Sunday, May 20, 2012

Civilization: the West and the Rest on PBS

Civilization: the West and the Rest on PBS; I Cloned My Pet on TLC; Mrs. Eastwood & Company on E!: Television Reviews by Nancy deWolf Smith -

Yet these sights and the scents and sensations they evoke underpin Mr. Ferguson's overarching thesis that six characteristics reflect and/or explain the ascendancy of the West. These are the six "killer apps," as he jokingly calls them, that the West applied and thrived on: competition, science, property (rights), modern medicine, consumerism and the (Protestant) work ethic.
Each app is examined through its own prism. To illustrate the benefits of competition, for instance, Mr. Ferguson looks to Ming-era China, which was a vast, sophisticated and advanced society at a time when Europe was still in darkness. Chinese treasure ships—10 times the size of the tiny Santa Maria Columbus would set sail with—roamed the faraway seas, plucking exotic animals off the coast of Africa. But Chinese emperors were not interested in trade, and ultimately authoritarian China turned its back on the world and looked inward.
Meanwhile, in Europe, tiny fiefdoms and competing kingdoms set forth to search for spices and other riches, reaching out into the world and competing for the best trade markets. In short: autonomy, the freedom to explore and trade, and decentralized power in Europe vs. their opposites in China. Among other benefits, trade brought potatoes and sugar, and thus better nutrition and longer life, to Europeans, while the Chinese locked themselves in "with a rising population, falling incomes, declining nutrition, height and productivity." See where this is going?
Throughout, Mr. Ferguson illustrates his killer apps through questions: Why did post-colonial North America prosper while post-colonial South America was condemned to "two centuries of underdevelopment"? Hint: Gen. George Washington had more respect for property rights than Gen. Simon Bolivar. Why did the Ottomans and the Islamic world's advanced sciences stagnate for centuries? Hint: While Europe was unleashing its best minds from church control to probe the universe, Muslim rulers were burning down observatories and banning books or even printing, in a return to the Quranic purity of calligraphy.
Colonialism and slavery fit into the story, as do questions such as: Did blue jeans defeat communism? And what's happened to the Protestant work ethic, with its crucial emphasis on saving and the accumulation of capital?
Mr. Ferguson's generally approving view of Western values is bound to enrage some viewers, as will his lament that a real threat to the West comes from the fact that "we've lost faith in the things that propelled us and propelled the world." If the six killer apps survive, he's betting, it may be in the East, where other people are just now learning to place their faith in the same things.

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