The fascinating query that host Niall Ferguson poses at the start of Civilization: The West and the Rest is this; “Are we the generation that Western ascendancy is going to end with?” Somehow, through all the political and social travails I have seen in my (mid) life, I have never really considered this idea. Although pundits often refer to China as something of a “sleeping giant,” the nation just never seemed a real threat to the West. And if I thought about it at all, the same arrogance would apply to what we refer to as “Third World” countries as well.
Stepping outside of the “patriotism box” for a moment though, there are some very compelling arguments to be made for the decline and fall of Western civilization. In the 18th century Edward Gibbon wrote what remains a masterpiece of history with his epic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Even though Civilization: The West and the Rest was produced by the British BBC, there is very little question that what it has to say absolutely corresponds with what is going on in the United States.
What makes this newly released two-DVD, six one-hour episode set so strong is the way Ferguson takes the long view towards history. The programs are not really about current events, such as the Monica Lewinsky scandal, George Bush’s disastrous presidency, or Barack Obama’s sad performance in his first term. It is about the history of the world, in which the ascendancy of Western civilization is a relatively new phenomenon. And as Gibbon exhaustively showed in his two-volume book, even the mightiest empires can fall.
The episodes are broken up into six specific categories. The titles speak for themselves; “Competition,” “Science,” “Property,” “Medicine,” “Consumerism,” and “Work.” In each he compares the achievements, both past and present, of the West versus the East. In the wrap-ups, he methodically notes the future prospects of both “powers” with (for the West at least), some very unsettling conclusions.
While the question “Are we the generation that Western ascendancy is going to end with?” is deliberately provocative, the underlying thesis is not. In fact, it is quite sobering. The verdict? Obviously unknown. But Civilization: The West and the Rest poses some extremely serious questions. Do not allow that description to color your judgment of the series however. While the subject is serious, Niall Ferguson presents the material in a most intriguing, and even humorous at times, manner.
This is a very interesting and thought provoking series, and one which just might help those of us who have grown complacent in regards to Western civilization’s dominance to take a longer look at out future.
Taken together, the six episodes are educational, challenging, and (maybe most importantly) highly entertaining. Civilization: The West and the Rest is well worth watching for all of these reasons and more. There really is something here for everyone, and I was quite impressed with the entire series.