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64 Minutes With Niall Ferguson

A tour of the history of world civilization—the Met’s version, at least—with the historian provocateur.

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Niall Ferguson arrives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art breathless with apologies for being 30 minutes late. He’s going to use the museum’s exhibits to illustrate the arguments he presents in his new book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, which describes how Western culture came to dominate over the past 500 years. But first, he must remove his mascara.

“Civilization is as much about good plumbing as it is about art,” the debonairly dressed Harvard professor says, emerging fresh-faced from the bathroom under the museum’s grand staircase. “Which is why I went to the loo first. It was quite deliberate.”

Despite his fearsome vitae—a chair at Harvard, fellowships at Oxford and the Hoover Institution—there’s something of the rogue about Ferguson, who’s said to have inspired a character in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys who was more style than substance. He loves a gimmick—the West used “six killer apps” to rise to prominence, he asserts in Civilization, “apps” developing countries are now “downloading”—and moonlights as a BBC presenter, though the makeup he’d been wearing today was from a taping of Fareed Zakaria’s CNN show. On it, he’d gotten into a contretemps with Columbia professor Jeffrey Sachs about Occupy Wall Street. (“Don’t call me names,” Sachs had replied peevishly when Ferguson suggested his support for the movement was “demagogic.”) “Do we go left or right?” he queries as we exit the glass elevator, in search of the Asian-art galleries. “I’m right-wing, so we’re obliged to go right.”

The same logic was what set off the spat with Sachs, about which he is still feeling heated. “You just can’t credibly argue that the criminality of the one percent of the population represented in Wall Street is the cause of our problems,” he says, striding confidently down the wrong hallway.

But conflicts are something Ferguson seems to relish. Over the past few years, he’s involved himself in several, from repeatedly stoking an arcane argument over interest rates with Paul Krugman to excoriating the British press for its “prurient” interest in his divorce from his longtime wife, editor Susan Douglas, and subsequent marriage to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former member of the Dutch Parliament whose work on the activist film Submission earned her a fatwa from Islamic extremists. Last week, Ferguson threatened to sue fellow academic Pankaj Mishra for a takedown of Civilization he wrote in the London Review of Books. “I, generally speaking, believe in combative argument, because there are intellectual issues that we should be able to debate without phony restraints and politeness,” Ferguson says. “I think that argument is the way to truth.”

Civilization, his eleventh book, is a typically contentious one. “The West is in grave danger of losing its competitive edge,” he warns. “The principal reason that unskilled workers in the West have seen no gain and some loss in their standard of living is that they’re now in competition with China, with 20 percent of humanity who were out of the picture until the late 1970s. The days when an unschooled person in the West could expect to live and be twenty times richer than someone in China are over. You can’t blame it all on Wall Street; it’s at least 50 percent the result of globalization.”

Ferguson is a known fan of First World imperialism—his book Empire set liberals in a tizzy by declaring that colonialism was, on net, a good thing—and arguments like this are what get him in trouble with people like Mishra, who characterized him in his review as an Anglophilic neocon and his books as “white people’s histories.” But Ferguson emphatically denies Mishra’s suggestion of racism—the ascendancy of “the Rest,” as he refers to non-Western cultures in the book, is not something to be feared or shut down. “I think that the phenomenon of China and India and other countries’ emerging from poverty is a cause for celebration,” he says.

It’s a softer, gentler point of view than he showed in ­Empire, for which he credits Ali, whom he married in September. “If you don’t come from Western civilization, if you start outside, you don’t take it for granted,” he says, sounding almost misty. “It helps to discuss it with somebody who has literally come to it with fresh eyes, who has had to learn the most elementary first principles of how to operate in a free society.”

“Here we are, China,” Ferguson says, at last arriving at the doorway that leads to a display of seventeenth-century Chinese scrolls. Or is supposed to. “It’s closed, and they didn’t even tell us about it,” he exclaims, regarding the ropes that block the entrance. “There isn’t even a sign. Isn’t this symbolic?”

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