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):

– 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).

– 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?

13 thoughts on “Historian and journalist slug it out

  1. I gave up on Ferguson a couple of hundred pages into “The Ascent of Money”, when he wrote that Jacob Bernoulli’s Law of Large Numbers “provides the basis for the concept of statistical significance and modern formulations of probabilities at specified confidence intervals (for example, the statement that 40 per cent of the balls in the jar are white, at a confidence interval of 95 per cent, implies that the precise value lies somewhere between 35 and 45 percent – 40 plus or minus 5 percent).” See http://books.google.com/books?id=PS4CVCq-70sC&lpg=PT299&ots=Y72Mhbdr6Q&dq=niall%20ferguson%20confidence%20interval&pg=PT128#v=onepage&q&f=false

    That someone could (a) be so ignorant of basic statistics — at a level that would certainly lead him to fail the quantitative reasoning exam that his undergraduates must pass to graduate; (b) be so blithe in his misstatements of it; and (c) think he was remotely qualified to write about macroeconomics makes me not inclined to trust anything he writes, up to and including the title pages of his books. That doesn’t speak to whether he is racist, of course, but it does tend to support some of Mishra’s claims about him being willing to write whatever will get attention without regard to its consistency over time.

    • What Jesse said.

      I am not impressed by Ferguson, though he manages to get interviewed on “serious” programs on PBS from time to time. He seems to be a (somewhat right-wing) self-promoter.

  2. The last comment by Mishra in his Dec 1st letter about obvious evidence of Ferguson’s racism – pulling a Ferguson quote on Native Americans – strikes me as way over-reaching. Is this racist?:

    “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.” (quote Mishra pulls from Ferguson interview)

    Mishra writes in response: “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.”

    Ferguson’s statement seems like a reasonable belief to me – I’m taking ‘anything remotely resembling the civilisation we’ve had’ to refer to things like economic development and not as a value judgment on different ways of life. Does that make me a racist? Am I out of touch with academic research on the ‘civilization potential’ or some such of native american tribes pre-pilgrims?

    Or is LRB so PC as to jump all over seemingly reasonable comments that nevertheless suggest some differences between peoples?

    For the record, I’m on the left politically and personally Ferguson does seem to have a bit too much of the salesman in him.

    • Of course, the Anvaho and the Apache did not kill “a hell of a lot of bison,” as the Navaho and the Apache live (and lived) in a part of the continent where there weren’t a lot of bison to kill. I suspect Ferguson conflated all native American groups in coming to his conclusion in this respect.

    • I largely agree, but Ferguson doesn’t explicitly say that Asian-Americans are non-Western. They serve as a contrast to the bulk of the university population, who do not study so hard. I’m willing to settle for Huntington’s demarcations of Western and other civilizations, which would set Japan by itself, but Huntington didn’t define them with silly references to “killer apps” and/or “operating systems”.

  3. Niall’s a professional provocateur. This should get his name around like nothing else, speaking fee just doubled. His best work raises good questions, in my view — was colonialism good or bad for the colonies? — but it’s also a bit sloppy, at least the parts I know best. Maybe that comes with the territory.

  4. If Mishra had written, “Ferguson is a racist,” that statement might be actionable in England, although probably not in the US. The leading case is Telnikoff v. Matusevitch, in which a letter-writer to an English newspaper accused a writer of an article of spreading “racialist views.” The letter-writer was held to be liable for defamation in an English court; a U.S. court refused to enforce the judgment against the defendant.

    However, Mishra did not write “Ferguson is a racist.” Ferguson himself says, in his letter to the LRB, that Mishra merely “implied” it. In response to Furguson’s accusation, Mishra immediately clarified that “Ferguson is no racist” but that he holds a “disgraced worldview” regarding “the innate superiority, indeed indispensability, of Western civilisation.” The characterization of this “worldview” as “disgraced” is Mishra’s; there’s nothing defamatory in saying that someone thinks that the civilizations of Europe and North America are superior to those of the rest of the world.

    Moreover, in English law there is a defense to defamation called “honest comment” (formerly “fair comment”), whereby if a comment “explicitly or implicitly indicate[s], at least in general terms, the facts on which it is based,” no action for defamation will lie. This defense is not available for allegedly false allegations of fact (e.g., “Mr. X fired his assistant Y, who is Indian, because he is a racist”). But in this case, Mishra confines himself to comment on Ferguson’s own writings, from which can easily draw the conclusion that Ferguson, in common with earlier writers who were undeniably racists, does indeed hold the view that the Western civilisation is superior to all others.

    Saying that a person shares certain views with people who were racists is a far cry from calling that person a racist. I doubt that Ferguson, once he has consulted with counsel, will be bringing an action against Mishra or the LRB.

  5. FWIW, I didn’t read Mishra as calling Ferguson racist, but saying Ferguson holds lazy, self-serving essentialist beliefs which bear an instructive resemblance to the earlier self-serving essentialist beliefs of semi-intellectual racists. That may not be fair, but it’s not calling him a neo-nazi.

  6. Having actually read and reviewed Ferguson’s book, I can categorically confirm “it is a sloppy mess”. He is an engaging writer (in that often annoying historical anecdotalist style) but I would also call him an unreliable thinker (http://metaphorhacker.net/2011/06/killer-app-is-a-bad-metaphor-for-historical-trends-good-for-pseudoteaching) unable to stay within the same category when it comes to either the West or the killer apps. His proposals for a reform of history teaching are almost adorably ridiculous.

    He’s not so much a racist as an old world colonialist with a sprinkling of neo-con economics. But he’s basically writing in a newly popular genre of historiographical eschatology where China and the east represent the end of times and the white male dominated past is the Eden (http://metaphorhacker.net/2011/04/life-expectancy-and-the-length-and-value-of-life-on-a-historical-overimagination).

  7. Pingback: Absolutely last Niall Ferguson post ever, in which I offer him serious advice « Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science

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