Thursday, July 26, 2012

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Ghastly Asshat

In the penultimate chapter of Civilization: You Kids Today Make Me Sick, Niall C.D.E. Ferguson identifies the sixth "killer app" of Western civilization as "work," but uses the term primarily as a shorthand for "God."  Here at last Niall-o bares his stern but sexy Presbyterian soul, the better to impress his more religious fans and drive the rest of us sinners to our knees.  Max Weber, argues Professor Ferg, was correct about the Protestant work ethic.  Protestant Christianity, with its asceticism and emphasis on the believer's worldly vocation, obliged its adherents to "work…save and read" (264), which had a buoyant effect on education, productivity, and investment in northern Europe.  This ethic apparently did not extend to the benighted Papists, who by 1940 were 40% worse off than Protestant European nations.  (I'm not sure what this means, and Ferguson cites only one source, a 2009 "working paper" by a Princeton prof, that may or may not be any good.)  While the Protestant work ethic is now declining in the West, it is spreading to other parts of the world, and particularly to southern China, thanks to the modern revival and spread of Christianity in the region.  The Christian faith, according to Our Man Niall's informants – who are, needless to say, Christian Chinese businessmen – promotes "thrift and industry" (277), creates a network of customers and creditors who can trust one another (283-285), and provides capitalism with the moral grounding it otherwise lacks.  Jesus would gag on this idea, but many American evangelicals would approve.

The American Christian Right would not, however, enjoy Ferguson's critique of their modern brand of Protestantism, which he calls "just another leisure pursuit," a source of entertainment and counseling rather than moral education (276).  Niall-o reserves the bulk of his contempt in this chapter, however, for the de-Christianized youth of the post-1960 West, who abandoned God and hard work for Freud and moral relativism.  Young people now preoccupy themselves with pornography, violent videogames, and the manifold indulgences of "a vacuous consumer society and a culture of relativism" (288).  Robert Bork couldn't have said it better, though he probably would not have directed as much bile against Cynthia Plaster Caster, whom Ferg presents as the symbol of Freud and Eros triumphant (274).  (The Good Professor's anger may stem from Ms. Plaster Caster's rumored refusal to sculpt his own wedding tackle, on the grounds that there wasn't enough plaster in the world to contain Niall Ferguson's Tremendous Tory Tonker.  But I digress.)

It is nice to see Professor Ferg returning here to the shallow and foolish intellectual style that characterizes his earlier chapters and his Newsweek articles.  I say shallow because many of his arguments are based on sketchy or anecdotal evidence, and foolish because most of them are wrong.  East Asians' work ethic, as Our Man Niall well knows, predates the recent spread of Christianity in southern China and Korea and is quite strongly expressed in Japan, a country that killed all of its Christians in the 17th century.  (I'm old enough to remember scolds like David Halberstam telling us we all needed to be as thrifty and hard-working as the Japanese, who were about to buy the entire planet.)  Chinese Christians who believe their faith will create networks of trustworthy customers and debtors may be correct, but while reading about them I cannot help but remember the phrase "affinity scam."  Ferg's denunciation of the lazy and hedonistic West, meanwhile, is anecdotal and badly dated.  While I can't speak for Europe, Americans, at least, were quite productive and hard working until the start of the recent financial meltdown in 2008.  If Americans were less likely to save than their Chinese counterparts, this is due more to flat wages and the presence of social insurance for the elderly than Americans' desire to consume.  And if These Kids Today aren't working, it's because most Western economies are in or close to recession and middle-aged posers like me aren't ready to give up our jobs. 
Perhaps Ferguson, who fancies himself a cool cat and a guru to young people, believes he can attract younger fans by telling them to give up their sexting and their videogames, cut their hair, get a (non-existent) job, and go to church.  Let me know how that works out for you, Niall.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Colony That Kept Disappearing

The disappearance of Roanoke colony was long one of the great mysteries of early American history, one which challenged the ancient narratives of Anglo-American Manifest Destiny (since it suggested English colonization was reversible) and white supremacy.  In the 1970s historian David Quinn offered a credible hypothesis to explain the event: he suggested that the colonists had probably moved to Chesapeake Bay, as they had been planning to do before England lost contact with them, and simply failed to leave a forwarding address.  Later, they were probably wiped out by the Powhatan Indians, whose paramount chief told John Smith of how his warriors destroyed a white settlement.  (See Quinn, North America from Earliest Discovery to First Settlements [New York, 1977], 438.)   Researchers at the British Museum, however, have just turned up another intriguing bit of evidence that may provide a different explanation.  Earlier this year they discovered, on a 16th-century watercolor map by colonist John White, the traces of a star symbol (possibly written in invisible ink) marking the site of a fort on Albemarle Sound, some miles away from Roanoke Island.  The settlers may have relocated to this new site sometime before 1590, when an English relief expedition arrived to find the main settlement deserted.  A future archaeological investigation will have to determine the validity of this new hypothesis; until then, historians will either content themselves with Quinn's idea, or with the possibility that the Roanoke colonists were devoured by Nordic wraiths.

P.S.: The title to this post refers to one of the more amusing student answers I received to an exam ID question ("Q: What was Roanoke?") back when I was a teaching assistant.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Jackwagon

Much like its third chapter, the fifth chapter of Niall Campbell Douglas Elizabeth Ferguson's Civilization in My Pants, which discusses the "killer app" of consumerism, has some useful things to say and some vapid and silly things to say.  Our Man Niall opens this chapter by arguing, quite correctly in my view, that there would have been no Industrial Revolution in the West without a previous consumer revolution, and that Western consumerism began with the manufacturing and consumption of inexpensive, high-quality clothing.  In Britain, the consumer age began (as Joyce Appleby* observed) with widespread demand for imported calico, which British, European, and American weavers then began to manufacture domestically.  When countries like Japan wanted to Westernize, Ferguson observes, they did so most conspicuously by adopting European-style clothing.  And when Soviet citizens looked West in the mid-20th century, they coveted its high standard of living, and one particular Western export, blue jeans, came to symbolize all that capitalism could offer and communism could not.  On the way to the fall of the Soviet Union, Ferguson offers a useful structural explanation of why the Industrial Revolution began in Britain – expensive labor and cheap coal – and introduces, though does not develop, the fascinating idea that the industrialization of the East Asian "tiger" economies in the 1960s decisively shifted the balance of power against the Soviet bloc.  In the end, though, it was consumerism, the West's better "version of a civilian life" (237), that brought down the Berlin Wall.

There is much in this chapter that would give American conservatives brain embolisms, which is to say there is much to like about it.  Ferguson's idea that economic development requires growing aggregate demand is textbook economics, but it is unlikely to win favor from Rand-Paul-type Republicans, who ascribe economic growth solely to the labors of a few great-souled geniuses whom the lumpish masses owe adulation and tax exemptions.  His ascription of the fall of the Soviet Union to economic causes is a bit simplistic, but it is more consistent with the available evidence that the American right-wing dogma that Star Wars killed the Evil Empire.  Ferg even has a kind word to say about John Keynes, whose proposals he credits with releasing the United States from the deflationary "trap" of 1929-32.  This is of course heresy among Anglo-American conservatives, and suggests that the author may in fact favor counter-cyclical deficit spending, as long as it benefits politicians who are either A) dead or B) people he likes.

Ferguson's more valuable insights, however, are interwoven with the clumsy prose, half-baked observations, and cheap shots characteristic of his earlier chapters.  In discussing Karl Marx, for example, he pauses to denounce the philosopher as a personally "odious individual" (207), which is not relevant to a discussion of Marx's ideas. In his account of the rise of American-style consumerism, he includes the ghastly mixed metaphor "The [blue] jeans genie was out of the bottle, and the bottle was more than probably distinctively curved glass container of…Coca-Cola" (242).  Ferguson may consider this a beautiful and thought-provoking image, but it's more likely he gave that sentence little thought while he was writing it.  Finally, Niall-o spends several pages toward the end of the chapter discussing not consumerism but the Western youth movement of the 1960s, whose damnation he considers an essential part of his own mission civilisatrice.  What young male protesters in Berkeley and Paris wanted above all else, Professor Jackwagon asserts, was "unlimited access to the female dormitories" (245).  "In the West," he continues a few pages later, "students indulged themselves with Marxist rhetoric, but what they were really after was free love" (248).  These DFHs, as Ferguson would probably label them without irony, were not merely sexual reprobates; they were also responsible for a wave of violence that hit Western countries in the form of "race riots" and terrorism.

As one of my college professors once told me in a seminar meeting, this observation is so wrong that one is nearly at a loss at how to respond to it.  While I can't speak for students in Paris, the fundamental issue for young male American protesters in the 1960s was not sexual freedom but avoiding the draft and, if possible, ending the Vietnam War.  Mssr. Ferguson seems so impatient with '60s-era protesters – or, perhaps, so obsessed with other people's sexual behavior – that in reading the slogan "Make Love Not War" he loses interest after the first two words.  And blaming race riots and terrorism on sex-crazed juvenile delinquents is ridiculous.  Race riots were a recurrent phenomenon in American cities from the Civil War through the early 1990s; those of the 1960s were reactions to poverty and police brutality, not generational strife.  International terrorism in the 1970s, meanwhile, had much more to do with cheap machine guns, dysfunctional Arab nation-states, and covert Soviet manipulation than Youth in Revolt.

Ferguson's excoriation of DFHs is not entirely gratuitous.  He probably intended it to be part of an ironic observation: that while young people in the rich, consumerist West were embracing Marxism and taking off their clothes, young people in the Eastern Bloc were embracing American culture, represented by blue jeans, and trying to throw off Marxism.  Niall-o's heavy-handed treatment of Western youth, however, and his dismissal of their actual ideas (muddled as they were) suggests he is more interested in indulging his own disgust than drawing readers' attention to the ironies of history.  Either that, or he hopes that condemning the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll generation will make him more appealing to These Kids Today.

* The Relentless Revolution (New York, 2010), 103-104.