BOOK REVIEW: ‘Civilization’

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Mr. Ferguson, a conservative, quotes Bill Clinton’s old tutor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, Carroll Quigley, that each civilization has a life cycle where it “enters a period of vigorous expansion, increasing its size and power … until gradually a crisis of organization appears. When this crisis has passed and the civilization been reorganized … it becomes stabilized and eventually stagnant. After a Golden Age of peace and prosperity … the civilization grows steadily weaker until it is submerged by outside enemies, and eventually disappears.”

The trouble with this analysis is that it mistakes structure for system. What sets the West apart from the rest is not the structure of our governments - whether we have presidents or prime ministers, parliaments or congresses - but how the system functions to maximize the energies of the individual while at the same time maintaining that fragile stability of the whole society so the individual can move freely within it.

Mr. Ferguson to his credit does not disagree with that view. But he is nonplussed by the current global financial crisis and at the rapid statistical gains being racked up by challenger states like China, India and Brazil. After more than 300 pages of laserlike historical focus, his nerve fails him and this is where my objection comes in.

Mr. Ferguson’s final conclusion is a bit flat to my mind. “Today … the biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilizations, but by our own pusillanimity - and by the historical ignorance that feeds it.” Well, yes.

But place the current climate of crisis and doubt against a similar period - the decade between 1929 and 1940 known as the Great Depression. That period is now seen as the greatest period in history for technical innovation and scientific advance in electronics, chemistry, air and ground transportation, communications and political thought. Those advances set the stage for the next 40 years of unparalleled prosperity.

As unseemly as the political turmoil of the West appears, contrast it with the challenges to stability going on in China, the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere. Now ask, which system is better positioned to adapt?

Still, this book provides the reader with a historical context lacking in most of today’s analysis. Mr. Ferguson makes one think hard about what’s going on and in that regard, this book is a valuable and highly readable excursion.

James Srodes is author of “On Dupont Circle,” which will be published by Counterpoint in August.

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