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Civilization: Is the West History? 

Documentary: Niall Ferguson investigates how western civilization came to dominate the world.
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2011  

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Niall Ferguson Niall Ferguson ...  Himself - Presenter 6 episodes, 2011
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Documentary: Niall Ferguson investigates how western civilization came to dominate the world.

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UK

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6 March 2011 (UK) See more »

Also Known As:

Civilization: The West and the Rest See more »

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In defence of the West and...a Woody Allen impression...77.5%
16 May 2012 | by dfle3See all my reviews

Another interesting series from Professor of economic history Niall Ferguson (whose "The ascent of money" TV series is the definitive overview of the recent global financial crisis...and I've reviewed that here too). It doesn't reach the heights of that earlier series, in part because it is more personal and loaded. Ferguson outlines six factors which he argues propelled the West to global dominance. He calls these the six "killer applications" of the West. The 'killer apps' are, according to Ferguson, competition; science; medicine; the rule of law and property rights; consumerism and the Protestant work ethic.

Each 'killer app' has an episode devoted to its history and how it plays out in the modern world. One could quibble with the perspective here. Surely the West's 'killer app' in centuries gone by was the gun (today it would be weapons of mass destruction)? How about European diseases in cultures not immune or tolerant towards them? Ferguson's 'killer apps' are more the 'friendly to our potential rivals for world domination' variety...as in he provides the 'white armband' 'killer apps'...something more...noble. Now that the West may have run out of time to make the world a better place through its practices, the West is now seeking the next generation of global superpowers to do what it never did...make the world a better place for all. Well, that's the cynic in me! The English, after all, did have their conscience pricked by their treatment of native Americans only after they had destroyed them...it's only at that point that you can talk about 'human rights'.

As always, Ferguson comes up with some interesting facts about histories you did not know about, or histories you had forgotten...or ones which you thought you knew, but he sets you straight on. For instance, the episode devoted to medicine has an horrific account of what the German empire got up to in Africa, and it is utterly repugnant and despicable...but it does make an explicit connection with the philosophy of Hitler, who was influenced by the German pseudo-science of racial superiority, coming out of Africa. The story of what one German 'scientist' had an African woman do was sickening. This may also be the episode where England's King Edward, I believe, says of the Japanese emperor (not to his face, of course!) that he is "a prize monkey"...a response to seeing the emperor wearing western style clothing, I believe.

More lighthearted was Ferguson's take on the events of May, 1968, in France. It's contrasted superbly with what was happening in countries occupied by the Soviet Union. It amused me that the pinnacle of French intellectual aims at this time was...access to female only dormitories for the male students! Those with an interest in music may also find some titbits to follow up on for this episode...revolutionary acts that the English speaking world would be ignorant of, I'm guessing (I may seek cds by Olympic, who are called "the Czech Beatles"!...their song "Zelva" is mentioned as well as Plastic People Of The Universe, who have an interesting 'song' called "100 points").

Ferguson is more pessimistic on the episode to do with consumerism, saying: "All we risk being left with is a vacuous consumer society and a relativistic culture that regards any theory, no matter how outlandish, as just as valid as whatever it was we used to believe in. The trouble is, as G.K.Chesterton famously said: 'When men lose their faith they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything'".

At times Ferguson's argument is spherical...for instance, what is the point of his discussion of climate change in his episode devoted to the Protestant work ethic? Is it that he finds this science "crap", as Australia's current opposition leader, Tony Abbott, does? Just another false prophecy? In any case, the selection of the Prostetant work ethic as a 'killer app' is controversial, perhaps. And again, Ferguson's argument is muddy. Is he saying that there are purely pragmatic reasons to believe in God, for reasons unrelated to the truth of 'His' existence? It seems that he is saying this, or at least implying it.

In this series Ferguson nails his colours to his mast more forcefully. He's a conservative. He espouses recognisable conservative concerns...ones no doubt argued for in the English speaking West, at least. Fortunately for Ferguson, he is amiable and one is happy to go along with what he is saying...he's a cuddly conservative...avuncular. Hmm...dare I say this...his presentation style reminds me of Griff Rhys Jones. And he wants to be liked to, it seems...he has a very interesting thesis on the 'decline' of the West, which he relates to Sigmund Freud (by way of sociologist Max Weber)...but not without doing a passable Woody Allen impression!

I have no doubt that former conservative Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, would like this documentary series. He often used the phrase "black armband view of history". Ferguson is perhaps concerned about the decline of the West and tries convincing himself that they are still a force. If he can't convince himself, he surely wants to convince his audience, as that is where the West's future lies...a self-belief in their history and identity...it's a plea to 'keep the faith' in what made the West great and to 'keep on keeping on' doing that. Failing that, that the new non-Western superpowers rule in a way which the West never saw the need too...as it thought it always reign supreme.


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