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Niall Ferguson and the West's Death Spiral

History professor Niall Ferguson speaks of the great divergence being over. In other words the rest of the world has copied stuff from the West and is catching up and Ferguson sees Western Civilization as losing a global win-loss game and its predominance. The West, he says, is in a death spiral. The West can pull out of it he says, but as he told Steven Colbert on the Colbert Report on 7 November 2011, it is unlikely that it will.

Ferguson is emphasizing competition between civilizations. More than I would, he is de-emphasizing nation-states, East and West, cooperating in peaceful trade and cultural interactions. Ferguson has appeared to see British imperialism in places like India as beneficial for the Indians. He seems to be saying that a loss in the ability of the West to impose means that it will be imposed upon.

Civilizations in death spirals, or falling, collapsing or decaying" has been an overuse of metaphors. There will be surprises down the road. There are always surprises. But don't look for China launching world conquest or bet on military men overthrowing Denmark's democratic institutions. The Roman Empire didn't fall or go into a death spiral. It disintegrated politically, its rulers unable to hold conquered peoples together under their centralized rule. Empires are not tribes or nations. Empires come and go.

Conquered peoples haven't always accepted cultural offerings of the conquerors, but cultural diffusions live on. They are voluntary. The Islamic world has been blending culturally with the Western world, to the chagrin on some who want a return to seventh century or whatever. I'm not much of an optimist generally, but I don't see the jihadi extremists defeating Western ways. It's unlikely, for example, that women wearing the habib will become common in the West or that Christianity, agnosticism and atheism will spiral into oblivion.

Cultural diffusion has been around from millennia and it's a mistake to equate it with hostile competition.

This is about Ferguson's book Civilization: the West and the Rest. A great variety of comments on the book are at Amazon.com.

Copyright © 2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.