Twitterstorm delong: November 26, 2011
A Stray Thought or Two on Banking Recapitalization

Noah Smith Takes Niall Ferguson to School: The Real Meaning of "Western Civilization" Department

This is a thing of beauty:

Noah Smith: Noahpinion: Niall Ferguson does not know what "Western Civilization" means:

"The blood of Numenor is all but spent, its pride and dignity forgotten." - Elrond

Ferguson warns darkly of a rapid collapse of American civilization… there is a deeply disturbing subtext that annoyed me so much that...well, here, I'll just let you see for yourself.

First, Ferguson's thesis:

I believe it’s time to ask how close the United States is to the “Oh sh*t!” moment—the moment we suddenly crash downward…. The West first surged ahead of the Rest after about 1500 thanks to a series of institutional innovations that I call the “killer applications”…. For hundreds of years, these killer apps were essentially monopolized by Europeans and their cousins who settled in North America and Australasia. They are the best explanation for what economic historians call “the great divergence”: the astonishing gap that arose between Western standards of living and those in the rest of the world…. Beginning with Japan, however, one non-Western society after another has worked out that these apps can be downloaded and installed in non-Western operating systems...

Now, before I move on to the really annoying part of Ferguson's article, this talk of "non-Western operating systems" has already rankled. What the heck is the "operating system" of a society? What inherent quality of "Western-ness" does Ferguson imagine Japan fundamentally lacks, such that even though Japan has representative democracy, property rights, competitive capitalism, work ethic, science, and medicine, the Land of the Rising Sun is still running on a "non-Western operating system"? Is it Christianity? But then South Korea would be "Western," since it is majority Christian (and far more religious than, say, France). And Ferguson cites Korea as a "non-Western" civilization in his very next paragraph (which I'll get to in a moment)…. I think you see what I'm getting at, and just to drive it home, here's Ferguson's next paragraph:

Ask yourself: who’s got the work ethic now? The average South Korean works about 39 percent more hours per week than the average American. The school year in South Korea is 220 days long, compared with 180 days here. And you don’t have to spend too long at any major U.S. university to know which students really drive themselves: the Asians and Asian-Americans.

So a sign that American civilization is in decline is that... Asian-Americans study hard?

Labeling Asian Americans as "non-Western" gives away the game completely. By "Western," Niall Ferguson… is referring to a set of people… "white people." Asian Americans may have American passports, Ferguson thinks, but civilizationally speaking they are permanent foreigners. This interpretation is pretty much confirmed a couple paragraphs later: Social scientist Charles Murray calls for a “civic great awakening”—a return to the original values of the American republic. He’s got a point.

When you admit to taking your cues from America's most prominent academic racist, you've pretty much laid your cards on the table.

This makes me sick, and not just because of the racism. It's because Ferguson's offhand exclusion of non-whites from the "Western" world is, in fact, what I believe to be the biggest threat to our civilization.

You see, I believe that the United States of America has another "killer app"… meritocratic diversity. Where other countries cling to blood-and-soil tribalism, America absorbs and employs the energy and talent of a vast array of peoples…..

Imagine if this were 1911, and Ferguson had instead lamented: "And you don’t have to spend too long at any major U.S. university to know which students really drive themselves: the Jewish-Americans." He might have held this up as a harbinger of Western decline…. Niall Ferguson pines for the days of Anglo-Saxon empire, but in fact, many historians believe that race-blind meritocracy is the key to all successful hegemons…. The biggest threat facing American civilization now is not loss of work ethic…. Nor is it insufficient consumerism (believe you me), the abandonment of modern medicine, the end of rule of law, creeping monopolies, or the abandonment of science. It is political dysfunction and distrust of our national institutions, brought on by the refusal of a large bloc of white Americans (the "Tea Party" etc.) to accept nonwhite Americans. The very denial of "Western-ness" to nonwhite Americans is what is threatening the West. Articles like Ferguson's, in other words, are part of the problem….

Basically, this is one of the laziest, sloppiest, most pernicious columns that I have ever read. I am simply physically, biologically incapable of sticking to my self-enforced blogging hiatus when something this awful crosses my screen.