The elevator pitch for Niall Ferguson's "Civilization: The West and the Rest" is simple: Western civilization has risen to dominate world affairs over...more The elevator pitch for Niall Ferguson's "Civilization: The West and the Rest" is simple: Western civilization has risen to dominate world affairs over the last five hundred years, a record unmatched in world history and at odds with its population and geography relative to other countries and civilizations, due to six "killer apps" that have provided an advantage on the international stage. Further, it may be the West's loss of those same "apps" that is leading to decline now.
Ferguson pegs the rise of the West to dominance at about the same time as the discovery of the Americas, and so, having just finished a look at that chapter of history in "1491" and "1493", I decided to take a closer look at Ferguson's argument. What was the secret of the West? And could we really be headed towards decline or collapse?
Where many histories today focus on the specific "modules" of history, drilling down to look closely at specific persons or events (think Goodwin's "Team of Rivals" on Abraham Lincoln's political management or Horowitz's "Midnight Rising" on the John Brown raid at Harper's Ferry), Ferguson takes another tact by looking at the broad strokes of history to find themes, the grand "narratives" of history, as he calls them. Where other historians dig into the details, Ferguson wants to look at the big picture. As he explains in the preface:
"Watching my three children grow up, I had the uneasy feeling that they were learning less history than I had learned at their age, not because they had bad teachers but because they had bad history books and even worse examinations. Watching the financial crisis [of the late 2000s] unfold, I realized that they were far from alone, for it seemed as if only a handful of people in the banks and treasuries of the Western world had more than the sketchiest information about the last Depression. For roughly thirty years, young people at Western schools and universities have been given the idea of a liberal education, without the substance of historical knowledge. They have been taught isolated ‘modules’, not narratives, much less chronologies. They have been trained in the formulaic analysis of document excerpts, not in the key skill of reading widely and fast. They have been encouraged to feel empathy with imagined Roman centurions or Holocaust victims, not to write essays about why and how their predicaments arose."
With that flippant, matter of fact, almost "devil-may-care" attitude then, Ferguson determines to take the reader through a grand narrative of the last five hundred years, identifying six "killer apps" that Western civilization adopted to rise to a dominance unmatched in breadth and duration in human history. It is this broad overview, as told in Ferguson's urgent and quick-witted voice, that makes the extended argument so interesting and in an age of multicultural relativism, refreshing. Welding his argument--not just about the cause of Western civilization's success, but also that "the historian can commune with the dead by imaginatively reconstructing their experiences" to inform and predict the future--Ferguson spins together the documents, events, and personalities to form a narrative, a story, about why the West succeeded in the face of larger, richer, and, at the onset, more wealthy civilizations.
The "tools" to which he attributes the rise of the West are likened to "apps," downloadable software that augment computers and mobile devices. By looking at the narrative, Ferguson finds the roots of the West's success, as well as why, perhaps, the West as begun to decline while other civilizations advance. Not specific to the West, but, like the real world apps in the metaphor, the values can be "downloaded" by any culture for similar results, and in the closing Ferguson addresses the adaptation by non-Western cultures that have done, and are doing, just that with success.
The "apps" Ferguson finds, while not necessarily surprising, are informative: competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumption and the birth of the "consumer society" (“without which the Industrial Revolution would have been unsustainable”) and Max Weber's Protestant “work ethic”. While the narrative is anything but chronological, Ferguson's grasp of history and the sweeping strokes with which he paints the narrative provide fascinating reading. One cannot sense, however, that Ferguson, almost anything but apologetic, is on the verge of glorying in the success of the British Empire during its hey-day as a colonial power, noting with statistical explanation the improvements brought to the world through Western influence, whether it be in medicine, literacy, and education. Or blue jeans, for in the end, one side effect of rise of the West is not diversity, but conformity as cultures imitate and emulate Western styles, habits, and philosophy.
Ironically to this writer, who sees such deep and lasting value in the political institutions of the West, Ferguson notes that one area where the West has not been uniformly imitated is the political.
"Only in the realm of political institutions does there remain significant global diversity, with a wide range of governments around the world resisting the idea of the rule of law, with its protection of individual rights, as the foundation for meaningful representative government."
In other words, we'll take your blue jeans, your medicine, even your work ethic, but you can keep the Bill of Rights and representative government, they say. Indeed, it is that imitation of the West that has brought China from the depths of the Cultural Revolution to heights today when its economy can weather the financial crisis without more than a hiccup.
After Ferguson's narrative through the six "apps", then, we reach the essential question suggested by any study of the West's rise: is the West now in decline? And if so, is it too late to reverse?
Perhaps not. Although China's rise seems ominous, and indeed, Ferguson cites China's relative nonchalance towards doing business with the dictators and warlords of the world business "it's just business" as evidence that China is more concerned about rising than its popularity, China still faces problems that could arrest its progress, especially from social unrest, political pressure from its growing and unrepresented middle-class, or friction with its neighbors in Asia.
Noting that a "retreat from the mountains of the Hindu Kush" (Afghanistan) seems to proceed the fall of any empire--be it Alexander's, British, Russian, or most recently American--Ferguson is unwilling to give up on the West, yet. No, the things that set the West apart are no longer distinct, but nor has the entire package of "apps" been embraced.
"The Chinese have got capitalism. The Iranians have got science. The Russians have got democracy. The Africans are (slowly) getting modern medicine. And the Turks have got the consumer society. But what this means is that Western modes of operation are not in decline but are flourishing nearly everywhere, with only a few remaining pockets of resistance. A growing number of Resterners [Ferguson's name for non-Westerners] are sleeping, showering, dressing, working, playing, eating, drinking and travelling like Westerners. Moreover, as we have seen, Western civilization is more than just one thing; it is a package. It is about political pluralism (multiple states and multiple authorities) as well as capitalism; it is about the freedom of thought as well as the scientific method; it is about the rule of law and property rights as well as democracy. Even today, the West still has more of these institutional advantages than the Rest. The Chinese do not have political competition. The Iranians do not have freedom of conscience. They get to vote in Russia, but the rule of law there is a sham. In none of these countries is there a free press. These differences may explain why, for example, all three countries lag behind Western countries in qualitative indices that measure‘national innovative development’ and ‘national innovation capacity’."
True, the West is not without its faults, he says, but our downfall will come from within, not from external pressure. It's the loss of the "killer apps" by our culture that will, in the long and short run, lead to our continued decline. Don't mistake the adoption, however, by others as the reason for the decline of the West. Rather, it is the West's abandonment of the values that brought them prominence that is leading to the decline. Here, again, Ferguson picks up the theme in his preface--we must learn from history. If we are to maintain the great values that gave the West its rise, we must study and learn the great works--the documents--that teach those values.* Add up all the values, and, like any follower of Churchill, it adds up to courage and action.
"Today, as then [1938 and the German Nazi threat to Western civilization], the biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilizations, but by our own pusillanimity – and by the historical ignorance that feeds it."
If you're interested in a brief version of Ferguson's views on the six "apps" that he discusses in the book, check out his speech at TED.
* Ferguson's recommended "standard works" for Western civilization are:
The King James Bible Isaac Newton's Principa John Locke's Two Treatises of Government Adam Smith's Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species William Shakespeare's plays Selected speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill Also, if he could select only one of the above, it would be Shakespeare's collected works. Related articles
I'll be the first to admit that my interests in the historical have generally been Eurocentric, especially the Roman Republic and Empire. Recently, th...moreI'll be the first to admit that my interests in the historical have generally been Eurocentric, especially the Roman Republic and Empire. Recently, though, I found reason to pick up Charles C. Mann's "1491," and I have had a hard time putting it down since.
The children's nursery rhyme reminds us that "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." Just this last week we've celebrated Thanksgiving and the mythologized first meal shared by "Pilgrims" and Native Americans in the early years of Captain John Smith's Plymouth Colony in the 1620s. But what came before Europeans in the "New World" of North and South America? What was already here when they arrived? Was there much more than a few human sacrificing Aztecs (in South and Central America) and nomadic tribes in North America?
Quite the contrary, says Mann. Rather, he says, the land was full of people, developed into complex cultures and polities. For example, and he expands on many, the Maya controlled an empire that was larger than any in the old world, both in size and population. The Mexica (pronounced Meh-shi-ka) had a literary culture full of metaphor and simile, and a rhetorical tradition that enabled them to meet Franciscan friars sent to convert them on equal ground. In North America, as far as the shores of New England, the coast was full hundreds of thousands of Native Americans--the nations of the Micmac, Passamoquoddy, Abenaki, Mahican, and the Massachusett, among others.
Indeed, there were so many people in both North and South America that Mann wonders if settlement by European colonists would have been possible but for the effects of disease on the native population. So devastating were diseases such as small pox, influenza, and non-sexually transmitted hepatitis that civilizations such as the Maya may have been destroyed before Europeans even landed on the shores of South America. Similarly, the nations of New England, which had filled the land and had traded with early French and English merchants during the 16th century, almost disappeared over a period as short as two to five years.
Why was disease so devastating? While not the central focus of the book, or even the examination of "what was here before 1492," Mann explains how the relatively limited genetic stock of Native Americans presented insufficient diversity for the native populations to survive the diseases that had been active in Europe and Africa for thousands of years. Native Americans were in no way inferior--they just came from fewer people and thus had less genetic diversity, had never faced diseases as the Europeans (and their pigs) carried and therefore fewer of them survived the introduction of the diseases to the American peoples. The result was that within a few years, entire nations and their cultures all but vanished from the Earth...leaving the appearance of a empty land with only a few roving tribes. Indeed, says Mann, the reason those tribes were roving may be because they had been cut down from populations levels necessary to support a stable and stationary settlement.
Among some of the other interesting tales and studies that Mann shares in his book is the story of Tisquantum, who we know as Squanto. His name, which he may have given himself, meant something along the lines of "wrath of God," and Mann suggests that when he appeared in the Plymouth Colony, his intentions may not have been as benign as have been told to us in elementary school pageants. Born an original New Englander, he was kidnapped by Europeans as a souvenir and taken to Spain. Eventually, he ended up in England in the home of a rich merchant, again as an oddity to show to visitors. Learning English, he eventually convinced the merchant to send him back to America. However, in the time between his kidnapping and return, hepatitis ran rampant through his and the other nations living in what is not modern-day Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine, wiping out his people and others. He returned to an empty land and was captured by a rival nation, who later used him and his ability to speak English to liaison with the Plymouth Colony. He, in return, may have tried to use the colonists as leverage to take over the rival nation.
1491 is a fascinating book, and a fascinating piece of history, covering a period of history that we may have spent less time examining than is merited given the size and scope of the civilizations that preceded European colonization of the Americas. Containing cities that dwarfed Rome in its greatest day and Paris and London at the time, the Americas in 1491 were, by Mann's telling, a busy, populated and colorful place, and it deserves a place in our histories and archives alongside those of the other great civilizations of history.
It's a rare day that I'm willing to give a full five out of five stars to a book. It's rarer still that I'll give the five stars, and then put it back...moreIt's a rare day that I'm willing to give a full five out of five stars to a book. It's rarer still that I'll give the five stars, and then put it back on my bed-stand for continual reference in my future reading.
It's just that kind of a book, and every bibliophile should read it. In "How to Read Literature like a Professor," Thomas Foster has given us a delightful little romp through literature, producing a guide to the themes, symbolism, ironies, allusions, and plots that reoccur through-out almost all of the fiction we read. Whether it's Charles Dickens or Charles Schulz or even Tom Clancy, Foster's collection of essays are each a fun and enjoyable guide to what you've been reading, and what you will read, when you pick up a work of fiction.
For example: in chapter 10, "It's more than just rain or snow," we read that "weather is never just weather. It's never just rain." Rather, Foster says, instead of providing just a setting, a backdrop to the story, weather in fiction is rooted in our fears and hopes. In addition to appearing as a feature character in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic biblical tale of the great flood, it makes notable and significant sightings in mythologies from all over the world, often, if not always, appearing and appealing to our fear of drowning. "Rain," Foster says, "prompts ancestral memories of the most profound sort. So water in great volume speaks to us at a very basic level of being.
So rain--and floods--signifies drowning? Kind of, but it doesn't stop there. Citing D.H. Lawrence's "The Virgin and the Gypsy" (1930), which I've not read yet, Foster sees it as a "big eraser that destroys but also allows a brand-new start."
Kind of like baptism? Yeah. If you're part of that Christian tradition, this is what baptism is: death of the old, imperfect, and flawed man, and rebirth of a new man. And such is the role that this element--rain and floods--plays in literature. Well, most of the time. Fog can represent a lack of clarity, sunshine hope and clarity. In short, weather is rarely just setting.
That's rain and weather. Each chapter is a written with a quick and light wit that allows a reader, whatever his level of experience with literature, to follow along, see the theme, enjoy the examples, and find a taste for the point. Other chapter titles include the following:
• "When in Doubt, It's from Shakespeare..." • "…Or the Bible" • "It's All Political" • "Marked for Greatness" • "Nice to Eat with You: Acts of Communion" and, of course, • "Nice to Eat You: Acts of Vampire." (Stephanie Meyer ought to pick that one up to understand why people who love literature hate Twilight).
Weighing in at just under three hundred pages, "How to Read Literature Like a Professor" doesn't require deep commitment, deep concentration, or deep literature reading. My brain-candy of choice usually falls in the science-fiction or fantasy categories, and yet, I've started to find the themes and allusions and ironies that I saw in classics like "Howards End" and "Bleak House" appearing there, too. Whatever you read, it applies the symbolism that Foster walks through. As a result, my experience, whatever I'm reading, has been more enjoyable since I started it. It's that moment of sudden realization when the whole theme of Steven Erikson "Book of the Fallen" subplot (and there are a lot of them) is an allusion, or imitation, to Spartacus (I think). Or that the journey (all journeys are quests) across the water is a journey of transformation, where the fallen man chooses to start a new life, emerging from the water, as it were, reborn.
It's fun. A lot of fun. Even just reading the book itself is fun. To boot, at the end Foster provides a list of all the books he refers to throughout his essays to allow you, the reader, to pick them up and read further. And what could be more fun about reading than delving into great fiction?
Pick it up, start reading, and enhance your general reading experience. If you're going to read fiction, and you should, you might as well get the most out of it. (less)
I'm always on the look out for new books to read (but what I really need is more time). Suggestions from friends, mentors, reviewers, blogs, and refer...moreI'm always on the look out for new books to read (but what I really need is more time). Suggestions from friends, mentors, reviewers, blogs, and references in other books send me off on an endless cycle: hear about a book, find it on Amazon (or the library), purchase (or check out) said book, bring it home, put it on my bed-stand with great anticipation, read ten pages to a reference of another book, and...repeat. The result is a two-stack, five books per stack, "pile up" next to my bed that has resulted in a reading bottle neck. And, believe me you, it's a bottleneck that affords me more enjoyable hours than I've ever passed in traffic.
That's all really just a long way of saying that in reading Charles Hill's "Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order" I constantly found myself adding new books to some real or imagined book list that I may, or may not, ever get a chance to read. Every chapter of Grand Strategies was full of new books that sounded interesting and fascinating. Some--like Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Salmon Rushdie's "Satanic Verses," or Thucydides's "The Peloponnesian War"--I had read and could quickly relate. Others--Xenophon's "The Persian Expedition" or Marcel Proust's "In Search of Lost Time"--were new, at least to me. Worse, especially for my book list, Hill manages to craft his dialogue about each in such a way as to bestow meaning and insight beyond a cursory reading of the text.
For example, though I've often heard it referenced and cited as powerful piece of poetry, never had I seen John Milton's "Paradise Lost" as a commentary on war and the modern polity. And yet, perhaps it is.
"But far beyond the politics of the day 'Paradise Lost' is Milton's comprehensive commentary on modern warfare, revolution, founding a polity; on strategy, leadership, intelligence, individual choice under conditions of modern statecraft; and on the justification of God's ways to men."
Suddenly, the war in heaven, through Milton's eyes, becomes a proxy for competing views of the world worked out during the Oliver Cromwell English Civil War.
In Hill's eye, fiction is more than just a story. In literature, we see the great ideas and forces that move history worked out, argued, and recorded. The "international world of states and their modern system is a literary realm," he argues. "[I]t is where the greatest issues of the human condition are played out." Nothing may come closer to a thesis for his opus. He continues:
"A sacral nature must infuse world order if it is to be legitimate. that order is not to be identified with a particular social system, but to legitimate, the system must hint at the underlying divinely founded order. The modern Westphalian system was conceived when such was the case, but with the Enlightenment's addition of secularism, science, reason, and democracy, the system increasingly spurned , then forgot, its legitimizing sources of authority.[...] Revolutionary ideology radicalized secularism, science and reason into the task of erasing original sin, o perfecting humanity--all requiring terror to create "the New Man." Modern efforts to create a sovereignty potent enough to fill the void produced the statist monstrosities of Stalin and Hitler. America became an empire but never gained the understanding to go with it. China is now on its own misguided course."
Thought provoking, insightful, and, of course, full of literature to read when you finish it (including a bibliography of primary and secondary sources that will keep you busy for several years), and reread, Hill's "Grand Strategies" is a worthy addition to your bed-stand stack. Just make sure you put it on top.(less)
When I was given this for Christmas, I was at first a little skeptical. My parents, and I think my in-laws, had all read or mentioned the Eyres as tho...moreWhen I was given this for Christmas, I was at first a little skeptical. My parents, and I think my in-laws, had all read or mentioned the Eyres as those parenting self-help book writers that left parents feeling overwhelmed.
Despite this initial reticence, I opted to give it a try and read a few pages. Our first, Abby, was about six months old and though Britt had already poured through a number of "What to expect when..." books aimed at parents, I had not myself read any more than selected passages (and few of those). This would be the book that I read to be a better dad.
And I am glad that I gave it a try. I think the Eyres might have had skeptical and busy parents like me in mind when they wrote it. With my short attention span and busy schedule, the book is organized and designed to teach quick, short lessons based on various animals. I began to think of it like an Aesop's Fables for parents. Most of the lessons are way beyond Abby, right now, but as she is growing, I am starting to see their applicability. The elephant's trunk is strong and firm, but gentle and articulated, as parents should be. Crabs never let each other each other climb higher, as criticism can do to families. Geese always put their goslings first, just as the family, children and spouse, should be the first priority.
And so on. Each chapter starts with a story or demonstration, followed by a real life example or two. Next, the principles are stated, followed by very short demonstrations of how different families have implemented the principles. If you don't like how the Eyres decided to apply the principles, there are a dozen or more examples of how other families did it, and each one different and unique to them. Then the chapter ends with a set of blank lines where you are encouraged to evaluate how you will apply the principles. It provided Britt and I a wonderful opportunity to discuss and evaluate what we want our family to look like and how we can begin to plan for the future.
Obviously, with only one child, and a baby at that, it's hard to anticipate everything that will happen. But this has help us to start off on the right foot, to begin making plans, and to make those plans together. I recommend this book to parents, grandparents, and nurturers everywhere. (less)
If you've ever looked at your pay check and wondered why IRS was taking so much of it, then you need to read this. A no-nonsense, down-to-earth look a...moreIf you've ever looked at your pay check and wondered why IRS was taking so much of it, then you need to read this. A no-nonsense, down-to-earth look at why the IRS needs to go, this is a great idea whose time has come. As our Congress and President faces the worst economy in 60 years, this prudent and wise look at getting our country out of debt, returning more money to our pockets, and ending taxation of our income is a wise and thoughtful explanation of how to save our children's future.
I have friends who remind me, regularly, that wealth is becoming more and more concentrated among the wealthy. Further, the "not rich" are making less...moreI have friends who remind me, regularly, that wealth is becoming more and more concentrated among the wealthy. Further, the "not rich" are making less than they used to, relative to the wealthy. In other words, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.
There is a divide growing in America, argues Charles Murray in his book "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 - 2010" but it isn't necessarily just over money. In fact, the divide may be greater because it is cultural, not just economic.
Displaying a dizzying array of statistics, studies, and research, Murray shows an America that is watching the rise of what seems, to me, to be a new ruling class, a group of elites that are well educated ("overeducated elitist snobs"), well connected, and with a set of values and interests different from much of modern America. The self-segregation is not malicious, but, largely a result of people being attracted to others like them. As a result, their children grow up with a different set of values, more educated, and in turn marry people like them, further segregating themselves.
It works both ways, though, and Murray sets up as a comparison a hypothetical city on the upper ("Belmont") and on the lower ("Fishtown") ends of the spectrum to compare them. In his analysis, people in Belmont are better educated, less likely to get divorced (if at all), more involved in their community, work longer hours, are more honest, and are more religious. On the other hand, vital statistics in all of these areas for Fishmont show a gradual falling off over the last fifty years.
Why is this problematic? One reason is that it has resulted in a culture for the upper class that is completely out of touch with most of America. They watch different movies, participate in different social activities, drink different beers, and read different books. Their interests are not the same, and yet they are a select group that sets policy and opinion, controls wealth and power, for America.
Another problem is that the degradation of values in lower class America over the last fifty years is leading to a collapse of "American civic life," something exceptional about America. At this juncture in the book, Murray, a confessed libertarian, recaps the roots and history of American civic culture and its uniqueness in the world. Neighborliness, vibrant civic engagement in solving local problems, voluntary associations, and so on. All hallmarks of America up to as recently as the 1960s, the members of lower and upper classes shared through these civic association a culture together that connected them and their values.
Further, although the elite retain some values, they have failed to lead. The elite class is as "dysfunctional in its way as the new lower class is in its way. Personally and as families, its members are successful. But they have abdictated their responsibility to set and promulgate standards." Instead, its most successful members take advantage of the perks of position without regards to the "unseemliness" of that behavior, showing something of a new "gilded age."
Prognosis? "If the case I have just made for a hollow elite is completely correct, all is lost," says Murray on page 294. The lower class is only barely able to care for itself by 2020, while the upper classes enter yet another generation separate from main stream America and further out of touch with the "real world." Insightfully, then, Murray says that "new laws and regulations steadily accrete, and America's governing regime is soon indistinguishable from that of an advanced European welfare state. The American project is dead."
Is all lost? Murray says that for things to turn around, America must see four predictions borne out: America must watch what happens in Europe (and if the turmoil of the last few months is any indication, this prediction is bearing out), science must undermine the moral underpinnings of the welfare state, it will become increasingly obvious that there is a simple, affordable way to replace the entire apparatus of the welfare state, and Americans' allegiance to the American project must be far greater that Murray's argument has acknowledged.
Could these be born out? Time will tell. In the meantime, it's a powerful argument for a retrospection of the great problems of our times and our country. (less)