Wednesday, May 30, 2012

More drive-by history: world history as television

I watched the second and final installment of Niall Ferguson's TV show, "Civilization" last night. (See my post on the first installment here). He covered three of his "killer applications" that explain why western civilization is so much better than the rest of the world.

1. Medicine.  A main point in this section was that imperialism (French imperialism in west Africa) isn't so bad, because some medical advances were made by imperialist physicians in Senegal. At the end of the show, Ferguson decries the fact that "empire" has become a "dirty word." He is frustrated by the fact that people just ignore the great benefits of empires and imperialism. This is so blatant that I can't even think of a clever response!

2. Consumerism.  Blue jeans caused the Prague spring in 1968, and they also caused the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Blue jeans later caused the fall of the Berlin wall. And the Chinese are the worst-dressed people in the world.

3. Work. There was actually a nice piece on Max Weber and his theory of how Protestantism furthers capitalism. But any insights were offset by explanations like this: Why is church attendance higher in the U.S. than in Europe? Because state monopolies are inefficient.

The field of "world history" has been gaining influence in the past decade. There are now textbooks, journals, and lots of publications. It is good to see historians expanding their horizons in two ways: (1) seeking connections and contacts among widely separated regions; and (2) making comparisons among regions (sometimes even including such bizarre places for historians as Pre-Columbian America). From the perspectives of anthropology and archaeology, these two approaches are pretty pedestrian, but when historians--who command large amounts of very important regional data--take them up, this is a very positive development for scientific scholarship on the past. But books and TV shows like Ferguson's Civilization set back progress in this area. The superficial nature of the ideas, the many very wrong-headed notions, and the glitzy production, all make world history look like prime-time television - in both style and substance.

I hope serious proponents of world history fight back.

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