Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Douchebag

A few weeks ago I took Niall Ferguson to task for an essay, excerpted in part from his book Civilization, that he published in Newsweek, arguing that when empires fell they did so rather suddenly and that the United States might be on the verge of doing so. I asserted both in my comment and title that Ferguson was something of a "dolt," insofar as his essay betrayed considerable ignorance about the way historical events actually happen. I now wish to apologize to my readers for referring to Ferguson as a dolt, which turns out to be an inadequately pejorative epithet. He is, in fact, a douchebag.

I base this judgment on a kerfuffle that has arisen in the London Review of Books, where Pankaj Mishra reviewed Ferguson's Civilization and several of his earlier books in a long review essay ("Watch This Man," 3 Nov. 2011.) Mishra compared Ferguson to Theodore Stoddard, a purveyor of white-supremacist fantasies from the 1920s, and like Ferguson a writer who warned of the decline of the West relative to a vaguely sinister East. While not calling Ferguson a racist, he did accuse him of stoking the "racial anxieties" of the Euro-American elite and of writing at least one "Stoddardesque" book (The Pity of War, 1998) bemoaning the crippling impact of World War One on the British Empire, for which empire he later wrote at least one avowed apologetic, Empire (2003).

Regarding Ferguson's latest book, Mishra noted that not all of the author's "killer apps" were confined to Western Europe in the early modern era; Qing China, Tokugawa Japan, and India all had strong work ethics, abundant trade, and strong consumer economies until 1800. Perhaps more importantly, "killer apps" weren't necessarily the keys to the West's conquest of the "Rest"; in the case of the Americas and Australasia, epidemic diseases and Eurasian livestock were (as Alfred Crosby and Jared Diamond have argued) probably more important than technology and hard work in effecting English and Spanish colonization. And once the West conquered the Rest, its empires left behind a legacy that was ambiguous at best and often ghastly - vide the serial famines and economic devastation that the British left in India, the destruction of indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere and the South Pacific, and the mountain of bodies that the Belgians left in the Congo in the early twentieth century.

Mishra's review, it is fair to say, is a hostile one. I cannot judge whether it is an accurate treatment of Ferguson's book, not yet* having read Civilization, but I can say that Ferguson has overreacted to it. In the LRB's November 17th issue Mr. F. wrote an angry letter (scroll up to read), claiming Mishra had engaged in "character assassination" by insinuating that Ferguson was a racist, and owed Ferguson a public apology. In his reply, Mishra did not exactly apologize - he said Ferguson was guilty of the same "pathology" that George Orwell diagnosed in James Burnham, power-worship - but he did write that Ferguson was "no racist" and went on to argue Ferguson had misrepresented his review essay.

This was unacceptable to Professor Ferguson, who replied (scroll down) that Mishra's "mealy-mouthed" assertion and the "smear" that followed it vitiated any apologetic intent in Mishra's reply. He closed his second letter by noting that "the freedom of the press does not extend to serious defamation, at best reckless, at worst deliberate and malicious," and upped the ante, demanding apologies from both Mishra and his editor and insinuating that he planned a lawsuit. In his second reply, Mishra noted that Ferguson has long defended "the innate superiority, indeed indispensibility, of Western civilization," and offered the following Ferguson quote (from earlier this year) as evidence:

"The Apache and the Navajo had all sorts of admirable traits. In the absence of literacy we don’t know what they were because they didn’t write them down. We do know they killed a hell of a lot of bison. But had they been left to their own devices, I don’t think we’d have anything remotely resembling the civilisation we’ve had in North America."

So the subjugation and dispossession of the Apaches and Navajos, and I assume that of many other Native Americans, was justified in Ferguson's view by the great civilization that Anglo-Americans built in their former homeland. I might wonder if Ferguson is aware of the civilizations that some Native North Americans, like the Chaco Canyon peoples (Anasazi) and Mississippians, actually built on this continent prior to European contact, or what the Good Professor would say about the Native peoples, notably the "Civilized Tribes" of the southeastern U.S., who made a concerted effort to "download" Western Europe's "killer apps" in the 19th century and were still squashed by the U.S. government. But I doubt Ferguson gives a damn; he's too busy bursting with anger over an unfavorable book review and preparing to sue the reviewer in the name of freedom of the press.

* I guess I'll have to read it now, and possibly review some of its content. Stay tuned.

[Note: An earlier version of this post erroneously referred to Prof. Ferguson as "Andrew Ferguson." His real, full name is "Niall Campbell Douglas Elizabeth Ferguson."]


Susan M. Frey said...

Da-viiid! Once again, love the graphic! Is that Cecil Rhodes or Ozymandias? (Oh never mind.)

Too bad Ferguson hasn’t the benefit of dual citizenship; if so, he might be able to file a lawsuit in the French courts. See: http://chronicle.com/article/French-Court-Finds-in-Favor-of/126599/

But you know, perhaps Mishra is playing with fire by subjecting Ferguson’s work to the full rigor of academe? Wars have started over less. I note Adams’ account of the hellish consequences of pissing off a snarky personality:

“A dreadful silence fell across the conference table as the commander of the Vl'hurgs, resplendent in his black jewelled battle shorts, gazed levelly at the G'Gugvuntt leader squatting opposite him in a cloud of green sweet-smelling steam, and, with a million sleek and horribly beweaponed star cruisers poised to unleash electric death at his single word of command, challenged the vile creature to take back what it had said about his mother (HHGTTG, 1978).”

Anonymous said...

I totally agree Niall Ferguson is a douchebag as he often uses logically inconsistent arguments. He believes only in his own superiority to all other "intellectuals" and anyone that does not agree with him must simply be too stupid to understand him. Total douchebag!!!

Dave Nichols said...

The image is, indeed, of Cecil Rhodes, taken from an issue of Punch (via Wikimedia Commons). The mental image of Niall Ferguson in black jeweled battle shorts is a similarly arresting, if emetic, one.