Historian and journalist slug it out

Apparently I’m not the only person to question some of the political writing in the London Review of Books.

But, the latest fight between author Niall Ferguson (encountered on this blog several years ago) and reviewer Pankaj Mishra (link from Tyler Cowen) is fascinating.

Usually when I see one of these exchanges of letters, it’s immediately clear that one guy has a point and the other guy’s got nuthin. This time the fight was a little messier.

I started by reading Mishra’s review which seemed to make a pretty good case that Ferguson’s new book Civilization was a sloppy mess.

But then here comes Ferguson:

Mishra’s insinuation that I am a racist could scarcely be further from the truth. Unwittingly, he sabotages his own argument by quoting my words in Civilisation: ‘By 1913 … the world … was characterised by a yawning gap between the West and the Rest, which manifested itself in assumptions of white racial superiority and numerous … impediments to non-white advancement. This was the ultimate global imbalance.’ This is hardly a ringing endorsement of white supremacy. Mishra might also have quoted this passage from the same book:

The idea that the success of the United States was contingent on racial segregation was nonsense. It was quite wrong to believe, as [George] Wallace did, that the United States was more prosperous and stable than Venezuela or Brazil because of anti-miscegenation laws and the whole range of colour bars that kept white and black Americans apart in neighbourhoods, hospitals, schools, colleges, workplaces, parks, swimming pools, restaurants and even cemeteries. On the contrary, North America was better off than South America purely and simply because the British model of widely distributed private property rights and democracy worked better than the Spanish model of concentrated wealth and authoritarianism. Far from being indispensable to its success, slavery and segregation were handicaps to American development.

This last bit looks to me like “piss-poor monocausal social science” (to use the memorable words of Daniel Drezner, a scholar who might also have some opinions on the substance of Ferguson’s argument!)—-but it doesn’t sound racist.

Ferguson continues:

Mishra also systematically misrepresents my new book, falsely alleging a whole series of omissions. He claims that in Civilisation I disregard ‘Muslim contributions to Western science’; in fact, I discuss them in some detail. He asserts that I ‘offer no evidence’ for my claim that China was very far from being economically neck to neck with the West in 1800. In fact, the point is footnoted and the work of two Chinese scholars, Guan Hanhui and Li Daokui, clearly referenced; I also provide Angus Maddison’s figures for per capita income. Mishra alleges that ‘Asian leaders and intellectuals’ are ‘mute here as in all Ferguson’s books’ and that I do not discuss their growing awareness of Western predominance. In fact, I devote three pages each to the Ottoman and Japanese responses to Western ascendancy.

Ouch! And there’s more:

Mishra also writes, gratuitously, that I am ‘immune to … humour and irony’. This is clearly his problem, not mine. He completely misses the point that the term ‘Chimerica’ coined by myself and Moritz Schularick in 2006 was from the outset – as the original article made clear – a pun on the word ‘chimera’, because we (correctly) regarded the post-1998 Chinese-American economic relationship as ephemeral, as well as detrimental to global stability. My remark that Philip Bobbitt’s last book would be ‘read with pleasure by men of a certain age, class and education from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to London’s West End’ was scarcely intended as unalloyed praise. . . .

This round goes to Ferguson. But now it’s Mishra’s turn:

Ferguson’s tendency to say whatever seems resonant and persuasive at any given hour is again on display in his response to my review. ‘Chimerica, despite its name,’ he asserted in 2007, ‘is no chimera.’ He now tells us that the word was always meant to be a pun. And that he hadn’t offered ‘unalloyed praise’ to Philip Bobbitt’s book when he described it as ‘simply the most profound book’ on American foreign policy ‘since the end of the Cold War’.

Oof! Mishra seems to have a point: Ferguson will say something in one place and then retract it elsewhere.

At this point I’m on Mishra’s side but in the next issue Ferguson comes out swinging:

The first article I published on the subject of ‘Chimerica’ (in the Wall Street Journal on 5 February 2007) explicitly concluded with a warning that the Sino-American economic relationship could prove to be a chimera. Far from writing ‘whatever seems resonant and persuasive at any given hour’, I have consistently sought to challenge the conventional wisdom of the moment. The Cash Nexus (2001) – published at a time when most bien pensants were ardent proponents of European monetary union – accurately foretold the current crisis of the euro. My book Colossus (2004) was subtitled ‘The Rise and Fall of the American Empire’ and warned that neoconservative visions of American imperium would likely founder on three deficits, of manpower, finance and public attention. Throughout 2006 and 2007, when others fell victim to irrational exuberance, I repeatedly warned of the dangers of a large financial crisis emanating from the US subprime mortgage market. And, far from hailing ‘the Chinese Century’, I spend pages 319-324 of Civilisation discussing the numerous challenges that China is likely to face in the coming decades. In fact, the phrase ‘Chinese century’ does not appear in my book.

Mishra’s reply is less convincing to me:

It is hard, even with Google, to keep up with Ferguson’s many claims and counter-claims. But his announcements of the dawning of the ‘Chinese Century’ and his more recent revised prophecy that India will outpace China, can be found as quickly as the boisterous heralding of the American imperium that he now disavows.

I followed Mishra’s (implicit) advice and Googled “Niall Ferguson” “Chinese century” but could not find any smoking gun. It’s a bit tacky for Mishra to put “Chinese century” in quotes without actually supplying the quote!

So here’s my final score (for now):

1. Mishra ties Ferguson to old-school “decline-of-the-west”-style racism. Not really fair, and it makes me suspicious of Mishra’s other claims (as when he criticizes Ferguson for “offering no evidence” when he actually cites scholarly work).

2. Ferguson tries to have it both ways on “Chimerica” and Philip Bobbitt’s book. In both cases he makes big claims and then backs off and tries to deny ever making the claims in the first place.

In summary, there’s a bit of room for both guys to back off.

Perhaps Ferguson could call off the lawsuit now?

11 Responses to Historian and journalist slug it out

  1. CTMathewes November 27, 2011 at 9:33 pm #

    Wasn’t it Kissinger who said of the Iran-Iraq war, “it’s a shame they can’t both lose”?

    • Andrew Gelman November 27, 2011 at 10:15 pm #

      Yeah, and we know how well that worked out!

  2. LFC November 27, 2011 at 9:49 pm #

    Somewhere in the exchange (which I glanced through, following the link), Ferguson complains that Mishra has not referred to Ferguson’s The War of the World. Here is what a commenter on my blog (see the comments thread to this post) had to say several years ago about The War of the World:

    I found the book quite disappointing. The blurb suggested that the central thesis would be that during the C20th there was only a single conflict in which race, not ideology, was the central motivating factor and which the East ultimately won. But there is very little to substantiate this in the actual book. There are a few interesting chapters based on original research, but overall the book is a rehash of the WWII narrative with some scaremongering about Iran and China at the end.

  3. David November 28, 2011 at 1:14 am #

    The Guardian article on the lawsuit contains this tidbit: “Ferguson, who is married to the Somali-Dutch writer, activist and politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali…”

    Hirsi Ali is a bit more than just an “activist” or “politician.” She is a rabid cultural warrior against the Muslim hordes, who spouts Kulturkampf, the Clash of Civilizations, and the White Man’s Burden at breakfast. I’m sure her husband, Mr. Ferguson, does a bit more than just put up with her hobby. I share Mishra’s belief that Ferguson is a racist, his taste in women notwithstanding.

    • Lorenzo from Oz November 28, 2011 at 4:44 am #

      I suggest you consider the notion of “revealed preference”. A white man who marries a black woman is not showing in his behaviour an aversion to black folk. The conflation of Enlightenment cultural confidence with racism is tedious.

  4. Jonny R November 28, 2011 at 2:24 pm #


    The “some of my best friends are black” defence against racism is beyond tedious.

    Secondly, if the “piss poor mono-causal social science” is continually placing one ideological and cultural grouping as the reason for something, although it might not be as clear as Souther white supremacy, reading between the lines makes one wonder.

    And Andrew:

    1. Ferguson is not able to defend himself as having used ‘scholarly sources’ because Mishras point (which you don’t repeat in your summary, I noticed) is that the sources Ferguson uses are remarkably limited and one sided. Mishra was trying to argue that Ferguson supports his point but does so without displaying any inkling of how the literature has moved on. This is the kind of thing we pull undergrads up for!

    2. As for Mishra arguing that Ferguson changes his spots as quickly as power demands (the ‘courtier’ criticism) this is not an uncommon criticism and whilst Mishra is a journalist so could have done with adding the quotes, one needs to look at more than Google to get an idea of Ferguson’s output.

    For example, his ‘defence’ that in ’06 and ’07 he was some sort of second Nouriel Roubini is utter nonsense. In 2008 he proudly presented the UK Channel 4 series “The Ascent of Money”, linked to a Christmas book of the same title, containing hilarious hastily added sections arguing that because there have been crashes in the past the recent crash is simply history repeating (not in terms of policy or actions, but in term of history being endlessly cyclical). However, anyone watching the series or reading the book can see the main thrust was that modern capitalism will AVOID the mistakes of the past and he hastily had to tweak bits one the crisis hit and the booked looked as pathetic as it was. Or, to quote from a review in the Guardian:

    “Instead of an inquiring history, what we are left with is a reverential panorama of neoliberal capitalism. Above all, there is little investigation of the losers in the zero-sum game of money’s ascent. The only possible cloud Ferguson spies on the future horizon of finance is democratic accountability, with its ‘rules and regulations [that] can make previously good traits suddenly disadvantageous’. Quite where the Bear Stearns bail out and bank nationalisation fit into the picture is unclear.

    Indeed, much of this book has been overtaken by history and Ferguson looks like being left stranded as the last great hagiographer of hedge funds”

    And the last episode of the TV series, titled *ahem* ‘Chimerica (!) contains this synopsis:

    “Since the 1990s, once risky markets in Asia, Latin America and eastern Europe have become better investments than the UK or US stock market. The explanation is the rise of ‘Chimerica’ – the economic marriage of China and the United States. But does it make sense for poor Chinese savers to lend to rich American spenders?”

    Doesn’t sound too ironic to me!

    • Wonks Anonymous November 28, 2011 at 4:34 pm #

      I’d think that his wife (and cause of the breakup of his previous marriage) would weigh more heavily than “some of my best friends”. And furthermore, Lorenzo was responding to David’s reference to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, rather than introducing it as a new element in Ferguson’s defense.

  5. Jonny R November 28, 2011 at 3:42 pm #

    Incidentally, I should add a couple of things (the above response was hastily written – typos and all – as they were closing my faculty building!)…

    Firstly to call Ferguson ‘racist’ is unhelpful and silly (though I’m also inclined to point out Mishra implies this but doesn’t say it and Ferguson’s threat of litigation is surely ‘one doth protest too much’).

    But, it’s possible to hint at such things with Ferguson because the capitalism (and politics) that to Ferguson is often the root of what is good is, to him, a product of Western (and particularly, British and American) culture. Notice in the sentence in the blog post that the stress is on the “British model” versus the “Spanish” one. But, for some economic historians each of these models should not be allied to nations. Ferguson might not like this but this was a key insight of Marx.

    It should be said that Ferguson may actually be right; that there is something more successful and more beneficial about Western politics and economics. But, without saying this outright and exploring the flaws in this argument (and properly understanding to what extent this is born of a culture) the rather tone-deaf nature of his argument does raise troubling thoughts.

    This is also linked to the fact that one the one hand Ferguson decries the use of culture as an explanatory factor, yet continually subsumes various cultures into overall categories (“The Rest and the West”) for example. Ferguson is an historian who likes to bemoan post-modernists and their wacky ramblings about culture and ideology but doesn’t realise the ontological contradictions he himself displays.

    So, he’s more ignorant than racist.

    Secondly, I have a more dare I say it petty problem with Ferguson which is that whilst he likes to claim he rejects orthodoxy “…I have consistently sought to challenge the conventional wisdom of the moment…” he actually just uses this as a rhetorical trick to dismiss others arguments. The ‘conventional wisdom’ that ferguson always challenges is, in every case I have observed, a straw man that seems to do no more than attempt to validate his argument via it’s (non-existant) originality. So, those that criticise his arguments tend to be lumped into another non-existent orthodoxy (usually, of the ‘left’). Most of what Ferguson writes is actually old fashioned mainstream orthodoxy that is banal.

    So, my biggest problem with Ferguson? That anyone gives his work any time. I’m not aware of any professional publishing historians who value his work.

  6. Jonny R November 28, 2011 at 3:44 pm #

    Pah, more typos, sorry!

  7. matt w November 29, 2011 at 2:24 pm #

    On “Chinese Century”: this page appears to be a list of lectures that you can hire Ferguson to give (from the speakers bureau that books him), and one of them is “Is This The Chinese Century?” So, the quoted phrase appears to be a fair cop — even if it’s not so easy to find exactly what Ferguson says in the lecture! (Though if you google “niall ferguson china” it’s not hard to find stuff along those lines.)

  8. matt w December 3, 2011 at 10:11 pm #

    This is very late to the thread, but given that Ferguson endorsed David Starkey’s comments on the riots, I think he gets absolutely no pass on his charges of racism. Starkey said “The whites have become black…. [black and white youths speaking ‘Jamaican patois’] is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country.” Ferguson said Starkey was “telling it like it is.”

    How is that not racism?