Civilization: The West and the Rest DVD Review: Niall Ferguson’s Cultural Arrogance Clouds This Series

British historical Niall Ferguson presents Civilization: The West and the Rest, a BBC documentary series with six episodes. The program covers Ferguson’s theories pertaining to the ascendancy of the West and its influence on “the rest of the world” after 1500 A.D.

Ferguson specializes in financial and economic history, so it stands to reason that his focus in the series would include such factors. The trouble is that his fondness for all things Empire gets in the way and we’re left with a tale of Western supremacy that tends to over-inflate the morality of those at the “western end of the Eurasian landmass” and undermine the contributions and societal foundations set by the so-called East.

The series is based on Ferguson’s 2011 book of the same name and zeroes in on six “killer apps” that he credits to Western society. A “killer app” is essentially a necessary component, at least in the language of computing, and Ferguson’s use of the term is somewhat clunky.

Nevertheless, the six “killer apps,” which are also the episode titles, are as follows: Competition, Science, Democracy, Medicine, Consumerism, and Work.

Ferguson supposes that those six notions were “lacking” in the rest of the world during the ascendancy of Western culture and almost entirely ignores the place that the East had in laying many foundations in the worlds of science, medicine, and even competition.

Some arguments are flat-out audacious, like the constant suggestion that Africa is “better off” for the arrival of Western empires or the implication that the Protestant work ethic can be credited and linked to the consumerism that so greatly drives people in the engines of capitalism.

In fairness, Ferguson does assert that some Western “advances” have their respective dark sides. Medicine can, for instance, lead to things like eugenics and the Holocaust. And property rights, as “essential” as they are in today’s world, weren’t achieved through the smoothest and most ethical means.

Ferguson seems very concerned with the conception of “Western guilt” and tries to undo it on just about every episode. He suggests that Westerners should feel pride in the “fact” that the rest of the world wants to be like them, audaciously claiming that the entire global world of life is structured around envy over the Western way of things.

Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest series is certainly couched in a particular viewpoint about Western society and its rise. It is well-shot, but the topics can be a bit disseminated as the host attempts to find pieces of history to sustain his views. The series is tainted by Ferguson’s cultural conceit, but some viewers will doubtlessly find it bracing as they seek out a historical documentary to affirm their views.

The DVD release from BBC features all six episodes and runs in the neighborhood of 282 minutes.

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Critical curmudgeon

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