Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Imperialist vs. deracinated jerk: Niall Ferguson threatens Pankaj Mishra with libel

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Niall Ferguson threatens Pankaj Mishra with libel

Watch this man

Niall Ferguson writes:

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 (LRB, 3 November).

Mishra begins by insinuating a resemblance between me and the American racial theorist Theodore Lothrop Stoddard. Stoddard, the author of The Rising Tide of Color against White World-Supremacy (1920), was an out-and-out racist, a firm believer in ‘Aryan’ racial superiority, an opponent of unrestricted immigration and a Nazi sympathiser. Mishra describes my book The Pity of War as ‘Stoddardesque’. He goes on to say that my 2003 book Empire ‘belonged recognisably to the tradition of … “white people’s histories”’ and asserts that the book ‘celebrated … pith-helmeted missionaries’. Of my new book he says that I sound ‘like the Europeans … who “wanted gold and slaves”’ and that I feel ‘nostalgia for the intellectual certainties of the summer of 1914’.

As those who know me or who have read my work can attest, 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.

I could with ease cite many more passages conveying my own contempt for theories of racial difference. Indeed, the central theme of my book The War of the World – which Mishra does not mention – is the immense harm done by such theories in the 20th century. At the very least, Mishra owes me a public apology for his highly offensive and defamatory allegation of racism.

Not content with libelling me, 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. Gandhi is quoted at length. He is no more ‘mute’ here than in Empire or War of the World. Mishra says I don’t mention the genocidal policies pursued by the Belgian rulers of the Congo: in fact, they are referred to twice. He claims that I do not discuss how Western innovations, when ‘imposed on societies historically unprepared for them, could turn literally into killers’. Yet my discussions of the use of modern artillery in Chapter 2, and railways and ‘eugenics’ in Chapter 4, do precisely that.

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. And the irony was surely unmissable in the line about my membership of the ‘neoimperialist gang’. Or does Mishra imagine that Max Boot and I meet in New York to compare pith helmets?

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.

I am, I repeat, owed an apology.

Niall Ferguson
Harvard University


Pankaj Mishra writes:

Niall Ferguson’s strenuous attempts to distinguish himself from Stoddard – which make him flag his differences with, of all people, George Wallace – are misplaced. 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. 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’.

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’.

Faulted for insisting that the Scientific Revolution was ‘wholly Eurocentric’, he points to his discussion of the Muslim contribution to science in the first centuries of Islam. Charged with uncouthly dismissing Kenneth Pomeranz’s classic study The Great Divergence, he now unearths a footnote which actually refers to an unpublished paper by two obscure Chinese scholars. He also misrepresents my argument about the devastation caused by his beloved ‘killer’ apps in non-Western societies; I referred specifically to apparently benevolent ‘apps’ like property rights rather than actual ‘killers’ like artillery.

Needless to say, Ferguson’s few (and mostly pejorative) references to Gandhi don’t compensate for his suppression of Asian and African voices in his books. More revealingly, he thinks that two vaguely worded sentences 15 pages apart in a long paean to the superiority of Western civilisation are sufficient reckoning with the extermination of ten million people in the Congo. I am guilty, however, of failing to find the ‘surely unmissable’ irony in Ferguson’s cheerleading of ‘neoimperialist’ wars.