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 percent 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 seventeenth 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.

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