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Lest we forget.

November 27, 2011, 4:18 pm

Under the title, “Watch this man,” the London Review of Books publishes Pankaj Mishra’s review of Niall Ferguson’s Civilization. The essay opens with a riff on the “this man Goddard” scene from The Great Gatsby, in which Tom Buchanan rails against the decline of the white man’s West. Noting that “Goddard” stood in for Lothrop Stoddard, the real-life racist, Mishra refers to the arguments of Ferguson’s first major book, The Pity of War, as “Stoddardesque laments about the needless emasculation of Anglo-Saxon power.” Mishra refers also to Ferguson’s “bluster about the white man’s burden.”

Ferguson describes the piece as “a personal attack that amounts to libel.” He quotes a passage from his own writing concluding “slavery and segregation were handicaps to American development”; remarks, “I could with ease cite many more passages conveying my own contempt for theories of racial difference.” He says that lines of his which Mishra has taken straight were meant as jokes. And he demands an apology.

Mishra replies, “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’.” He does not apologize.

Ferguson returns, “in [Mishra's] review of my book Civilisation, he made a vile allegation of racism against me … In his response he nowhere denies that this was his allegation; nor does he deny that he intended to make it. He now acknowledges that I am no racist.” He goes on: “since my book Virtual History (1997) I have consistently argued against the notion of irreversible trends in history … Far from writing ‘whatever seems resonant and persuasive at any given hour’, I have consistently sought to challenge the conventional wisdom of the moment … 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 … 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.” He still wants an apology.

Mishra says in response, “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.” He doesn’t quote them, though he does quote Ferguson saying recently, “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.” He does not apologize.

Ferguson now says,

that he would secure an apology or take the matter to court. “If he won’t apologise for calling me a racist, I will persecute him until he does,” Ferguson said, adding that he had been made even more angry by the fact that he had been attacked in a serious and scholarly publication such as the LRB.

“The basic insinuation [I am making] is that Mishra either did not read my book properly or if he did he was reckless. I find it staggering that the LRB is standing by him. 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.’ All I have got back is weasel words.

“There was a time when one expected better from the literary world, to play the ball not the man. But it seems to be becoming de rigueur for mediocrities to build their fame on attacking those more successful than them.”

Disclaimer: despite my differences with Niall Ferguson (like Ari, he has a greater appreciation for certain Republicans than for certain Democrats) he is a friend of mine. I would defend him here, but honestly, I don’t think he needs it.

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