Popular historian Niall Ferguson tells Stephen Jewell how television democratises knowledge and why colonialism wasn't all bad.
You wouldn't have thought a plastic box of sushi could represent the multicultural society we all live in. But when I meet Niall Ferguson at his office at the London School of Economics after a busy morning filming last-minute scenes for his six-part television series, Civilization, the Glasgow-born historian points to the lunch he is hurriedly consuming as emblematic of how the influence of a particular culture can be felt way beyond its geographic borders.
"A civilisation doesn't necessarily always spread through violence, it can spread purely because it's cool," he says in between mouthfuls. "Sushi is not really part of Western civilisation but it's really nice to eat. That's the Asian fusion part of what's happening. 21st century Western civilisation is especially good at assimilating cool stuff from other civilisations without losing its integrity. Sushi is a good example of that. 'Raw fish; that's cool! Let's turn it into another kind of fast food that a student could go and buy'."
Subtitled "The West and the Rest", Ferguson's television show and accompanying book ambitiously document the rise and relative fall of Western civilisation over the past 700 years, concentrating on how European nations like Britain and Spain have interacted and often subsumed their Eastern counterparts like the Ottomans, the Japanese and the Chinese.
Taking a lead from social networking, Ferguson breaks his argument down into six "killer applications" that the West possessed but others lacked: competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic.
"I was trying to make the argument more vivid, which is important if you're trying to reach a young audience," he says. "Part of what I'm trying to do is produce something that my 17-year-old son will not be bored by. To do that, you've got to translate it into teenage-ese at some point. Everybody, including middle-aged television executives, now knows what a 'killer app' is. It's a concept that is very valid here; the notion that somebody can come up with an idea that anyone can download. It's just there, it's open source.
"That's the absolute essence of the argument. You've already got the scientific method. Once Newton's world exists, there's no reason why it should be confined to just England or Europe. Once somebody applied the ideas of Newtonian physics to artillery, everyone could make their guns accurate."
He insists that the killer apps are no gimmick. "They really are like something you can download to your iPhone or MacBook, which explains how and why these things are no longer uniquely Western and are now practically universal," says Ferguson, who spent two years finalising the definitive categories.
"I want there to be debate. My idea was to find an explanation that had all the necessary components, so that when you put them all together, it really is a sufficient explanation. I challenge anyone who reads the book or watches the series to either simplify it or come up with anything I've missed. I ran it past quite a few people and I don't think there's anything missing."
Religion is, perhaps, the only notable absentee from Ferguson's list but it plays a significant role in the final episode of his series.
"I wanted to put it at the end to highlight its importance," he says. "You can't understand this story without it and you can't understand the problems we are currently facing without seeing how religious belief has declined in the West, specifically Europe."
The significant turning point was the Reformation, which encouraged entire populations to read so that they could better understand the Bible. "Protestantism's crucial contribution was to make people literate and the work ethic is a function of that," he says. "It came out of that literate world but it wasn't exclusively Protestant. Once you get literate societies, then the work ethic is pretty much a universal possibility. What's fascinating is a simultaneous rise in the work ethic and Christianity in China. I interviewed a Chinese factory owner and he said that 'I think my people work harder because they're Christians and I trust other businessmen because they are Christians'. Through becoming a Protestant Christian, you became part of a network of mutual trust that is fabulously advantageous economically."
Each chapter ends in the here and now, emphasising that the historical events that Ferguson depicts are all too relevant in our current turbulent times. "The Siege of Vienna in 1683 and the situation today in Israel are very comparable," he says. "I've always believed that historians should talk about the present. Some sceptics might say 'I'm not interested in the past, I'm interested in the future' but you can't understand the future if you don't know any history. My idea is that once you've watched the series or read the book, the world will look different and you won't respond to it in the way you did before. If you go to China or a Muslim country, you'll have a different reading of it because it will have been historically contextualised."
Ferguson also explores the legacy of colonisation, suggesting that the impact that European empires like the British had upon the local inhabitants of the countries they occupied was not always detrimental. "Clearly nobody wants to defend the worst aspects of Imperialism like slavery and the disproportionate killing of innocent people but you can't ignore the benefits of the whole process," he says. "That's why I focus on medicine, because in places like Senegal doctors really did improve life expectancy among the native people and that's pretty much true everywhere. There's a hilarious quote from Gandhi at the start of the chapter, where he basically says that even medicine is a bad thing. So is it a good thing to have high infant mortality and for people to have an average life expectancy of 30?"
According to Ferguson, New Zealand would be very different if the Europeans had never settled in the country. "It's the kind of politically correct mindset that wants to deny history that I'm against," he says. "We need to understand the rise of the West. It's reached every part of the world and has had varying impacts, some of which have been disastrous. It's a world-changing thing. Had it not happened, we would be living in a very different world. Indigenous people might protest about that but I think they're in denial. They've essentially embraced the entire package of Western life, all the killer applications. What remains of their pre-Western culture is really superficial. I probably shouldn't say this but that's the reality and it's true wherever you go. You can lament the passing of traditional cultures but you can't pretend that they're tenaciously living as they did in the pre-settlement era."
Ferguson is critical of the left-wing perspective that he claims has become institutionalised in most Western schools. "It varies from place to place but Canada is the most politically correct, with everybody cringing about their Imperial past," says the father of three, who was inspired to embark upon Civilization after concluding that his children were taught less history in school than he was when he was growing up.
"I was very lucky because I had really good teachers who encouraged me to think of history as a kind of calling," he recalls. "There were lots of history books in my parents' house but the two that I remember are A.J.P. Taylor's A History of World War Two and Kenneth Clark's Civilization. Reading those books sparked my early interest in history and Taylor was a historian who I wanted to emulate from an early age. Back then, the notion of writing an entire book about civilisation just seemed so wildly ambitious but now it seems like a task well worth undertaking."
Ferguson's first book, Paper and Iron, an examination of German politics during the first quarter of the 20th century was published in 1995. He made his television debut in 2003 with Empire, a thematic predecessor to Civilization that centred around how Britain made the modern world. Since then, he has alternated more scholarly tomes like last year's High Financier, a biography of the banker Siegmund Warburg, with broader, more far-reaching works like 2008's Ascent of Money.
"My last book was essentially about one man but it was also about Europe as well," he says. "Warburg was acutely conscious of what Western civilisation was and he regarded himself as the living embodiment of what a civilised man should be. A lot of his concerns during the Second World War and the Cold War were about the threat to civilisation posed by Hitler and Stalin. While I was writing about him, I was thinking about what exactly civilisation is. This follows on from that but in terms of style it's more of a successor to The Ascent of Money. It's also a big subject and is aimed at the same sort of readership. That was a financial history of the world and I suppose this is the history of everything from 1400 onwards."
In Civilization's preface, Ferguson references Alan Bennett's award-winning play The History Boys, quoting Russell Tovey's rugby-loving Rudge, who wryly observes that history is "just one f****** thing after another".
Bennett has admitted that Ferguson himself was the inspiration for ruthless exam-orientated teacher Irwin, who ends up fronting fatuous historical TV programmes.
"I've never met Alan Bennett but he's somebody I hugely admire," he says. "I have very mixed feelings about being the target for his wit as I was a big fan of Beyond the Fringe [a comedy stage revue co-written by Bennett]. One has to take these things as a kind of compliment. He's a very talented man and I love how the play was interpreted differently on the different sides of the Atlantic. Here Irwin was the villain, whereas in New York he was the hero. I asked an American friend why that is and she said 'it's obvious. He gets those kids into a really good college'."
Ironically, Ferguson describes himself as a kindred spirit of The History Boys. "My final year of school was very much like the experience of the play," he says. "There were a group of us who were all applying for Oxbridge. We were of the same age and had similar temperaments to the characters. In any case, the TV version of history is just a way of making historical knowledge accessible to a much larger group of people than will ever apply to read history at Oxford or Cambridge so why would you want to keep it exclusively for the elite?"
Ferguson dismisses the belief espoused in The History Boys by Richard Griffiths' old-fashioned general studies teacher Hector that the popularisation of history has diluted its core essence as pure snobbery. "In order to make something work on television, you have to make compromises but as long as you aren't compromising historical accuracy then I can't think of a better way of getting historical knowledge to a really large audience," he says. "Frankly, many more people will watch the TV show than will read the book. That's the reality and as long as that's the case, I will continue to do TV because I really believe in democratising this kind of knowledge."
Ferguson enjoys the contrast between the two mediums. "I find them quite complementary activities and it would be frustrating if I could only do one or the other," he says.
"There are some things that just don't work on television. High Financier would have been deadly dull on television. But Civilization would have been a waste to do only as a book. As a television programme, it's really quite beautiful and we got some great shots.
"There's also a learning process that comes from being on location. We got to go to places and find stuff out that we wouldn't have found out if we were sat in the library all day. The battlefields of Namibia taught me so much about the Herero uprising and it was great to look at Frederick the Great's manuscripts. You can tell so much from just the space and feel of a city and the shape of a building space."
After Civilization's all-encompassing brief, Ferguson is next focusing on a more concentrated topic for his next project, a biography of former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
"I'll be looking at his life from World War II onwards and particularly his contribution to American foreign policy," he says. "So that narrows it down a bit, although probably not that much as he's been involved in nearly every major international crisis since the Vietnam War."
Civilization (Penguin $60) is out now.