Historian and journalist slug it out

Nov 27 '11

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?