Sunday, May 15, 2011

Civilization: Is The West History

Niall Furgeson, who has said some really stupid stuff in the past, has produced a 6-part documentary series that I think is rather good. As far as British productions go, it's not up there with Connections or anything, but still very much worth a watch.

He makes a lot of sweeping declarations in this series with which I completely disagree. I also don't like his usage of the terms "killer apps" and "west." The former sounds too much like a desperate attempt to be hip, and the second term is one that I find incorrect at its core. How is he defining the west? Are we just a group of people? He seems to indicate that the west was defined by ideas that allowed it to dominate. But now, large parts of the world have appropriated those ideas. So isn't the west still winning?

If we are simply talking about groups of people, then the fluidity of population groups that's allowed in the modern world renders labels difficult. And if ideas are equal, saying that China will "defeat" the United States is silly. Whichever country has the largest population will necessarily have the largest economy.

We can extend the argument even to "western" civilization, today. For example, is the United States defeating Japan, Sweden, or Germany? We have the bigger economy. We're producing the most shit. But it's absurd to say that we are beating them.

My argument is in essence semantic. The West could never be consigned to history if the West's ways are what dominate the entire planet. That is unless we're defining the West as nothing more than a group of people, and today, defining culture, country, and society as simply a group of people is ignorant.

He starts the series with some sweeping statements which I think are unsupportable, but then backs off a bit and it becomes much more an entertaining journey through history. He then returns to sweeping statements in the last episode, where he argues that the Protestant work ethic, work hard and don't spend it, is what put England, the US, and Germany on top of the world.

I find this thesis absurd. I think the "killer app" for America, Britain, and Germany was the abandonment of royalty. This fosters a belief that you too can succeed and reach that brass ring. The more hope people have for being rich, the harder they're going to work to reach that goal. It's this that helps to explain why the biggest difference between the US and Europe, the sheer number of our successful start-ups, are done by those who are not religious.

It also explains why so many movers and shakers are Jewish. Or why Japan, once stripped of the focus on the group and the emperor, became an industrial powerhouse in twenty-five years, and why China is doing the same thing. It wasn't protestantism, it was a belief that you can succeed. People in China worked their bloody asses off long before the west came 'round, only now, that work helps them and not others.

I also laughed at is claim that China is importing Christianity. About 12% of believers are Christian, which works out to about 3% of the population. And since we have no data, we don't know when these people started believing. Religion was once banned, and Christianity has a habit of being strongest when it's under attack. Chinese religion is wildly difficult to measure, but the one thing we can be sure of is that Christianity is dwarfed by Buddhism, Taoism, and even explicit atheism.

I do find his insight about multiple churches competing for followers compelling, though. The only addition that I have is that protestantism had little to do with it, it was the huge expanses of land that frequently separate settled areas. This allowed multiple types of churches to spring up. In Europe, the population was much denser. Again, this helps to explain why religion is strongest in the more rural areas of the US; areas with farms, and the out-there areas of the American South West.

Feruson closes by voicing his fear that the west is losing its edge. He says some frighteningly Randian things about the importance of property rights, which highlights a big issue I had with his overall concept. He thinks that the United States became dominants because people could become land-owners and thus voters. He assumes that land was valuable in the US like it was in Europe, which I think is wrong. Land the US was worthless. The issue was that in Europe, there was no land. It was all taken up. Land was valuable, money wasn't, because you knew that your land would always produce more.

In the US, this was reversed. Yes, people could become land-owners, but it was what happened after land acquisition that was actually important: the vote. The land itself simply came along for the ride because people thought that land was valuable. That was of course, until they came here and found out that even being a land-owner sucked. Being the money holder is what became important in the US, which again helps to explain the rise of Jews in the US. They had a lot of money.

He takes a swipe at governments who "violate our property rights" to tax us and "waste our money." Again, sounding dangerously Randian, here. What rights? How are they violated? Is the money actually being wasted? How is it being wasted. This was a massive statement to make that he just casually tosses out there.

Property isn't important. It's only seen as important because there's so damned little of it in Europe. And by that, I mean the assumption that people need to be land owners to succeed. Are property laws important? Yes. Of course they are. But they're just as important as any law about shit that is "mine" or "yours."

When Ferguson remains conservative in his statements, the documentary is at is best and most credible. When he gets sweeping, it falls on its face.

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