Watch This Man: On Civilisation: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson

‘Civilisation’s going to pieces,’ Tom Buchanan, the Yale-educated millionaire, abruptly informs Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. ‘I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard? … The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged.’ ‘Tom’s getting very profound,’ his wife Daisy remarks. Buchanan carries on: ‘This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.’ ‘We’ve got to beat them down,’ Daisy whispers with a wink at Nick. But there’s no stopping Buchanan. ‘And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilisation – oh, science and art, and all that. Do you see?’

‘There was something pathetic in his concentration,’ Carraway, the narrator, observes, ‘as if his complacency, more acute than of old, was not enough to him any more.’ The scene, early in the novel, helps identify Buchanan as a bore – and a boor. It also evokes a deepening panic among America’s Anglophile ruling class. Wary of Jay Gatz, the self-made man with a fake Oxbridge pedigree, Buchanan is nervous about other upstarts rising out of nowhere to challenge the master race.

Scott Fitzgerald based Goddard, at least partly, on Theodore Lothrop Stoddard, the author of the bestseller The Rising Tide of Color against White World Supremacy (1920). Stoddard’s fame was a sign of his times, of the overheated racial climate of the early 20th century, in which the Yellow Peril seemed real, the Ku Klux Klan had re-emerged, and Theodore Roosevelt worried loudly about ‘race-suicide’. In 1917, justifying his reluctance to involve the United States in the European war, Woodrow Wilson told his secretary of state that ‘white civilisation and its domination over the world rested largely on our ability to keep this country intact.’

Hysteria about ‘white civilisation’ gripped America after Europe’s self-mutilation in the First World War had encouraged political assertiveness among subjugated peoples from Egypt to China. Unlike other popular racists, who parsed the differences between Nordic and Latin peoples, Stoddard proposed a straightforward division of the world into white and coloured races. He also invested early in Islamophobia, arguing in The New World of Islam (1921) that Muslims posed a sinister threat to a hopelessly fractious and confused West. Like many respectable eugenicists of his time, Stoddard later found much to like about the Nazis, which marked him out for instant superannuation following the exposure of Nazi crimes in 1945.

The banner of white supremacism has been more warily raised ever since in post-imperial Europe, and very rarely by mainstream politicians and writers. In the United States, racial anxieties have been couched either in such pseudo-scientific tracts about the inferiority of certain races as The Bell Curve, or in big alarmist theories like Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’. It’s not at all surprising that in his last book Huntington fretted about the destruction by Latino immigration of America’s national identity, which is apparently a construct of ‘Anglo-Protestant culture’. As power ostensibly shifts to the East, a counterpoise to dismay over the West’s loss of authority and influence is sought in a periodic ballyhooing of the ‘trans-Atlantic alliance’, as in Philip Bobbitt’s Terror and Consent (2008), which Niall Ferguson in an enthusiastic review claimed will ‘be read with pleasure by men of a certain age, class and education from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to London’s West End’.

Ferguson himself is homo atlanticus redux. In a preface to the UK edition of Civilisation: The West and the Rest, he writes of being seduced away from a stodgy Oxbridge career, early in the 2000s, to the United States, ‘where the money and power actually were’. The author of two previous books about 19th-century banking, Ferguson became known to the general public with The Pity of War (1998), a long polemic, fluent and bristling with scholarly references, that blamed Britain for causing the First World War. According to Ferguson, Prussia wasn’t the threat it was made out to be by Britain’s Liberal cabinet. The miscalculation not only made another war inevitable after 1919, and postponed the creation of an inevitably German-dominated European Union to the closing decades of the 20th century, it also tragically and fatally weakened Britain’s grasp on its overseas possessions.

This wistful vision of an empire on which the sun need never have set had an immediately obvious defect. It grossly underestimated – in fact, ignored altogether – the growing strength of anti-colonial movements across Asia, which, whatever happened in Europe, would have undermined Britain’s dwindling capacity to manage its vast overseas holdings. At the time, however, The Pity of War seemed boyishly and engagingly revisionist, and it established Ferguson’s reputation: he was opinionated, ‘provocative’ and amusing, all things that seem to be more cherished in Britain’s intellectual culture than in any other… (Please follow the link to continue.)

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