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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: Ferguson's Back, With 'Killer' Apps

Niall Ferguson is a Scottish-born, Oxford-educated, professor of history at Harvard University. He is not your grandfather's history professor. He is, or at least seems to be, young, energetic, telegenic, very outgoing and high-profile, and very much in tune with how we communicate these days — via television for those of us in the main PBS demographic and via iPad and smartphone applications, or apps, for the millions who will soon replace us.

So it is not surprising that his latest series on PBS, titled "Civilization: The West and the Rest," invokes, rather relentlessly, six "killer apps" upon which the West has built global dominance in recent centuries but which now may be in jeopardy here while flourishing, at least in part, elsewhere. They are competition, science, democracy (along with the rule of law and property rights), medicine, consumerism and the (Protestant) work ethic.

Watch Civilization (Part 2) on PBS. See more from Civilization: The West and the Rest with Niall Ferguson.

Ferguson is also provocative, at times a contrarian, and hence controversial among historians, political economists, book and television critics, and PBS viewers. Four years ago, he wrote and narrated a three-part series on PBS titled "The War of the World: A New History of the 20th Century" based on a book by the same name. That series generated a fair amount of mail to me, all of it critical. I wrote about that series twice, the first time on July 3, 2008 and then again the following week.

At the time, I found his rather unique approach to the virtual continuum of global violence that marked the 20th century to be quite thought-provoking, in a good way, "opening connections and a historic flow that I hadn't thought much about." But those who wrote to me, I reported, "really dislike this series and don't seem to care much for Ferguson." I headlined one sampling of letters: "Allies 14, Ferguson 0."

Alas, history seems to be repeating itself. Ferguson's latest effort for PBS — the four-hour "Civilization" series presented in two, two-hour programs in May, and also based on one of his books — also didn't fare well, at least with those who wrote to me. A sampling of the letters follows farther down in this column.

More of a Tone

There are lots of reviews of Ferguson's book and of the television version that one can search for and read. I don't intend to review it here, other than to say that it seemed to me to be more controversial and with more of a detectable editorial tone than the first series, as I recall it.

So I can understand where some of the criticism is coming from.

On the other hand, I'm surprised at the uniformity of the mail I've received on both these series. It is all critical. Yet this latest series, which to me, as a viewer, had segments with which I viscerally disagreed, was once again thought-provoking and revealing in many ways, and added up to what I felt was a valuable TV experience that made one think about history in unconventional and sometimes uncomfortable ways. I found it easy to disagree with some of his connections yet very much valued the clever and succinct run through history and the challenge to think about other interpretations.

PBS 'Revealed'

Another thing that struck me as a viewer about this series is that it reminded me very much, in its presentation, of another series aired on PBS in April, a four-parter titled "America Revealed" that took an enterprising and imaginative look "at the huge and complicated systems that keep this country's food, transportation, energy and manufacturing networks functioning," as I wrote on April 27. The problem with that series for viewers was mostly that Dow Chemical Company was the sole corporate sponsor and each segment, while not mentioning Dow, portrayed a segment of American industry in which Dow is heavily engaged.

But what I find fascinating, and perhaps revealing about PBS, in these two recent series is that both have a reality TV quality and feel to them. Both Niall Ferguson and Yul Kwon, the host/narrator of "America Revealed" who won the popular TV reality show "Survivor: Cook Islands" in 2006, have a tour-guide quality to them. Both are nimble, articulate, quick-witted figures who are constantly filmed against exotic backdrops, always on the move, at the scene, providing plausible links between events and outcomes. It makes for good television, and you can learn things from it. But it also seems to me that it runs the risk of over-simplifying big and complex structures, events or issues.

Here Are Some of the Letters

Re: Civilization: The West and the Rest with Niall Ferguson. This program is very politically biased and to add insult to injury I did not see any type of disclaimer of the author's background or biases. I could not stand to watch more than the first half of the first segment. While the program is presented as history (in my opinion), it is, in fact, right-wing conservative propaganda arguing for the currently popular extreme right ideology. Conclusions appear to be picked out of thin air which support current conservative positions. While it purports to be an objective examination of why western civilization has had primacy for 500 years, it actually argues that laissez faire capitalism, etc., etc. is what is responsible for Western dominance and that we are in danger of losing it. This is, of course, the current standard conservative fear-mongering. That we are about to lose some mythological wonderful past, because we fail to adhere to conservative political mores. I expect something better from PBS than this.

Although the horse is now out of the barn, it would be nice to be now given some information about the program's author and his background and biases. More importantly I would like to know how this program came to be aired on PBS. Specifically, was there pressure from right-wing groups to "balance" out alleged "liberal bias" in PBS programming? If that is true, then it should have been labeled as such, at the very least. Political commentary should be labeled as such, and not masquerading as objective programming. But that is par for the course with current conservative thought — it is dishonest at its core and that is why I don't subscribe to it.

Steve Preller, Brodhead, WI

~ ~ ~

The Niall Ferguson documentary I viewed tonight is an insult to morality and your network's programing. Mr. Ferguson preaches his Protestant work ethic as a cure to all our social ills; he even states that climate change is a small issue — that can be changed by the return to Protestantism. In the last few minutes of tonight's segment he states that there have been mistakes made by the new world (the Americas), the camera shows a black man that I suppose is meant to represent slavery in North and South America.

For him to claim the right to judge America and western civilization and not even mentioning 500 + years slavery is myopic and wrong. Slavery was more than indentured servitude, in the USA, it included rape, child abuse, family separation, and forced labor. The south thrived financially by purchasing human beings to do work whites could not or would not do. Mr. Ferguson chooses to tell half of the story of western civilization; I hope PBS will be more complete.

Seattle, WA

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The program aired tonight, May 29, "Civilization: The West and the Rest with Niall Ferguson," is not up to PBS standards. The assumptions are erroneous, the narrative style is annoying and sensationalistic, and the overall premise is without foundation. What is PBS coming to? How did the producers and creators of this program get funding? Why was it brought into PBS viewers homes? It offers nothing of merit.

Anne Fitzmaurice, Berkeley, CA

~ ~ ~

In the new 2-hour program Civilization about the possible switch between the current ascendancy of the West and the (according to the narrator) coming ascendance of the East, one reason he cited for the West facing many problems in the near term is that it is "beset by environmental fears." I almost expected him to add that it was also "hamstrung by democracy" — but I am glad he didn't. I will say, however, that the insinuation that the West's concern for environmental issues is inappropriate and causing unnecessary problems is a comment that only a major crackpot could make — like a Republican. I find it wholly inappropriate for PBS to broadcast a program whose script has been so poorly vetted that it allows crackpot comments such as that one.

Berkeley, CA

'Shocked, Appalled . . .'

RE: civilization the west and the rest. I am shocked, appalled and disappointed at PBS for airing this racist, neo-imperialist, tripe. Why chose one author and allow him to film and air a condensed version of his book? Where is the peer review? Where are the interviews with experts? To center on Anglo successes of white northern Europe, at the expense of the Muslim world and even southern Europe/Central America is not balanced. To call Ottoman Empire calligraphy scribblings is just too much. Come PBS, I expect more. Leave this type of programming for the History Channel.

R. West, Alexandria, VA

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I turned on Civilization: "The West and the Rest" last night because of the interesting ads for it. After an hour of clearly right-wing talking points more suitable to Fox news than PBS I turned it off. What a bunch of drivel. I would point out that other, more scholarly and respected intellectuals (Jared Diamond comes to mind) have looked at this history and repudiated the ideas presented by Ferguson. I didn't know much about Ferguson so did a Google search and sure enough, he is a Fellow at one of the right-wing think tanks (Hoover Institute) and is actively engaged in right-wing policy. Moreover, his scholarship has been questioned by many including Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman who said ". . . hasn't bothered to understand the basics, relying on snide comments and surface cleverness to convey the impression of wisdom. It's all style, no comprehension of substance."

I expect more from PBS. This seems like a transparent sucking-up to the anti-intellectualism of the current congress. I don't mind views presented that are opposed to my own, but I expect disclosure when clearly ideological and intellectually out of the mainstream pundits are presented on PBS.

Richard Shaw, Seattle, WA

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OOH boy. I will tell you why the West will fall to the East: Niall Ferguson's hubris. I don't rely on PBS for testosterone-driven commentary on DOMINANCE! CHEST-THUMPING! SELF-AGGRANDIZEMENT MASQUERADING AS REFLECTIVE EXAMINATION! but rather a more measured, objective approach to historical fact. Niall's incessant peppering of his narrative with "West and the Rest" . . . "the Resters" . . . and ESPN-worthy commentary is Western jingoism and utterly distasteful. I will take Jared Diamond over Niall any day.

Sophia Baykam, Seattle, WA