Monday, February 21, 2011

The west's "most remarkable killer application"

Thanks to organic cheeseboard on the previous thread, I read the sort-of-on-topic Niall Ferguson interview cum subtle hatchet-job.

According to Ferguson, modern medicine was the west's "most remarkable killer application".


Did Ferguson really walk into that one on his own? Reader, I lol'ed but I also wondered if he'd been set up and that's two separate quotations spliced together to make one ridiculous one. If he had, that makes the interview hostile, and it needs to be read differently if so. (Discuss.)

Ferguson's self-confidence – which, if it wasn't accompanied by considerable charm, might be downright insufferable – is no doubt partly a matter of temperament. But it also has something to do with the kind of historian he is. His approach to the past is overwhelmingly materialistic.


Eh? I think that's a non-sequitur and the rest of the paragraph doesn't help at all. He is self-confident because he's a materialist? Nope. Don't get that. Perhaps William Skidelsky is bonkers, or stupid.

Apart from his current one-year posting at the LSE, he [Niall Ferguson] is the Laurence A Tisch professor of history at Harvard, the William Ziegler professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. He has presented numerous television series, served as an adviser to John McCain and written reams of journalism (currently he is a columnist for Newsweek). He gets up at six every morning and says that he doesn't have hobbies: he just works. Whatever you make of the man and his views it is hard not to be impressed by his dedication.


As far as I know, Ferguson accepts this description of himself (professor, author, political adviser, journalist, and tv presenter), except where it suits him, of course.

I ask whether Ferguson has been surprised by the reaction their relationship provoked, the gossipy articles and so forth. His tone changes again and he suddenly sounds angry. "I was nauseated. Just nauseated. It makes me quite ashamed to be part of a culture that regards the private life of a professor as something that should be in the paper. It's just so tawdry. The British press has an insatiable appetite for making public things that should be private.


My emphasis. The thing about this is, that the story of itself is not "gossipy."

On April 27 [2006] a Dutch judge ruled that Hirsi Ali had to abandon her highly secure house at a secret address in the Netherlands: her neighbors had complained that living next to her was an unacceptable security risk to them, although the police had testified in court that it was one of the safest places in the country due to the large number of personnel they had assigned there.[40] In early 2007 she stated that the Dutch state had spent about 3.5 million euros providing armed guards for her, and the threats made her live "in fear and looking over my shoulder", but she was willing to endure this for the sake of speaking her mind.[41]
A private trust, the Foundation for Freedom of Expression, was established to help fund protection of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and other Muslim dissidents.


From Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Wikipedia entry (which I think is out of date). That she has a private life at all and is free to meet people is a story. I'd have thought that he'd want to publicise her situation. We've done Ayaan Hirsi Ali before (almost four years ago, ye gods!) and more recently. I still don't see why Ian Buruma is 'sexist'. And why are Garton Ash and Buruma 'left-leaning' (are they?) but Ferguson isn't "right-leaning"? Is alliteration that important to journalists?

23 Comments:

Anonymous belle le triste said...

Obviously I'm delighted AHA has found happiness in the arms of NF, and vice versa, but it's surely not going to make her task in the GISOOT easier that her consort is the era's best-known poster-child for unapologetic neo-imperialism...

2/21/2011 10:18:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

I'm with you in being a bit confused by that interview. Ferguson gives the interviewer enough rope (Native Americans only being interesting for 'killing bison', and the entire, clearly ridiculous, idea that colonialism can be packaged as a series of 'apps', supposedly to appeal to the youth market - the youth market who by and large cannot afford smartphones, a 'terminology [...] absolutely ubiquitous' only to people who are fairly rich and between 20 and 50), but Skidelsky seems oddly unwilling to test any of the implicaitons of his ideas or even to follow up on some of the really very contentious things he says. It feels like Skielsky has been asked to write a positive-ish interview despite the bloke clearly being a total dick.

On AHA, as I said on the other thread, Ferguson behaves like the patronising boyfriend trying to come to his girlfriend's aid; if he was serious about keeping his relationship ith her private, he wouldn't dedicate books to her or wade into the Buruma/TGA thing.

But on that, as you say, the only reason she's of interest to anyone is because of her life story. As the links to other aarowatch discussions show, she's a really limited thinker, and really unaware of actual history, as opposed to prejudice - witness her desire to have the building of minarets banned 'because there wasn't a single one around when Muhammad was alive' - that's genuinsly her case against.

To claim glibly that 'she's smarter than TGA and Buruma' is to miss the point; even if she is (which I'm really not sure about), their objections to her very clear anti-islam bigotry were rational and systematic. His counters to them are 'sexism' and 'jealously' - both unproveable and almost certainly untrue.

What's so odd about Ferguson, Cohen et al when discussing Hirsi Ali is that they uphold her as the one true representative of Enlightenment thinking on the planet, yet all she's written are Rousseau-style (i.e. anti-Enlightenmnt) memoirs; and their admiration for her is based not on a rational assessment of her ideas, but on her experiences.

2/22/2011 08:34:00 AM  
Blogger FlyingRodent said...

Very much OT, but I see that Aaro is currently arguing on Twitter that a) Gaddafi is such an inhuman monster that warplanes must be dispatched to Libya as a matter of urgency and that b) Tony Blair was absolutely right to snuggle up to the inhuman monster Gaddafi, for pragmatic reasons.

It's a bold and ambitious gambit, I grant you, but I notice that he's already lost Martin Bright. Suspect he won't have the same difficulty with the foot soldiers, though.

2/22/2011 08:41:00 AM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

OC, well the one thing I'd say about your last paragraph is that the Enlightenment did favour the empirical and the practical over ideas and rationalism per se. While AHA's memoir is Rousseauian in a way, it's also a very Enlightenment starting point against the scholasticism of Islamic headbangers. I'm entirely with Ferguson in his being-a-materialist thing; I greatly prefer that to the moralistic waffling of Norman Geras.

I've really no idea whether she's a limited thinker or not. But I do think that IB and TGA debated her *fairly* and weren't patronising (at least they didn't set of the sense of grievance alarms that Brownie says I possess). To return fire by calling them prejudiced seems (to borrow from Michael Ezra) not cricket.

As for the relationship being in the papers, neither is publicity shy. He is something of a poser. Both have books to sell. Her freedoms of movement and associations are a story -- or real, non gossipy journalism. Mind you, he has a point. Even so, they are a very photogenic couple. If say, Ann Widdecombe were stepping out with Peter Hitchens, gossips would be less intrusive, so he does have that right.

I don't really agree with you about the apps thing. First, I'm sure NF's kids are privately educated and they and their friends do have smart phones, and that is the feedback NF gets from teenagers. Second, teenagers are very materialistic and aspirational. You can watch Jeremy Clarkson arsing about in a Lambo (because I can't spell) without ever seriously believing you will too. I do get the impression that the book and tv series will energise bright teenagers. And that is a good thing. If he and his ideas are sniffed at as crass when those teenagers go to university, well that's what university is for. It's supposed to make you more sophisticated. If I had kids of the target age, I'd probably encourage them to watch.

2/22/2011 09:34:00 AM  
Anonymous dd said...

To claim glibly that 'she's smarter than TGA and Buruma' is to miss the point; even if she is (which I'm really not sure about),

I am sure; she isn't. I definitively wrote her off when she suggested that a) all Muslim girls should have compulsory examinations of their genitalia every year to make sure their parents hadn't sneakily mutilated them, and b) that the only possible reason that the Dutch medical and social services professions had not taken up her ace plan was that they were politically correct wimps who were scared of the Islamisses.

2/22/2011 09:50:00 AM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

"I think it's hard to make the case, which implicitly the left makes, that somehow the world would have been better off if the Europeans had stayed home. It certainly doesn't work for north America, that's for sure. I mean, I'm sure the Apache and the Navajo had all sorts of admirable traits. In the absence of literacy we don't know what they were because they didn't write them down. We do know they killed a hell of a lot of bison. But had they been left to their own devices, I don't think we'd have anything remotely resembling the civilisation we've had in north America."

I don't think the bison comment is quite as crude as the Guardian comments suggest it is. It's true that the Maori hunted the moas to extinction, and the Easter Islanders died out through a self-inflicted cultural-ecological catastrophe. Europeans are not uniquely bad.

Apache and the Navajo had all sorts of admirable traits. In the absence of literacy we don't know what they were because they didn't write them down.

This part just seems odd. If we don't know what they were, how do we know they existed at all. And literacy, while very useful is not the only means for the investigation of history. Archaeology is clearly difficult, but it's difficult in crowded Europe too, and we do know things about pre-literate European civilisations. It's not as if Herodotus or Pliny or any of the literate guys are good at telling us about the ancient world. Eagles are fertilised by the wind, forsooth! Native Americans did have oral traditions; and their cultures were recorded by Europeans, not all immediately driven by exploitation. The church was pretty good at sending out scholars who were better at observing people than finding what they were good for. They were paid by patronage, not the profit motive.

As for the civilisation in North America. I'm with Gandhi.

2/22/2011 09:59:00 AM  
Anonymous Phil said...

Re Aaro and Libya, this deserves to be written down on whatever it is they write it on where you are:

In any case, who was prosecuted after Kosovo?

Who's been prosecuted in any of these so-called wars of aggression people keep bleating about? Who's actually ended up in the dock? Nobody, that's who (apart from a few local nutters). Don't know what we've all been fussing about. I mean, who remembers Armenia?

Unbelievable.

2/22/2011 10:03:00 AM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

Maybe you're right about the app thing; I can't help thinking, though, that in just a couple of years it'll look a bit like if a history book from the 80s organised itself via a graphic equalizer or some such.

2/22/2011 10:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Darius Jedburgh said...

It's not as if Herodotus or Pliny or any of the literate guys are good at telling us about the ancient world.

Wha'??!

2/22/2011 10:50:00 AM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

Well, ok Darius, they tell us some things. But they talked an awful lot of nonsense as well, viz the eagles thing. Just because something is written down, doesn't mean it's right. That's all I meant.

2/22/2011 10:53:00 AM  
Anonymous Sarah AB said...

Even I find AHA a bit startling!

The stuff about apps and, more particularly, the six key areas, reminded me of playing the computer game Civilisation (Sid Meier). It's all about collecting civilisation advances, building wonders before the AI do, and generally trying to flatten everyone else with a mixture of superior culture and superior weapons. If I had the hours back I'd spent playing that ...

2/22/2011 02:03:00 PM  
Anonymous darkhorse steak with bernaise sauce said...

When I read the 'killer apps' of Western Civilisation, I thought of Jared Diamond's book discussing the success of European imperialism, "Guns Germs and Steel".

Actually, the term 'killer' would appear to be more appropriate for Diamond's choice of western advantages.

2/22/2011 07:13:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Remember Tuskegee!

(BTW another blatant falsehood peddled by AHA: the claim that 'the sun always shines on TV'.)

2/22/2011 07:46:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

In the absence of literacy we don't know what they were because they didn't write them down.

Extraordinary thing for a professional historian to say, but I suspect he's got a few amusing phrases available to dismiss those of his profession who do that kind of stuff, instead of being invited to parties so that the distinguished guests can benefit from your gigantic brain.

2/22/2011 08:52:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Extraordinary thing for a professional historian to say

Ridiculous, yes. I get the impression it's not that extraordinary.

Documentary evidence, (especially Official documents), despite being insanely easy to doctor/suppress/invent etc, is just so convenient and clean and neat that it is privileged far above, and almost to the exclusion of, anything else by quite a lot of historians, I'd say. Which may well tend to make them forget other more direct kinds of evidence altogether.

(Archeology is infra dig.)

For a closely related phenomenon, observe the difficulty Serious Journalists (who don't just write the first draft but generate much of that documentary evidence themselves) have in peeling away the layers of reinterpretation, potential mistake and possible misinformation in the Wikileaks cables, instead far too often taking the words written as gospel. Independent corroboration, authenticity checking (admittedly hard), assessment of provenance, sources of bias, etc? not really worth bothering with.

2/22/2011 09:55:00 PM  
Anonymous magistra said...

Further to darkhorse's point, it's been a recurring question for historians as to why Europe came to dominate the modern world (sometimes referred to as the 'Great Divergence' - i.e. from cultures with similar or more advanced levels of civilisation/economic development in 1500 like China or India). And there has been a lot of very interesting work done on this. Channel 4 also did a good series: The Day the World Took Off.

Unfortunately, I suspect that Ferguson will not come out with much interesting, if he's relying on discredited ideas like Weber's theories of Protestantism.

2/23/2011 12:46:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Also, just to note that somehow the world would have been better off if the Europeans had stayed home may or may not be true, but it's not the main question one might want to consider - basically '..if the Europeans had been a bit less brutal about it' seems a reasonable one if you like intractable couterfactuals (that one seems less intractable than the 'stay home' version though).

And the more useful question might be 'is turning up mob-handed and being brutal a generally good method of making people better off?' might be worth making.

It's a bit like capitalism being the regime under which the, er, fuel engine was developed (is this right? ed), or anyway under which Windows and plastic chairs were created, etc. Or massive military(er, /space) budgets are great because of non-stick pans, ARPANET or something.

Again, you need to say not just 'this happened, and that happened at the same time, and there you have it'; you need to ask 'is there something about this system that made it uniquely able to produce this effect (rather than some other equally good or better effect)?' and more to the point 'is this system the best way of getting the good bits of that kind of effect (A) in general, (b) starting from here.

And of course, what about all the other kinds of effects, other than having Iphones ten years earlier than we might have, or something (imagine the frustration of waiting for those ten years!)

2/23/2011 02:16:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

It's a myth that teflon was develop by NASA. It "accidentally invented by Roy Plunkett of Kinetic Chemicals in New Jersey in 1938" though it was used by the Manhattan Project. NASA did not come into existence until 1959.

However, iPhone technology could not have been developed without Area 51 and the Flying Saucer People, as every fule kno.

Seriously, I think it's got something to do with culture. And it's certainly not a straight forward capitalist culture. Many discoveries (teflon, the World Wide Web, sellotape, stainless steel, radium, x-rays, penicillin) were accidental or serendipitous. To be able to capitalise (not the right word under the circumstances, but the best I can think of ATM) on these requires an organisation which allows innovation and tolerates failure. Some of those organisations were commercial and some were government owned.

We keep being told that Iran is developing a nuclear program. There was a time when Niall Ferguson's ilk would have argued that only in the free west could the innovation and non-linear thinking needed to build reactors and bombs be tolerated. I can't think of any of the Manhattan Project guys who went into the private sector. Capitalism really hardly touched them.

Werner von Braun, a pretty horrible person, was responsible for most of the rocket science subsequently stolen by the USA and USSR and he worked best in the Nazi regime. Once the Yanks abandoned his tech, they developed the Space Shuttle, FFS. Almost all the really great innovation the US (I'd say Hubble, Voyager, and UNIX) was created purely by the public sector, which is as close to dammit as patronage. (OK, there are probably a huge number of counter examples.)

2/23/2011 03:12:00 PM  
Blogger AndyB said...

Or, in R&D departments of corporations so large that they were/are able to distribute R&D resources, and then simply wait and even watch research paths fail, in a way that is indistinguishable to, or even less result-orientated than, public sector research.

2/23/2011 07:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Werner von Braun, a pretty horrible person, was responsible for most of the rocket science subsequently stolen by the USA and USSR "

Are you sure about that? I thought that in the USA there was a least one gang (Redstone Arsenal? - can't be arsed to check) and possibly two who had nothing to do with the Germans.

Chris Williams

2/24/2011 12:05:00 AM  
Blogger Naadir said...

Niall's at it again:
http://www.newsweek.com/2011/02/27/un-american-revolutions.html

Here's some reviews:
Michael Cohen - Democracy Arsenal:
"I haven't read Niall Ferguson in a while, but has he always been this much of a hack? This Ferguson piece is incoherent, vaguely racist, exaggerated, badly written & confuses power dynamics in Arab world."

Andrew Exum, Center for a New American Security:
"Ferguson's going to harm his well-deserved reputation as 1st-rate financial historian if he keeps writing this drivel. This is almost as bad as when Ferguson passed judgment on Obama based on a poll of ... hawkish Herzliya attendees. I really loved Ferguson's biography of the Rothchild family, but his musings on the Arab world and U.S. policy are uniformly poor."

2/27/2011 09:21:00 PM  
Anonymous skidmarx said...

He did Newsnight on Tuesday, his oddest pronouncement seemed to be that radical Islamists prcreated a lot.

3/02/2011 11:06:00 AM  
Blogger oversear said...

Wasn't Ferguson preparing a celebration of 'Money'(some C4 nonsense) on the day the shit 'paper' hit the 'reality of can't pay' fan? Only the 'killer app' of 'the peasants will bale us out' saved the bonuses of those he worships. He is simply a brown-nosing buffoon, don't encourage him.

3/03/2011 12:41:00 PM  

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