December 30, 2015 § 6 Comments
I’m reading Jared Diamond’s most recent book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?. Diamond, of course, is best known for his 1999 magnum opus, Guns, Germs & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, a magnificent study of what led the Western world to dominance in the past several centuries. Diamond also kick-started the cottage industry of studies in World History that sought to explain how it was that the World came to dominate, and, in most cases, predicting the West’s eventual downfall. Some of these were useful reads, such as Ian Morris’ Why The West Rules For Now, and others were, well, not, such as Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest.
At any rate, in his Prologue, Diamond talks about, amongst other things, psychology. He reports that 96% of psychology articles in major peer-reviewed, academic journals in 2008 were from Western nations: Canada, the US, the countries of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel. Of those, 68% dealt with Americans. But it gets better, the vast majority of those were articles based on research where participants were undergraduates in psychology courses.
This is somewhat disconcerting as it means that the vast majority of what we know about human psychology from the academy is based on an ethno-centric, largely Americanized point-of-view. But, perhaps more damning, the majority of this opus is based on 18-22 year olds at universities across the US. That means these participants are predominately wealthy (relatively), American, and young.
Interestingly, we also know enough about the human brain and psychology to know that they evolve as we age. It is also clear from fields as diverse as history, psychology, anthropology, sociology, etc., that people are not all the same across cultures. In other words, applying what we may know about one issue, based on research on American undergraduates in psychology classes, has absolutely no bearing on elderly German men and women. Or, for that matter, middle-aged Chinese women.
May 2, 2014 § 2 Comments
I just read a quick book review in Foreign Affairs of Charles Kenny’s new book, The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest is Good for the West. This comes on the heels of a spate of books in recent years about why it is that the West rules now, but why it won’t shortly. The best of these books (at least amongst those I’ve read) is Ian Morris’ Why the West Rules — For Now: The Patterns of HIstory and What They Reveal about the Future. The worst is my favourite village idiot, Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest, and not just because of his incredibly stupid device of the “killer apps” that the West downloaded first, but have since been downloaded by the rest, but because of Ferguson’s inability to hide his triumphalist ethno-centrism. I also teach a lot of World History, so the topic interests me.
Kenny argues that, in contrast to Ferguson and others, that the rise of the Rest isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the West. Moreover, Kenny also claims that the rise of the Rest isn’t due to any failure on the part of the US, but, rather, is a function of Washington’s global leadership. And, unlike any other writer I’ve read on the matter, Kenny is also concerned about the possibilities for environmental degradation due to global economic advancement. This is interesting, actually, making me think of Doug Saunder’s Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History is Re-Shaping Our World (I reviewed that here on this blog). Saunders is also a triumphalist, arguing that urbanisation is a great boon to humankind, but he overlooks the environmental degradation from cities.
However. Where Kenny falls down, at least according to this review (I do look forward to reading The Upside of Down), is that he expects the free market (along with education and innovation) to take care of that problem. This is where I get suspicious, given that the free market has done very little for environmental degradation, and left to our own devices, we humans would destroy the environment without some kind of governmental intervention. I don’t see why it would work any better in the developing world, frankly.
But, Kenny also redeems himself in his concluding argument wherein he favours the establishment of global rules and regulations to regulate global development and environmental damage. Of course, I’m not sure how this squares with his faith in the free market, but I suppose I’ll have to read the book to find the answer to that.
February 3, 2014 § 4 Comments
Niall Ferguson likes attention. There’s no other way to explain his public pronouncements. Like when he predicted there’d be blood on the streets of major Western cities in response to the 2008 global economic meltdown. Or when he said John Maynard Keynes was a bad economist because he was gay. Or when he attacked Gandhi in his Civilization: The West and the Rest. Then there’s that book in general, with its incredibly lame attempt to be hip, as Ferguson talked about the West developing “killer apps” that allowed it to dominate the rest of the world. This idea was so bad it detracted from what was actually a decent argument. Ugh. So when I saw that Ferguson had opined to the BBB’s History magazine that Britain should never have entered the First World War in 1914, I was already in mid-eye roll when I realised that Ferguson was actually onto something here.
The BBC article is behind a paywall, but when Ferguson speaks, the media listens and The Guardian published a quick account. Basically, Ferguson says that Britain made “the biggest error in modern history” by entering the war in 1914. He says that Britain could’ve let the Germans, French, and Russians slug it out on the continent, and then dealt with a victorious Germany at a later date, on its own terms. He also notes that had Germany defeated the Russians and French, it would have had the same problems Napoléon had a century earlier, in terms of governing an unruly empire and being behind a British sea blockage. In 1914, Britain was simply not ready for war, especially a land war.
And then he looks at the long-term cost for Britain of the war. It nearly bankrupted the nation, Britain was saddled with debt after 1918. It ultimately cost the British their empire and their status as a major world power (as it also did to France).
There is something to be said for his argument here, but, as usual with a polemicist, he overshoots his mark, taking a claim that might actually be something and then wrapping it up with ridiculousness, like what he did with the unfortunate Civilization. At its core, the Great War was calamitous for Britain, there’s no two ways about that. But Ferguson doesn’t take into account the human cost of the war. An entire generation of young men was destroyed by the war. The costs of that lost generation are immense, in terms of politics, economy, and culture. It also meant a decline in birth rates, so the lost generation had a long-term effect of Britain.
Ferguson does talk about the cost of the war economically, the massive debt the country accumulated, and the fact that this ended up costing Britain its empire. This is where I think Ferguson gets his hackles up, given that he’s the last great defender of the force of civilisation that the British Empire was.
As historians, we are supposed to enjoy the benefit of hindsight, to be able to see the bigger picture that, say, Sir Herbert Asquith, the British Prime Minister in 1914, could not. But we still need to take into account the view from White Hall in August 1914. From Asquith’s point-of-view, Britain was bound by treaty to protect its Allies. Britain was also militarily prepared for war (a point Ferguson dismisses), even if it was the wrong kind of war it anticipated.
Recently, I read a review of three books on the start of the First World War in the Times Literary Supplement. There will be a lot of that this year, since its the centenary of the start of the war. One of the books was written by a journalist, and one with a particular axe to grind, and was full of broad, sweeping statements about the war, the British generals, and politicians. The reviewer took issue with this approach as being ahistorical and anti-intellectual. And while I wouldn’t go that far with Ferguson’s argument, it’s on that route. At least at this point. I hope a book will emerge from this thought, as it would certainly be worth the read.