on Niall Ferguson’s Civilization.Work in the observatorium of Taqi al-Din (Detail).
C. 1574-1595. Wikimedia Commons PD-1923 US.
Civilization: The West and the Rest
The Penguin Press, November 2011. 402 pp.
A dozen years back, I fell into conversation in a bar room in one of America’s most diverse zip codes (New Orleans) on the subject of diversity. My companion was a jazz musician in his seventies, mostly blind and mostly black, and I’ve never forgotten what he said: “The nice thing about jazz is, when you’re making a list of the all-time greats, you don’t have to remind yourself to include some black cats. You just tell it the way it went down, and there they are.” No doubt he meant many things by this — isn’t that the way a jazz riff works? — but one of them, surely, was that the only way to get to real cultural diversity is to tell stories in which the diversity is real. Anything else — anything resembling the attempt to be inclusive as an end in itself — is just you trying to make yourself sound good.
His remark raises a question for readers of Niall Ferguson’s latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, on how those quaint peoples gathered along the western edge of the Eurasian continent between 1500 and 2000 B.C. came to dominate the rest of the globe. The West’s rise to dominance in that period is, of course, a fact — even though that dominance might now be seen as fizzling out, to what extent we can’t yet tell. Unexpectedly, perhaps, given the tone of his earlier book Empire (2003), Ferguson is clear both about the mix of good and ill brought on by Western ascendancy (his disgust at the abuses of nineteenth-century colonialism is as palpable as Adam Hochschild’s in King Leopold’s Ghost) and also about the emergent signs of its decline.
The question, however, is whether Ferguson’s explanations for the West’s rise and (incipient) fall are a case of “telling it the way it went down,” or an effort to make himself sound good — in this case, not to the establishment progressives at dinner in Santa Monica or Hampstead, but to that other establishment, the conservative one at, say, the American Enterprise Institute, or on Fox News, or in the few remaining literate corner offices of Wall Street. To determine whether it is Ferguson the gifted, dispassionate historian or Ferguson the conservative Cultural Warrior who is mainly responsible for this book isn’t easy. I can’t bring myself to question Ferguson’s intention to provide a fair-minded, informative account. It’s reassuring that right off the bat he distances himself from Kenneth Clark’s 1969 book of the same name, criticizing its exclusion of pre-Christian civilizations and those of the East, as well as Clark’s “high and mighty” privileging of “High Visual Culture.” By contrast, Ferguson writes, “my idea of civilization is as much about sewage pipes as flying buttresses, if not more so, because without efficient public plumbing cities are death traps, turning rivers and wells into havens for the bacterium Vibrio cholerae.”
A superb deconstruction of Niall Ferguson’s latest tome from the L.A. Review of Books.