Skip

Take up the White Man's burden— And reap his old reward: The blame of those ye better, The hate of those ye guard—
December 5, 2011 11:08 AM   Subscribe

Indian author Pankaj Mishra writes a brutal takedown of Niall Ferguson's latest book, Civilisation: The West and the Rest in the London Review of Books. Ferguson responds to the critical book review with a lawsuit.

Excerpts from the review include:
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’....

Ferguson, setting aside his expertise in economic history, emerged as an evangelist-cum-historian of empire. He was already arguing in The Cash Nexus, published a few months before the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, that ‘the United States should be devoting a larger percentage of its vast resources to making the world safe for capitalism and democracy’ – if necessary by military force. ‘Let me come clean,’ he wrote in the New York Times Magazine in April 2003, a few weeks after the shock-and-awe campaign began in Iraq, ‘I am a fully paid-up member of the neoimperialist gang.’...


Ferguson responds:
It is not my habit to reply to hostile book reviews, but a personal attack that amounts to libel is another matter. Pankaj Mishra purports to discuss my book Civilisation: The West and the Rest, but in reality his review is a crude attempt at character assassination, which not only mendaciously misrepresents my work but also strongly implies that I am a racist....

The London Review of Books is notorious for its left-leaning politics. I do not expect to find warm affection in its pages. Much of what I write is simply too threatening to the ideological biases of your coterie. Nevertheless, this journal used, once, to have a reputation for intellectual integrity and serious scholarship. Pankaj Mishra’s libellous and dishonest article brings the LRB as well as himself into grave disrepute.
posted by bodywithoutorgans (107 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Once you use the word "coterie," you've already lost.
posted by escabeche at 11:17 AM on December 5, 2011 [11 favorites]


No lawsuit yet, just threats so far.
posted by takeyourmedicine at 11:18 AM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Oh man it's been a while since I read a nice old-fashioned "We're running out of white people!" rant.
posted by The Whelk at 11:20 AM on December 5, 2011 [23 favorites]


Ferguson was an interesting enough economic historian while he stuck to that. Now he's just entertaining.
posted by atrazine at 11:24 AM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Pat Buchanan will be champing at the bit to write the foreword for the paperback edition.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 11:26 AM on December 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


If the UK is any indication, Americans can look forward to really, really good falafel in about 20 years.

That, and heroin.
posted by R. Schlock at 11:31 AM on December 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


I enjoyed this piece in the Guardian on the matter.

Extracts below: "Why on earth is the history man being quite so hysterical?"

"Imagine the outcome if Ferguson had contented himself, as countless indignant academics have done in the past, with letters, bitterly addressing Mishra's wrongness as he sees it. That would have been nothing out of the ordinary for a journal which has hosted livelier engagements, [...]

Although habitually dismissive of the UK, this US resident can still enjoy something uniquely British and precious that is unavailable in his adopted home: libel laws that allow the wealthy and vengeful to censor public discourse. [...]

Ferguson's earlier incarnation, as a champion of free expression, only aggravates the spectacle of him now trying to stifle it"

posted by knapah at 11:32 AM on December 5, 2011 [7 favorites]


If the UK is any indication, Americans can look forward to really, really good falafel in about 20 years.

The true measure of the end of civilisation.
posted by knapah at 11:33 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I laughed myself silly reading Ferguson's letter the other day. If he sues I will probably wet myself reading the court transcripts. Can I contribute to the defense fund?
posted by RogerB at 11:35 AM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


@RogerB I asked myself the same question, and resubscribed to the LRB in the meantime.
posted by takeyourmedicine at 11:36 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have not one but three excellent felafel places near me so clearly I live in some kind of shattered dystopia.
posted by The Whelk at 11:37 AM on December 5, 2011 [19 favorites]


Thanks, bodywithoutorgans, this Panka Mishraj piece is some awe-inspiring takedown. Reminds me of Angela Carter.
posted by emjaybee at 11:38 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


If the UK is any indication, Americans can look forward to really, really good falafel in about 20 years.

nyc is already there
posted by beukeboom at 11:39 AM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


One understands Mishra's ire, but Ferguson is right to say that the piece is ad hom. It would have been a more effective review if it had focused on scholarly shortcomings and left the sneering out.
posted by yoink at 11:40 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I spoke to the editor Mary-Kay Wilmers and said: 'Don't force my hand by forcing me to put it in the hands of lawyers.'"
Hold on... he wants her not to force him to put his hand in the hands of lawyers? Is this just holding hands with them, or is there some kind of messed-up Lavinia-from-Titus-Andronicus shit going down?
posted by running order squabble fest at 11:40 AM on December 5, 2011 [12 favorites]


It would have been a more effective review if it had focused on scholarly shortcomings and left the sneering out.

More effective, perhaps, at least for some imagined reader, but far less funny. And honestly, the "ad hom" is the real point of Mishra's piece: it's an essay diagnosing Niall Ferguson's whole career, his way of talking and thinking, as an apologia for empire. It's not just a review of his latest book.
posted by RogerB at 11:43 AM on December 5, 2011 [11 favorites]


As a spokesman for imperialism, shouldn't Ferguson challenge Mishra to a duel?
posted by wuwei at 11:44 AM on December 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


Don't the assertions have to be untrue in order to be construed as libel?
posted by clockzero at 11:46 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


If the UK is any indication, Americans can look forward to really, really good falafel in about 20 years.

I'm headed to Dearborn, MI for work in about 20 minutes.
posted by joe lisboa at 11:52 AM on December 5, 2011 [12 favorites]


"Left-leaning politics"? Ferguson is an English defender of Western imperialism that is dismissive of historical evidence of, as well as current, accomplishments of former colonies. Mishra is Indian. I don't know if the review had much to do with right vs left, but yes that sounds like the knee-jerk reaction of someone who's getting more comfortable with living in America. It's always about liberal media bias, and the solution is litigation.
posted by Hoopo at 11:58 AM on December 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


Unless you're simply correcting a factual error and leaving it at that, academic author responses to hostile reviews never turn out well. Well, not well for the author that is. The rest of us gather to see which giant will fall first.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 11:59 AM on December 5, 2011


Hold on... he wants her not to force him to put his hand in the hands of lawyers?

It sounds like a slightly more erudite version of "Come at me, Bro!"
posted by drezdn at 12:03 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Once you use the word "coterie," you've already lost.

True. Especially when that's all you can come up with against someone who describes your central thesis as "gallimaufry.". It's like George Costanza searching for something, anything, to come back with 3 days later.
posted by webhund at 12:06 PM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Civilization (the book) has not had great customer reviews so this dustup is attention better than none. Plus, a brawl over Civilization, it will draw interest for the irony alone.
posted by stbalbach at 12:08 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


siri, find me some good falafel
posted by phaedon at 12:11 PM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Though I admit some ideological affinity for Niall Ferguson, the man is undeniably a pompous, egotistical asshole. He should have just allowed Mishra's pungent essay to dissipate in the stale old salons of liberal elite opinion.

And Mishra - wow, what a coward. Either call the guy a racist or don't. What else does he expect the reader to think when he opens his review with quotes from Tom and Daisy Buchanan and references to the KKK, the Yellow Peril, Islamophobia and The Bell Curve?
posted by BobbyVan at 12:20 PM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ferguson is an English defender of Western imperialism

Scottish defender...
posted by pompomtom at 12:32 PM on December 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


It says something about the political culture of our age that Ferguson has got away with this disgraced worldview for as long as he has.

Oh no, someone's "getting away" with having a different imagined history than I have! They must be stopped at all costs.
posted by Winnemac at 12:34 PM on December 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


Can we skip ahead to the great falafel era now? Because if that's the future of America I'm all for it.

BobbyVan, I think the why is obvious. Saying that (so'n'so is racist), in Britain, is actionable. He has to be elliptical or he'll get sued under their (stupid) libel laws. They don't have a first amendment like dealie in the UK.

Of course, not that we have one in the States any more, but yeah.
posted by zomg at 12:35 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]




Whatever his other flaws, Ferguson deserves a lifetime of censure just for "Don't force my hand by forcing me to put it in the hands of lawyers".
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 12:40 PM on December 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


And Mishra - wow, what a coward. Either call the guy a racist or don't.

I don't think anyone is accusing Ferguson of the belief that persons of European descent are genetically superior to other humans, which is what I think Ferguson thinks he's being accused of.

Nevertheless it is still racism, of a more subtle and possibly more dangerous sort, to tell the story of Western colonization in the way that Ferguson does. He gives obligatory nods at best to examples of "abuses of power" on the behalf of colonizers but sees especially British imperial rule as basically, well, civilizing and uplifting for the indigenous peoples it conquered.

I think there is an interesting conversation to be had about the ways in which, say, centralization of the Subcontinent under the Raj and the establishment of a professional Civil Service there helped to lay the framework for the modern governance of India. I do not think that Niall Ferguson's ideological bias toward Western imperialism (of both the paleo- and neo- sort) enable him to make a balanced or helpful contribution toward that very important conversation.

He is clearly an intelligent fellow and it is a shame that he chooses to live in the feverish neo-conservative world of 2003. Meanwhile the rest of us seem to have come to the conclusion, based on recent events, that neo-imperialism is a massive, expensive, bloody failure.
posted by tivalasvegas at 12:42 PM on December 5, 2011 [15 favorites]


Some good discussion here, including thoughts on applicable UK law.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 12:43 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


none of my above remarks should be seen as implying that certain politicians have yet got their heads out of the sand re:neo-imperialism
posted by tivalasvegas at 12:44 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Aside: Pankaj Mishra's An End to Suffering: the Buddha in the World is an excellent, excellent book.
posted by desjardins at 12:47 PM on December 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


Civilization (the book) has not had great customer reviews

As a matter of fact, I've been kind of down on the whole concept lately.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 12:47 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I am actually rather in favor of the concept of civilization. That's why I vote Green or Democrat.
posted by tivalasvegas at 12:51 PM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm down with Gandhi on the whole concept of Western civilization: sounds like a great idea!
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:03 PM on December 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


Why on Earth would anyone suggest emulating the policies of the 19th century British Empire?
posted by Xoebe at 1:04 PM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Come on, saying that someone isn't a racist because they lack the moral consistency of the bigot is really, really funny.

Why on Earth would anyone suggest emulating the policies of the 19th century British Empire?

Because they believe they will be among the privileged few reaping the benefits of empire, of course. The current anguished glances in China's direction these days are not because these deep thinkers disavow empire. They just don't like the idea of being colonized. It is a terrible shame that they don't extend "the rest's" similar aversion any credence, preferring instead to proclaim blithely that the annexed peoples have benefited from imperialism more than they have suffered. One wonders why they do not wish to experience a similar cultural uplifting, beneficial as they assure us it is.
posted by Errant at 1:12 PM on December 5, 2011 [30 favorites]


i'm not sure precisely what "prat" means but this Niall Ferguson sounds like one.
posted by ecourbanist at 1:14 PM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Anyone who has studied any colonial history - even at just an undergraduate level - and who is not being wilfully blind will realise that Ferguson is full of shit. That I've read academic books and been to research presentations with lots of data which show exactly how much he is full of shit is just icing on the shit cake.

One of the most interesting/depressing things I remember from Late Victorian Holocausts, a book on climate, colonial free-trade policies and the starvation of millions of people, is that more people starved in areas of India well served by railroads (and thus bulk trading) than those farther away. Unrestricted free trade brought the sale of grain out of a starving county, just as Ireland sold wheat to Britain throughout the potato famine.
posted by jb at 1:38 PM on December 5, 2011 [14 favorites]


One wonders why they do not wish to experience a similar cultural uplifting, beneficial as they assure us it is.

"Boo-hoo! Putonghua is hard! I don't want to have to learn Tang dynasty jintishi poetry! I don't want to take Confucian-style exams!"

C'mon Cecil (or Rupert, or Charlotte), buck up! Read some Neal Stephenson- it won't be so bad!


i'm not sure precisely what "prat" means but this Niall Ferguson sounds like one.

In his case, I'm actually going to go with "berk."
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:41 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Scottish defender...

'English' was used as a synonym for British until as late as WWII, at the height of the empire in other words. He made his ideological bed.

As a spokesman for imperialism, shouldn't Ferguson challenge Mishra to a duel?

Or annex his apartment.
posted by atrazine at 1:49 PM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I have thought that Ferguson was a knob since reading The Pity of War in about 1999. I feel like someone whose minority sport has been becoming steadily more fashionable, as every day more and more people are introduced to the world of thinking that Niall Ferguson is a knob. At this rate we'll be able to petition the IOC into including Thinking Niall Ferguson Is A Knob as an Olympic event. Or at the very least the Commonwealth Games, because that would have wonderful extra layers of wrong.
posted by Coobeastie at 1:52 PM on December 5, 2011 [16 favorites]


Why should the rise of another culture inevitably mean the submission of your own? Ferguson can't seem to accept that civilization isn't a zero sum game.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:58 PM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


"Let me come clean . . . I am a fully paid-up member of the neoimperialist gang." - Niall Ferguson

So... not racist.
Imperialist.... with white people in charge.
Gotcha.
posted by markkraft at 2:00 PM on December 5, 2011


I don't know... is there a "fully paid-up" member of the neoimperialist gang out there?

Because I'm thinking that a lot of people have paid since 9/11, but none of them that I can recall were prominent neoimperialists. (Shame, that.)
posted by markkraft at 2:06 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ferguson can't seem to accept that civilization isn't a zero sum game.

Sure he can, after all both Western colonizers and Eastern colonized peoples alike benefited from the massive land, resource and labour grab that was high imperialism!

am I doing it right?
posted by tivalasvegas at 2:16 PM on December 5, 2011


"Ferguson’s recent outbursts against Britain – ‘Get me to the airport,’ he told the Telegraph, ‘I just want to get back to the US’ – may have lost him some of his audience among right-wing broadsheets and tabloids in this country"

It's not just recent, Ferguson has been publicly saying modern Britain sucks for ages. At least since he got the Harvard job, he's added America-is-the-awesomest-and-awesomest-Harvard-proves-I'm-too-awesome-for-the-sucky-UK-to-handle to the "critique". The I-am-awesome bit is really the key thing for Ferguson though
posted by Bwithh at 2:24 PM on December 5, 2011


BobbyVan, I think the why is obvious. Saying that (so'n'so is racist), in Britain, is actionable. He has to be elliptical or he'll get sued under their (stupid) libel laws. They don't have a first amendment like dealie in the UK.

As far as I know, truth is a defense in civil libel cases, even in the UK. So when Mishra writes in response to Ferguson:
Hardly anyone is a racist in the Stoddardian sense today, even if they raise the alarm against Muslim ‘colonisers’ of a ‘senescent’ Europe, or fret about feckless white Americans being outpaced by hard-working Asian-Americans. Ferguson is no racist, in part because he lacks the steady convictions of racialist ideologues like Stoddard.
it's both craven and disingenuous, because it undermines the clear intent of Mishra's essay, which was to associate Ferguson with all manner of notorious historical and literary racists.
posted by BobbyVan at 2:30 PM on December 5, 2011


but in reality his review is a crude attempt at character assassination

No, there was nothing crude about it. It was extremely erudite and elegant.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 2:32 PM on December 5, 2011 [6 favorites]


I think there is an interesting conversation to be had about the ways in which, say, centralization of the Subcontinent under the Raj and the establishment of a professional Civil Service there helped to lay the framework for the modern governance of India.

Or a conversation about how the subcontinent went from being one of the richest places in the world (with living standards at or better than the best living standards in Europe) before the British Raj, to suffering from wide-spred extreme poverty after colonialism.

If the UK is any indication, Americans can look forward to really, really good falafel in about 20 years.

We already have that in Toronto - the place on the SE corner of College and Bathurst is great, though I can never remember the name. We also have great Ethiopian, Korean, Trinidadian...
posted by jb at 2:36 PM on December 5, 2011 [8 favorites]


I think there is an interesting conversation to be had about the ways in which, say, centralization of the Subcontinent under the Raj and the establishment of a professional Civil Service there helped to lay the framework for the modern governance of India.

Ye gods, do not ever say this in India. My uncles would argue you to within an inch of your life. And then shout at you the rest of the way.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 2:40 PM on December 5, 2011 [6 favorites]


the clear intent of Mishra's essay, which was to associate Ferguson with all manner of notorious historical and literary racists.

...by quoting from Ferguson's own work? If you find the things Ferguson himself wrote to be racist, is that Mishra's fault?

BobbyVan, you are completely free to quote some of Ferguson's work, or quote from interviews, discuss his themes and writings, or anything else that makes it clear he is not essentially promoting a Western/white supremecist view, and that would be a great discussion if you did so. Just saying that anything that makes a writer sounds racist must be a smear job isn't really a great discussion.
posted by emjaybee at 2:43 PM on December 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


Webhund beat me to it, but good use of the word gallimaufry.

I enjoyed the takedown thoroughly, and the comments were also fascinating. Thanks for pointing me to this.
posted by cell divide at 2:44 PM on December 5, 2011


Right, I am not trying to argue that imperialism was on balance good for India. I would likely not enjoy arguing with His thoughts were red thoughts's uncles on this point. :)

What I meant was that given the many ways that the legacies of the colonial era continue to impact the global economy, political conflicts and boundaries, cultural norms, etc., it is important to continue to have conversations about those legacies. Furthermore, we can recognize good things that came out of colonialism without retracting our overall condemnation for colonializing behaviour, and certainly without whitewashing imperialism or engaging in Niall Ferguson's damnable warmed-over Victorianism.
posted by tivalasvegas at 2:51 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Mishra does take Ferguson down on academic grounds - pointing out that while Ferguson may cite other historians (you know, the ones who actually do the primary source research), he ignores anything they say that contradicts with his preset conclusions. Academically, that's a major sin. We wouldn't respect a scientist who continually ignores the results of his colleagues.
posted by jb at 2:53 PM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Oh, and he dismisses Kenneth Pomeranz - who is just about one of the most brilliant economic historians working today, and who (unlike Ferguson) does the research to back up his assertions. (Every thing I know about cotton-spinning in eastern China I learned from a lecture by Pomeranz. That's not a lot, because the lecture was really on the Chinese economy more broadly, but the man stopped to learn about cotton spinning because he's one of those awesome people who realise that details matter).
posted by jb at 2:57 PM on December 5, 2011 [6 favorites]


As a bit of a side note, I would be interested to know what post-colonial-type historians are saying about the relation of the Arab Spring to imperial and post-colonial themes.
posted by tivalasvegas at 2:57 PM on December 5, 2011


I think there is an interesting conversation to be had about the ways in which, say, centralization of the Subcontinent under the Raj and the establishment of a professional Civil Service there helped to lay the framework for the modern governance of India. I do not think that Niall Ferguson's ideological bias toward Western imperialism (of both the paleo- and neo- sort) enable him to make a balanced or helpful contribution toward that very important conversation.

The Economic and Social Impact of Colonial Rule in India (PDF) - Chapter 3 of Class Structure and Economic Growth: India & Pakistan since the Moghuls, Maddison (1971)
posted by vidur at 3:01 PM on December 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


Wanna make a zillion dollars? Set up an Amsterdam-style falafel eatery right here in my neighborhood.
posted by telstar at 3:05 PM on December 5, 2011


Imperialist apologist writes on Western entitlement, feels entitled to written apology.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 3:09 PM on December 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


the clear intent of Mishra's essay, which was to associate Ferguson with all manner of notorious historical and literary racists.

Here's a Ferguson quote for you:

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.

This kind of sneering, oblivious contempt really makes it difficult to argue that he's not putting forward a racist perspective.

No, Niall, you personally don't don't what those positive attributes are because (a) colonists slaughtered the native population without mercy without pausing to consider those attributes and, (b), you didn't take 10 minutes to look at the sizable amount on research on the topic, you jackass.

Further, the colonists, not the native populations, killed all the bison.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 3:12 PM on December 5, 2011 [17 favorites]


Much of what I write is simply too threatening to the ideological biases of your coterie. Nevertheless, this journal used, once, to have a reputation for intellectual integrity and serious scholarship.

Well, I rest easy under Empire's tattered blanket, warm and cozy in the knowledge that its ability to produce preening douchebags remains, for now, without parallel.
posted by gompa at 3:14 PM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Once you use the word "coterie," you've already lost.

Apparently, the word "coterie" is all that differentiates a pompous academic from some asshole on Top Gear.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 3:29 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


This kind of sneering, oblivious contempt really makes it difficult to argue that he's not putting forward a racist perspective.

You should direct this critique to Mishra, not me. He should have the courage to call Ferguson a racist directly, and dispense with the gamesmanship. Why open the essay with talk about the KKK and the Yellow Peril if he ultimately plans to retreat from the clear implications of such comparisons? Mishra writes in his response to Ferguson's complaint that "hardly anyone is a racist in the Stoddardian sense today." However, in the original essay, Mishra discusses "The Pity of War’s Stoddardesque laments about the needless emasculation of Anglo-Saxon power..."

Perhaps there's some subtle distinction between "Stoddardesque" and "Stoddardian" that I'm missing.
posted by BobbyVan at 4:09 PM on December 5, 2011


He should have the courage to call Ferguson a racist directly, and dispense with the gamesmanship.

I disagree. It's more productive to call out Ferguson for his racist statements, which can be dissected, analysed and responded to, than to make the bald accusation that Ferguson is a racist.

The latter requires one to make an assumption about the motivation of the author, the former requires no assumptions. It's like Jay Smooth says, attack the conduct, not the person.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:28 PM on December 5, 2011 [9 favorites]


I imagine that there's a distinction between a Stoddardian racist - which is a person - and a Stoddardesque lament - which is a statement.

Here's Jay Smooth on how to tell something they've made a racist-sounding statement without saying that they are a racist person. Obviously, "at length in the LRB" is a bit outside that advice.
posted by running order squabble fest at 4:32 PM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Oopsy - double.
posted by running order squabble fest at 4:32 PM on December 5, 2011


Jinx! You owe me a coke, running order squabble.

Actually, make it a scotch - I hate coke.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:35 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I disagree. It's more productive to call out Ferguson for his racist statements, which can be dissected, analysed and responded to, than to make the bald accusation that Ferguson is a racist.

That's a good distinction, but Mishra doesn't even present that lower-order charge in his response to Ferguson. The most he can muster is this:
Ferguson is no racist, in part because he lacks the steady convictions of racialist ideologues like Stoddard. Rather, his writings, heralding an American imperium in 2003, Chimerica in 2006, and the ‘Chinese Century’ in 2011, manifest a wider pathology among intellectuals once identified by Orwell: ‘the instinct to bow down before the conqueror of the moment, to accept the existing trend as irreversible’.
So in other words, Ferguson is overly deferential to authority. Meh.

I'd love to see a Lipstadt-Irving style slugfest between these two, but Mishra seems to be shrinking from the challenge. What a shame.
posted by BobbyVan at 4:45 PM on December 5, 2011


I'd love to see a Lipstadt-Irving style slugfest between these two, but Mishra seems to be shrinking from the challenge. What a shame.

Mishra doesn't want to be sued into oblivion. Blame the idiotic British libel laws.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:04 PM on December 5, 2011


But where will the new immigrants come from? It seems very likely that a high proportion will come from neighboring countries, and Europe's fastest-growing neighbors today are predominantly if not wholly Muslim. A youthful Muslim society to the south and east of the Mediterranean is poised to colonize -- the term is not too strong -- a senescent Europe.

This prospect is all the more significant when considered alongside the decline of European Christianity. In the Netherlands, Britain, Germany, Sweden and Denmark today, fewer than 1 in 10 people now attend church once a month or more. Some 52 percent of Norwegians and 55 percent of Swedes say that God did not matter to them at all. While the social and sexual freedoms that matter to such societies are antithetical to Muslim fundamentalism, their religious tolerance leaves these societies weak in the face of fanaticism.
Ferguson's basic argument in favor of imperialism is that a strong Western empire, bolstered by a vital Christendom at its core, is all that can protect liberal freedoms, and that any other empire lends itself necessarily to restrictions and intolerance by virtue of not being Western or Christian. The current world, therefore, created as it was by the dominance of polities adhering to general Enlightenment principles of science and economic freedom, is the best of all possible worlds and simultaneously incredibly fragile and in danger of collapsing at the merest touch of foreign ideology.

This isn't a racist viewpoint, but it is a remarkably brittle one. Indeed, Ferguson by his own admission fled Britain for the United States in part because the American empire represents the strongest and perhaps only candidate for such a Christian Western empire as bulwark and inoculant. We must colonize, he says, or be colonized; and whatever ills we inflict upon the annexed are a regrettable but necessary price to pay to save them from a much worse fate, Islamicization and its attendant fundamentalism.

So why mention the KKK and Yellow Peril? Because Ferguson's desired projection of neoimperialist power is necessary in order to safeguard Christian and Western ideology from "creeping Islamicization"; already those nations that have discarded such foundational elements are "weak" and vulnerable to adulteration. To not mention the KKK would be doing scholarship a disservice; it is the basic analogy to make, when Ferguson talks about Christendom under threat. It is also a reminder to the reader that Islam does not have a monopoly on fanaticism or extremism. To not mention Yellow Peril would be to ignore the obvious xenophobia that warns against an empire dominated by the Other, with "longterm consequences that no one can see". And lest you think that he is not generalizing so broadly, let's remember that the subtitle of the book in question is "The West and the Rest". Not just a funny rhyme, he draws a stark dividing line between the sober and rationalist virtues of the post-Enlightenment Christian West and, well, everyone else. Everyone else seems to be winning, and as a result Western ascendancy, the only viable ideology, is on the wane.

I do not think that Ferguson is a racist. But his indignant protestations ring shrill and hollow in the face of his robust defense of an empire that murdered millions upon millions in the service of enriching an entrenched aristocracy and plutocracy, both of which powers also happen to have been exclusively white. Being spoken of in the same breath as noted racists is an occupational hazard of the unabashed imperialism that glorifies the white hand holding a whip, and asserts that the survivors of this catastrophic and epidemic violence owe their assailants a debt of gratitude. Just calling Ferguson a racist lets him off pretty easy, I think.
posted by Errant at 5:07 PM on December 5, 2011 [16 favorites]


So in other words, Ferguson is overly deferential to authority. Meh.


I think you've misread that. Being a historian-cum-prognosticator-on-current-events who assumes that whatever global movement is in vogue at that time is going to be the dominant global movement from then on is a bad thing. It suggests that you are not thinking deeply and consistently.

It sounds to me like Mishra is accusing Ferguson of not being sufficiently ideologically coherent or historically articulate to be identifiable as holding a consistent platform in which any pause-giving statements of his could be contextualized. This is brought out early on, in fact:
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.
Mishra is saying, I think, that Ferguson is a bad historian, coddled first by the British love of Clarksonian establishment iconoclasm and then by American Neoconservatives. That's a pretty ballsy claim to make.
posted by running order squabble fest at 5:20 PM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Really? It's "ballsy" to call a neocon imperialist a "bad historian" in the LRB now? Ballsy would have been for Mishra to say what Errant just said. Truth is a defense in British civil libel cases...
posted by BobbyVan at 5:32 PM on December 5, 2011


Perhaps there's some subtle distinction between "Stoddardesque" and "Stoddardian" that I'm missing.

I think it's form vs. content, or maybe what you'd call ethos vs. logos. Ferguson doesn't think the "rest" are degenerates or that they should be sterilized, but he argues very much like Stoddard did, with an emphasis on birth rates and immigration, and sweeping statements.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 5:36 PM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ballsy would have been for Mishra to say what Errant just said.

I thought he kinda did.
posted by Hoopo at 5:38 PM on December 5, 2011


Indeed. I'd suggest reading the section from "Ferguson’s proposed ‘Anglobalisation’ onwards, BobbyVan.
posted by running order squabble fest at 5:43 PM on December 5, 2011


My point is that once Ferguson weighs in, Mishra pivots (retreats) to the "ballsy" claim that Ferguson is just a toady.
posted by BobbyVan at 6:04 PM on December 5, 2011


Further, the colonists, not the native populations, killed all the bison.

The truth is rarely as simple as a Kevin Costner movie:
By the 1830s the Comanche and their allies on the southern plains were killing about 280,000 bison a year, which was near the limit of sustainability for that region. Firearms and horses, along with a growing export market for buffalo robes and bison meat had resulted in larger and larger numbers of bison killed each year by the white and mixed Native market hunters. A long and intense drought hit the southern plains in 1845, lasting into the 1860s, which caused a widespread collapse of the bison herds
posted by yoink at 6:05 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ferguson keeps "doing the rounds" trying to promote his book. He was on NPR's On Point today, going once again at his "killer apps" bullshit, although they tried to frame it in another way. Probably because he'd already done a full run of NPR shows trying to promote his ideas and his book without many takers.

He's the WORST thing about the new Newsweek/Daily Beast, too.

He's a classic pundit, only he has even less to lose than the O'Reillys and the Limbaughs in the world because he's (supposedly) not playing any political game with his spoutings.

Sadly, it's transparent that he IS playing a political game, no matter how you slice it. I wish he'd fade into darkness and give his print space and airtime over to someone who isn't such a wanker.
posted by hippybear at 6:22 PM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


The truth is rarely as simple as a Kevin Costner movie

And who brought the firearms and horses? *wink wink*
posted by knapah at 7:05 PM on December 5, 2011


"Hey, Harvard makes mistakes too!"

What a masterful takedown of a pompous, racist fuck.
posted by bardic at 7:15 PM on December 5, 2011


The truth is rarely as simple as a Kevin Costner movie

That's a rather selective copy paste from Wikipedia. The preceding paragraphs read:

Bison were hunted almost to extinction in the late 19th century primarily by market hunters and were reduced to a few hundred by the mid-1880s. They were hunted for their skins, with the rest of the animal left behind to decay on the ground. After the animals rotted, their bones were collected and shipped back east in large quantities.

The US Army sanctioned and actively endorsed the wholesale slaughter of bison herds. The US federal government promoted bison hunting for various reasons, to allow ranchers to range their cattle without competition from other bovines, and primarily to weaken the North American Indian population by removing their main food source and to pressure them onto the reservations. Without the bison, native people of the plains were forced either to leave the land or starve to death.


The truth is rarely as simple as one paragraph out of context from Wikipedia.

But here endeth the derail - I concede my pithy one liner was not an accurate substitute for a detailed analysis of bison population collapse.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:22 PM on December 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


This man is a retard. No where did the critic say he was a racist, and I read the entire article word for word.

Harvard needs to drop this guy. I'm ashamed.
posted by polymodus at 7:32 PM on December 5, 2011


What a masterful takedown of a pompous, racist fuck.

This man is a retard. No where did the critic say he was a racist, and I read the entire article word for word.

I think those are the two takeaways Mishra would like to leave us with. QED.
posted by BobbyVan at 7:54 PM on December 5, 2011


Ferguson’s next book, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (2004), a selective history of American imperial interventions, showed him to be increasingly concerned with the capability rather than the legitimacy of the American empire. He was convinced that domestic social welfare programmes like Medicare and Medicaid had to be cut drastically in order to build more foreign outposts for jodhpur-clad Americans. But Americans, it turned out, were not rushing to Abercrombie & Fitch to equip themselves for life in the tropics.
Heh.

Also, lawsuits? Really? Ferguson is clearly a douchebag. We already knew that, but know we have a new lower bound on the scope of his doucheyness.
posted by delmoi at 8:03 PM on December 5, 2011


BobbyVan, you've done everything in this thread short of pointing out how Mishra is wrong in any of his critiques.

To clarify, he never calls Niall a racist.

IMO, Niall is a racist.

Thanks for playing.
posted by bardic at 8:10 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Perhaps there's some subtle distinction between "Stoddardesque" and "Stoddardian" that I'm missing.

I sympathise with what you're saying here, in that accusations of racism, given the sensitivity of the topic, are highly inflammatory, and there's definitely a sense in which any comparison of a contemporary work with an icon of racist thought functions more as a tar brush than as a critique. One can't pretend otherwise.

Nevertheless, there is much I thought was cogent overall in the LRB piece. There is a true distinction to be made between "I believe my race is superior to yours" and "I believe my civilisation is superior to yours". I think ferguson's work is aligned with the latter sentiment. This does not necessarily make him a racist in the Stoddartian mould. But the functional differences between the policies and means of a Civilization supremacist and a racial supremacist are slim indeed.
posted by Diablevert at 8:24 PM on December 5, 2011


To clarify, he never calls Niall a racist.

IMO, Niall is a racist.

Thanks for playing.


That's what makes Mishra so slippery - it's hard to figure out what he's wrong about! Should a prospective Ferguson defender try to prove that he's not racist? Well, that would be missing the point wouldn't it? According to Mishra, Ferguson is merely a lackey for the ruling class.

But when Ferguson accuses Mishra of being in "full and ignominious retreat" from the strongly implied charges of racism in the original piece, Mishra responds with a half-hearted critique of "[Ferguson's] views on the innate superiority, indeed indispensability, of Western civilisation" using the extinction of the American bison as the example.

So now we're left to mull over whether there is much of a functional or moral distinction between racial and civilizational chauvinism. The circles in that Venn diagram overlap so neatly, as Errant argues above, that it's puzzling to me why Mishra and his defenders are so zealously seeking to absolve him from implying that Ferguson is guilty of the former sort.
posted by BobbyVan at 8:44 PM on December 5, 2011


"it's hard to figure out what he's wrong about!"

Um, no.

He's saying that Ferguson is making arguments that aren't at all new, but actually deeply rooted in a major strain of Western thought for over 300 years (I'd use shorthand and simply call it Orientalism myself).

He likens Ferguson's project to that of early 20th century guys like Stoddard who were deeply convinced that literal hordes of unwashed brown mooselmen were banging at the gate of "genteel" Western civilization. He mentions "cleaned up" versions of this strain of thought in Samuel Huntington and, in a more overtly race-baiting way, Pat Buchanan.

This is shocking and "slippery" to you, and apparently Mr. Ferguson himself, but not to anybody whose spent even a modicum of time in a world history class.

Like I said, thanks for playing.
posted by bardic at 8:57 PM on December 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


So now we're left to mull over whether there is much of a functional or moral distinction between racial and civilizational chauvinism.

Yes, of course there is.

Racism: "You are inferior because of your immutable genetic attributes. I am better than you because I am white and you are brown".

'Civilizational chauvinism': "'My' civilization is richer and more technologically advanced than yours. Therefore my civilization is better than yours".

The former is about unchangeable attributes (and is frankly stupid and irrational), the latter about actions and choices (albeit at the societal level).

tl;dr Bardic has it.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:02 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


That's what makes Mishra so slippery - it's hard to figure out what he's wrong about!

To you, maybe. Yes, Mishra is hard to understand if you don't already share a lot of his context. And that is essentially why Ferguson doesn't understand his criticisms. Which is why his letter shows how ignorant he is.

It has nothing to do with Mishra being maliciously slippery, and everything to do with Ferguson not understanding what Mishra is complaining about.

But when Ferguson accuses Mishra of being in "full and ignominious retreat" from the strongly implied charges of racism in the original piece

Mishra never implied Ferguson was racist. Ferguson is an idiot for drawing that interpretation in the first place.

There are many kinds of racism. Ferguson is a particular kind of racist, but that was neither in the text nor suggested by the text.

The circles in that Venn diagram overlap so neatly, as Errant argues above, that it's puzzling to me why Mishra and his defenders are so zealously seeking to absolve him from implying that Ferguson is guilty of the former sort.

Because that would be sloppy logic. Correspondence implies neither equivalence nor identity.
posted by polymodus at 9:06 PM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


That's a rather selective copy paste from Wikipedia

No, I quoted a paragraph summarizing (pretty accurately) one very recent historian's findings. The earlier paragraph you cite as "context" is, in the Wikipedia way, making unrelated and rather contrary arguments; the paragraph on Pekka Hämäläinen's The Comanche Empire is offered as a counterpoint to what precedes it.
posted by yoink at 9:29 PM on December 5, 2011


Pankaj Mishra's review is a thing of perfect beauty. It is absolutely not ad hominem, it is a scholarly review that places Ferguson within a strain of thought and show the man's willful ignorance of anything that might interrupt his world view.
posted by LarryC at 10:30 PM on December 5, 2011


show the man's willful ignorance of anything that might interrupt his world view

This is invariably the problem with Grand Narratives delivered on Golden Tablets.
posted by Wolof at 10:42 PM on December 5, 2011


Mishra never implied Ferguson was racist. Ferguson is an idiot for drawing that interpretation in the first place.

Mishra's opening paragraph:
‘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?’
No, he never implies that Ferguson a racist in his "scholarly" essay. He just likes The Great Gatsby.
posted by BobbyVan at 4:53 AM on December 6, 2011


Yes, BobbyVan. We get it. You think that Mishra wants to call Ferguson a racist, wants readers to infer that Ferguson is a racist and is a coward for not calling Ferguson a racist to his face. You are going to call Mishra slippery, a coward, craven and disingenuous based on your expert psychological analysis of what he secretly wants to say, while not apparently having read tclosely or ably enough to determine with confidence what he has actually said. Your contributions are approaching 10% of the posts to this thread, and simply keep restating this belief.

I think the general consensus here is that, when you say "That's what makes Mishra so slippery - it's hard to figure out what he's wrong about!", the problem is not with Mishra.
posted by running order squabble fest at 5:34 AM on December 6, 2011 [6 favorites]


I'm always flabbergasted by this peculiarly privileged attitude that calling someone a racist is the worst thing that anyone could say to anyone. It's such a sheltered perspective.

Mishra is not secretly calling Ferguson a racist. He is openly calling him a Judas goat for the power elite, attempting to lure us into the slaughterhouse of imperial domination with the promise of distant wealth. He is calling Ferguson a bloody-handed apologist for genocide and cultural dissolution. I share Mishra's bemusement that Ferguson, and apparently BobbyVan, aren't bothered by that prospect at all, so long as there's no corresponding allegation of racism. Ferguson being a racist would be less troubling than this just-so story of Western empire as lawgiver and bestower of reason for the benighted peoples of the earth, trading dismissable amounts of blood for the gift of Prometheus. Seriously, if Ferguson were a racist, not only would that be less offensive than his current abasement before and glorification of the seat of oppression, he would also have a more coherent argument.
posted by Errant at 9:33 AM on December 6, 2011 [11 favorites]


I think maybe we should consult an expert.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 9:43 AM on December 6, 2011


No, he never implies that Ferguson a racist in his "scholarly" essay. He just likes The Great Gatsby.

Your interpretation is weak because it isn't supported by the rest of the essay. The parallel with the fictional character is apt, but not literal. For instance, if I compare someone's actions with that of a murderer, it doesn't mean I'm calling him a murderer or that he even murdered someone.

What Ferguson and Buchanan have in common is a level of misenlightened and toolish sloppiness.
posted by polymodus at 10:28 AM on December 6, 2011


This was a nice summary scoring of the back and forth.
posted by stratastar at 1:04 PM on December 10, 2011




Ever since then, Mishra has very shrewdly—I use that adverb with admiration—deployed his identity as a Brown ex-colonial to maintain his position as a licensed explainer of global subjects to the liberal West.
I can totally feel the admiration there.
posted by running order squabble fest at 5:20 PM on December 15, 2011


Yeah, that piece on Mishra seems ridiculously petty. I'm sorry he doesn't write about the things you want him to write about, dude. But he really fails to make a case that say, Mishra fatally minsuderstands Gatsby in the context in which he cites it. His counter-point about the citified acedemic has some merit, but he doesn't cite any examples of Mishra presuming to speak to or for the heartland; I mean, does he genuinely think someone had to bicycle through a fair chunk of the lower 48 before making any comment on DC's foreign policy? And then he goes on to undermine his whole piece with that whiny Fifth Beatle rant at the end. "I let him crash at my place! And now he's more famous than me! Woe betide!" here's a stepladder, pally.
posted by Diablevert at 10:38 AM on December 16, 2011


Libel laws are careening off the rails in the U.K.

And more Lebanese immigrants please, too many middle eastern restaurants don't serve falafel.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:51 AM on December 20, 2011


« Older Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.   |   for the budding Bene Tleilax Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post