Friday, January 13, 2012

Niall Ferguson is Still a Tosser

After flogging Niall Campbell Douglas Elizabeth Ferguson a couple of times last year for various kinds of bad behavior, I made a brief mention of plans to read Prof. Ferguson's macrohistory of Western Europe and how it got to be So Damn Fine, published last year under the modest title Civilization. My loyal readers will either be mildly pleased or politely indifferent to learn that I have now managed to plow through most of the Sexiest Scotsman's opus, and will shortly begin a multipart review in which I explore the strengths (there may be one or two), flaws (and there are at least a few), and amusing factual errors thereof and therein. To start, I have a couple of observations to make about Ferguson's preface and introduction.

First, allow me to draw attention to Our Man Niall's brief summary of other scholarship on the rise of the West. On page 10 he asserts that historians like Jared Diamond and Kenneth Pomeranz have attributed the growth of Western power to simple "good luck," rather than to Western Europeans' superior institutions - in Ferguson's phrase, their "killer apps." The examples he gives of this unlikely "good luck," however, seem like pretty important determinants of European power to your humble narrator, and as Ferguson later reveals some of them seem pretty important to him as well. Surely, Ferguson writes, it was not the "geography or the climate" of Europe that accounted for its rise - except that he later ascribes interstate competition in the West, a key component of Killer App Number One, to Europe's convoluted and knobbly geography. "Did the New World provide Europe with 'ghost acres' that China lacked?" Professor F. then asks, dismissively. Actually, it did; the resources and produce of the Americas - arable land, timber, fish, grains, sugar - were a tremendous boon to Europeans in the early modern period, rescuing them from the Malthusian trap into which they had fallen, while New World gold and silver helped Europe buy its way into the Indian and East Asian trading system. "Was it just sod's law that made China's coal deposits harder to mine and transport than Europeans'?" Dr. Ferguson inquires. Kind of sounds like it to me, actually, and it was Europe's use of cheap coal that touched off its transport and metallurgical revolutions and allowed it finally to pull ahead of China. Qing China certainly had the means to industrialize if it had enjoyed access to so much concentrated energy: the Chinese had had a wood-driven "industrial revolution" in the 11th century, until their foundries ran out of charcoal, and they had invented powered spinning machines and looms as early as the 14th century. In history, stupid contingencies sometimes matter, as Ferguson, a routine practitioner of counterfactual history, should bloody well acknowledge.

My other observation is short and sweet. It is that Ferguson isn't always careful to check his historical facts. Exempli gratia, taken from his preface: "The greatest political artist in American history, Abraham Lincoln, served only one full term in the White House, falling victim to an assassin with a petty grudge just six weeks after his second inaugural" (xxiv). The assassin was John Wilkes Booth, and the "petty grudge" was the "Civil War" - Booth was a Confederate spy and staged his attack on Lincoln as part of a multi-person attack on Union leaders. Perhaps Ferguson was confusing Booth with Charles Guiteau, Garfield's assassin? I guess all these 19th-century presidents look alike after a while.

(Sources: Gale Stokes: "The Fates of Human Societies: A Review of Recent Macrohistories," American Historical Review [April 2001]: 508-525; Alfred Crosby, Children of the Sun: A History of Humanity's Unappeasable Appetite for Energy [Norton, 2006], 68; Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest [Penguin, 2011], pp. xxiv, 10.)

4 comments:

John said...

I haven't read Ferguson but I'm making my way through Charles Mann's truly excellent "1493" which seems under-appreciated. His descriptions of what he calls the Colombian Exchange make the earth shake under the feet of Euro-centric historians tainted with notions of the white man's burden.

Susan M. Frey said...

Hmm. A tosser by any other name is still a wanker.

Dave Nichols said...

Thanks for the reading suggestion, John. The term "Columbian Exchange" is actually Alfred Crosby's (it was the title of his 1972 book on the subject), but I'm all for any book that helps popularize the concept. Ferguson is definitely weighed down by the white man's burden.

Craig Hammond said...

Good stuff, Dave. I have thoroughly enjoyed your flogging of Ferguson.