28 Apr 2011, 12:31am
reflections:
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  • Civilisation – The West and the Rest, Protestant Work Ethic Redux

    Earlier this year here at the Ermine’s Nest we pondered whether there was a case to be made for saving £140 odd by outing the TV. That may seem obscure to non-UK viewers, but in the UK there is a thing called a TV licence that you are meant to have if you watch TV as it is broadcast. This largely pays for the BBC, whose programmes don’t have commercial advertising.

    Anyway, we decided that we would see if we could find something that pleased us enough to justify the £140, so I occasionally look for stuff that may interest me.  The recent Panorama Finished at Fifty was one of these, and I had recorded Niall Ferguson’s Civilization -The West and the Rest. This was presumably a TV series of the book

    Watching this was rewarding and I learned a few bits and pieces I hadn’t known before. Niall comes across as a dapper and personable enough chap, and according to this review in the Grauniad he targeted this series at teenagers.  Which explained why he had this infuriating catchline where he comes across as “Dad trying to be down with the yoof-speak and with it”, by endlessly referring to the six “killer apps” of Western Civilisation. I know he titled his book civilization but I just can’t bring myself to spell it that way, I have enough unwitting typos without adding deliberate ones 😉

    Anyhow, that killer apps yoof-speak got on my nerves, because nothing made by the Apple corporation has darkened my door because I don’t have money to burn, and I am a crabby old git who has nothing to do with media and so I don’t refer to apps and folders on a computer but directories and programs. When I see job ads for appers rather than programmers I’ll rethink that.

    Despite the killer app-speak, Niall was informative and reasonably to the point, though his perspective is a lot more upbeat about the advantages of the European empires than I am used to. Some people will hate it for that alone. He did at least tip his hat to Mahatma Gandhi’s delightful one-liner on what he thought about Western Civilisation, something to the effect of “yes, that would be a good thing”.

    One takeaway I got from the series, particularly in the last program, was the effect of  the Protestant work ethic on the success of the West in economic terms. I’ve spent my fair share on here slagging off the Protestant work ethic, but Niall did make me think that perhaps I should be more nuanced about it.

    When I was in America, it did strike me that there were an awful lot of churches about, both in New England and in California (I haven’t been anywhere else in the US, other than NJ, NV, MI, CO and AZ so it may be very different elsewhere). The sheer density of churches was remarkable. Niall made the case that this has something to  do with the dynamism of the US economy compared to those of Western Europe, a part of the West he considers in relative decline vis a vis the US, as it became largely secular after the Second World War.

    It puzzled me because the presentation of Christianity in the US came across to me as extremely in-your-face, of a type which I believe is called evangelical. The last time I had significant dealings with Christianity was in the 1970s, and this sort of thing wasn’t around then.

    In Niall’s program they showed some clips of what went on in US churches, and what strikes me is that the entire message seems to be mediated through the emotional centres, with rah-rah sessions of  ‘Can you FEEL the power of the Lord’ together with the raising of arms and clapping. The sort of thinking and reflection that I had observed in Christians in the Old World, albeit three decades ago just wasn’t there.

    That sort of thing makes me uneasy – somewhere at the back of my mind I feel that if the Good Lord is worth believing in, He wouldn’t demand that His adherents check their brains in at the door. Each to their own, but I could see how this might lead to people being persuaded to defer gratification for other goals. And a lot of economic success seems to be about deferred gratification, so Niall makes the case that Protestant Christianity was a large part of the economic success of the West. In his final program he makes the case that as this fades, so the power of the West will also fade, particularly as it appears that Christianity is on the rise in China.

    Now this is a TV program, and though Niall is bright he isn’t infallible. For instance he perpetrated a howler in saying Edison was associated with AC power in the US – he opposed it intensely in the war of the currents due to patent considerations.

    I have no way of verifying a lot of what he claimed. I would agree with him that there is a decadence and a lack of people taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions in the West nowadays. There is a general infantilisation of public discourse, where we all too often resort to “the Government should” or “They should” fix one of the current malaises, often the result of earlier aberrant behaviour. For instance the years 2000-2007 where we all believed house prices would go up forever so it was worth lending NINJA‘s money in the knowledge the rising house price would enable them to pay off the loan?

    It is also possible that the increasing secularisation means that one common source of a moral compass is lost, and this is why we are regressing and becoming decadent. It isn’t the only explanation, and humanists among others would object to the concept that only religion can provide a moral frame of reference. An alternative explanation would be that life has got materially easier, so we can get away with more lax behaviour. Or I might just be getting older and it’s all really okay as it is, despite the financial crises and the disappearing jobs that the POTUS noted a while back 😉

    So all in all I can probably get my £140 worth, over the year. This programme was not on the BBC, so it was infested with ads. However, my Humax Foxsat PVR seems to be programmed well inasmuch as two taps of the >> button skips the whole ad break, so I am not troubled by companies trying to push consumerism on me. I  win much of the simple living/frugality battle by busting as much advertising and junk out of my sight as I can .

    This also helps me in the fight against my power bill as it has a standby power usage of < 1W. Obviously that’s still more than if I got rid of the whole TV receiving system, however it is very low, so I can live with the £2 it costs me in power a year, as it spends most of its time in standby.

     
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