I have avoided writing about Niall Ferguson's new book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, despite the plethora of reviews, not to mention Ferguson's own promotional pieces in any venue that will have him. (And let's not forget the unwarranted accusations of racism.) Ferguson writes about the decline of the West, and that topic got me in trouble a few times back in 2005, when the media elite didn't believe decline was possible (the U.S. was conquering the world by force back then) and heavily criticized my Cult of Alien Gods for suggesting decline was occuring (though I was merely citing historians). Oh, how things have changed in six short years.
It's not that I don't agree with Niall Ferguson on a basic level about the fate of the West; it's that the quality of his books has tended toward an inverse relationship to Ferguson's fame. By most accounts, Civilization is Ferguson's sloppiest book, designed as a companion to a British TV series and framed around fashionable jargon (such as "killer apps") whose half life will leave this book looking ridiculous not long from now. I am reminded of Tom Holland's otherwise splendid Rubicon (2003), whose language is so salted with the fashionable militarism of the period between 9/11 and Shock and Awe that those little spikes of bad verbiage from the War on Terror break the spell of the book.
Beyond tonal issues, the problem I have with Ferguson's Civilization is that Ferguson presents his discussion of the rise and relative decline of Western Civilization from 1500 to today more or less as a great discovery. But his book has been written before, without the silly techno-babble about "apps" and with much smoother grace by Jacques Barzun a decade ago. From Dawn to Decadence (2000) not only is deeper in thought and more comprehensive in scope (while covering the same 500 year period, 1500-2000), but it also benefits from diagnosing the decline of the West in an age when the intelligensia were still celebrating the imaginary universal triumph of Western Civilization. Barzun's book was prescient; Ferguson's is behind the times.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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