum. ‘Who can tell me’, he asked, ‘why the West came to dominate the rest?’ The kids came back with a series of answers, ranging from military superiority and accumulation of knowledge to the developments of international trade and exploration.

These all seemed reasonable responses from a group of 14-year-olds in history class, but Ferguson had a glint in his eye. ‘What if I told you’, he intoned, ‘I could boil it down to six things… which I’m going to call “killer apps”?’ The kids looked rather crestfallen at this, as though they’d been expecting a lecture by an eminent and high-profile academic historian, and instead got a supply teacher with an acoustic guitar. Fortunately, we moved on from the classroom and off to watching Ferguson wander around modern China discoursing further on the killer apps idea before he asked them to call him Niall.

It also turns out that of the six killer apps he was so excited about, two (development of expert knowledge, international trade through capitalism) were mentioned by the schoolkids and the third (military muscle) has generally formed the argument of several of his books. Fortunately, Ferguson’s self-confidence is legendary: he already seems to have forgotten that a few years ago he was convinced that the biggest threat to the West was Islam rather than China and that the first step to Western supremacy was the invasion of Iraq.

Ferguson talks at a fast pace and fires out lots of information which generally makes him look smart on TV, because he sounds like he’s bravely and innovatively riffing on ideas and challenging received wisdom, while somehow churning out received wisdom and playing the same notes over and over again. If historians are like rock groups, which is a very Niall Ferguson thought, then he would be Status Quo.

That said, it’s very easy to have a pop at Ferguson and it’s that love-to-hate tendency which accounts for his high profile. He infuriates liberals because, as a thoughtful classical liberal, he’s sometimes willing to follow some seemingly liberal ideas through to their illiberal conclusion (he supported the Iraq War), which is upsetting to those who think liberalism is the nice form of capitalism (Lib Dem voters). He annoys others because he supported Thatcher and has read Marx, and it turns out that Marx actually said some very complex things about capitalism and human progress which went deeper than simply concluding he didn’t much like it.

Ferguson is beloved by right-wingers because he talks up empire, derides moral relativism and hates Islam. As James Heartfield has noted previously, he holds some peculiar, if recognisably mainstream, views on racial intermingling, and yet has dedicated this new series and accompanying book to his partner, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whom I believe does not hail from his native Glasgow.

Whatever his failings as an academic historian or public intellectual, then, he undoubtedly has a journalist’s talent for getting under the skin of contemporary society’s concerns. Following self-consciously in the footsteps of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation (currently being repeated on BBC HD), this is intended as a celebration of Western values at the same time as the entity which passes for the West seems set to disintegrate economically, and perhaps already has done so philosophically and morally. Getting an hour on Channel 4 on Sunday evening to talk about industrial developments in medieval China is no mean feat, and his suggestion that the West’s success lay in its ability to wilfully steal from the East, and decide what was worth using and what was not, is an intriguing conceit.

If you wanted to know more about modern China and how the West could compete with its growth, however, you would have been much better off watching an actual piece of journalism in the shape of BBC2’s excellent The Chinese Are Coming, which was a lucid and informative look at how China has risen off the back of Western economic decline and political rudderlessness. In the backdrop to the mealy-mouthed reaction to the unexpected flowering of democracy and revolution in the Middle East – where some commentators from left and right respond with terror at the thought of what ‘Western values’ might mean – Ferguson has once again proven that he knows how to ask the right questions. His answers may prove to be a little off, but you wouldn’t expect otherwise.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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Topics Culture


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