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Niall Ferguson

Nov 10, 2011: Niall Ferguson labors hard in the vineyard of big-picture history. That, in my opinion, is to be respected. I have not always agreed with him, and I am uncomfortable with some of his grandiose declarations, but he is creative is factual enough to make him interesting, as in this recent lecture-video titled "The 6 Killer Apts of Prosperity."

My response to his claim that the West is in a death spiral that it is not likely to pull itself out of is here.

Before Nov 10, 2011:

In describing the past, Niall Ferguson makes evaluations that leave him with a conception problem not uncommon among historians. One comment on Ferguson's new book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, for example, found at Amazon.com, by Simia Dei, reads:

Ferguson beating the same old drum. If you are a Spenglerian then you'll fall in line with the argument and if not you won't. Well argued, as usual, but not entirely convincing and a tad on the hysterical and fatalistic side. Ultimately not convincing... but it is just a book to go along with another of his documentaries.

Actually, Ferguson is not Spenglerian. He speaks of institutions as not organic and given to old age the way individual humans are. Today he is not into talk of declining civiilizations. But Ferguson has had a questionable view on imperialism. In Civilization and in other works he claimed or suggested that imperialism on the whole was a force that did good more than it did bad, that on the whole Britain's "liberal" imperialism was a progressive force – an acceptance of the conquest and coercion that makes empire possible.

The historian Simon Schama is not with Ferguson on this subject. Schama's History of Britain television series, described Britain's good intentions in modern times. But in closing his series and summing up his attitude on imperialism, Schama studiously neglected to come down on the side of imperialism. Referring to Churchill, who supported empire, and George Orwell, another famous Briton, who opposed it, Schama said:

… It's our cultural bloodstream, the secret of who we are, and it tells us to let go of the past, even as we honour it. To lament what ought to be lamented and to celebrate what should be celebrated. And if in the end, that history turns out to reveal itself as a patriot, well then I think that neither Churchill nor Orwell would have minded that very much, and as a matter of fact, neither do I.

Ferguson does make points in his writings that are cogent, and he is devoted to accuracy. No fault will be expressed here with his criticism of people who blame colonialism for whatever backwardness – mainly economic – that they perceive to exist in Muslim societies. Here Ferguson is in agreement with the Duke University scholar Timur Kuran's work, The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East.

Ferguson complains that in Britain there is an "...imperial guilt [that] can lead to self-flagellation" and "very simplistic judgments," and he adds that, "The rulers of western Africa prior to the European empires were not running some kind of scout camp. They were engaged in the slave trade."

Ferguson writes of the world's need for another liberal empire like that of Britain's former empire, and he wants the U.S. to fill that position. At Amazon.com a critic, Jeffery Steele, writes that in Colossus (2004), "Ferguson does not so much define 'empire', as he does un-define it by giving the widely-used term so broad a meaning as to basically stand for any great power." Steele continues:

But the weakest section of the book is its holding up of Imperial Britain as a model for the United States in the twenty-first century. Ferguson seems lost in a time warp here (and I speak both as a supporter of a strong U.S. foreign policy and an admirer of the British Empire).

In his final paragraph in Colossus, Ferguson writes:

The question Americans must ask themselves is just how transient they wish their predominance to be. Though the barbarians have already knocked at the gates – once, spectacularly – imperial decline in this case seems more likely to come, as it came to Gibbon's Rome, from within.

There is something unhistoric in Ferguson's view. Yes, the Roman empire fell to invading German tribes because of weakness from within. Rome was afraid to arm members of its empire. Rome was afraid of rebellion. Peoples within the Roman Empire were a threat to Rome because they detested Rome. The Roman Empire was insufficiently mobilized as nation to defend itself because it was not a nation, it was an empire. The Roman Empire was a brutal and clumsy dictatorship, and comparisons with the United States, I believe, are not appropriate. And, in my view, it is not appropriate for people in the U.S. to view people outside the U.S. as barbarians that we necessarily must control or subdue on our own, as an empire.

World War II changed the world. Looking at empires as international bodies, countries that had been colonized joined other independent countries in that largest of international bodies, the United Nations. Britain and France lost their colonies, and empire became a dirty word. It was under the aegis of the UN that wars were fought in Korea and against Saddam Hussein's aggression against Kuwait. And it was under UN Resolution #1973 that NATO places were bombing in Libya against the Gaddafi regime. In viewing an American "empire" as his hope for order and well-being in the world, Ferguson is distorting the word "empire" and ignoring an historical reality.

So what is Spenglerian about Ferguson? Oswald Spengler wrote of the decline of the West, a decline that was cultural. Ferguson sees the good of Britain's imperialism as cultural, and cultural divisions he sees as civilizational divisions. The reader at Amazon.com who praised his book the West and the Rest, the only reviewer of five as of today to give the book five stars, writes: "It is an eloquent defence of our civilization's values."

Writing in Britain's Guardian issue of 25 March 2011, Bernard Porter complains that Ferguson's Civilization: The West and the Rest is "unsuited to being taught in schools." Porter writes of Ferguson's wish to inculcate the young with a "sense of cultural identity" to prevent the collapse of our civilization. Porter writes that there are problems with using history to teach identity and adds,

The demand usually comes from politicians; but surely this is their job, which they could do much better – by preserving the institutions the British are most proud of. History is too important and valuable in other ways – helping us to understand "other histories than our own," for one – to be prostituted to this end.

On Ferguson mixing culture and civilization with his support for imperialism, Dan Hind, who also writes for the Guardian, opines:

Conquest is the business of particular political organizations, not of civilizations. The spread of cultural goods is a complicated process, and I am not sure that the popularity of, say, Japanese food in London, is best understood in terms of conquest or subjugation.

Hind writes that Ferguson

...surely underplays the aggression and cultural chauvinism that this competition [among the imperial powers] generated. At the height of their powers, Spain and Portugal lacked almost everything that Ferguson takes to be distinctive about Western civilization. If the creation of the Atlantic trade radically increases European wealth, then an explanation of European global expansion should surely explore in greater detail how it was achieved.

Ferguson holds that the U.S. withdrawing from military involvement in Vietnam was a mistake because it condemned Vietnam to 30 years of Communism. The mistake, as many of us see it, was the U.S. intervening in Vietnam. The French leader Charles deGaulle was right in warning President Kennedy against it. That war had its origins in French imperialism – an odious historical development whose end should be celebrated along with the end of Britain's empire.

I side with former President Franklin Roosevelt, whose opposition to British imperialism are well-known and who said, "Anything must be better than to live under French colonial rule."

In reading Ferguson's hefty book The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of West (2006), I find nothing about imperialism as an important ingredient in the creation of the First World War – a significant omission in understanding the past. Ferguson writes about the war having roots in the 1880s, but he mentions imperialism with militarism as merely a Leftist prediction of a coming "almighty crisis."

In his equally hefty The Pity of War: Explaining World War I (1999) he writes that,

If there was a war in which imperialism should have caused [pause] it was the war between British and Russia which failed to break out in the 1870s and 1880s; or the war between Britain and France which failed to break out in the 1880s and 1890s.

But who is saying that imperialism had to create war everywhere and always between the imperial powers? (Pacts among thieves have not been uncommon, so why not agreements among the imperial powers, however tenuous?)

The First World War indeed had origins in the Habsburg emperor, Franz Joseph, trying to hold onto rule over people he thought he had the God-given right to rule. Many of emperor Franz Joseph's fellow Austrians accepted and supported his imperialism and the war he started against Serbia. Germany's king and ministers were in support of Habsburg imperialism and supported Austria's war against Serbia, and the war then became the so-called Great War. Today, support for imperialism has been erased from the minds of Austrians and Germans. Maybe someday Ferguson will catch up with them.

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