The Problem With Niall Ferguson

June 16, 2012 § 6 Comments

I’ve never been crazy about Niall Ferguson.  I don’t think he’s ever had an original thought, and he’s about the worst kind of academic bully, demeaning himself to attack his critics in a petty, small-minded manner.  Hell, we’re talking about a guy who in, his latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, who attacks Gandhi! Yes, Gandhi! Gandhi, in a 1931 interview in London, noted the use of disease in the European conquest of the rest of the world (indeed, Jared Diamond confirms the disease theory in his 1999 book, Guns, Germs & Steel: The Fate of Human Societies).  Ferguson heaps scorn on Gandhi and goes on to argue that Western medicine did a world of good in the conquered parts of the world.  Ferguson isn’t entirely wrong, especially in the case of malaria in Africa.  But he’s too smart by half here, by mocking Gandhi, he discounts the fact that disease was a corollary of Western conquest.  Want some figures?  Try these on for size:

Caribbean Islands, 1492-1542: nearly 6,000,000 dead

Peru, 1570-1620: 750,000 dead.

Mexico, 1519-1600: 24,000,000 dead.

Ferguson’s attack on Gandhi is symptomatic of Ferguson’s general crusade against those who have the temerity to suggest that Western imperialism was not an entirely good thing.  See, for example, his Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power.  

At least in Civilization, when he’s done attacking the likes of Gandhi and others who experienced the negative effects of Western imperialism, he does go on to note the horrors of the German Empire in Africa, which does show some maturity in Ferguson in the decade since Empire.

Then there’s his attack on Marx & Engels.  Ferguson wrote his manuscript in 2010, twenty years after the end of the Cold War.  And yet, Ferguson, showing how petty-minded he can be, spends almost as much time attacking Marx and Engels personally than actually discussing their arguments.  Why bother? Seriously.  Ad hominen attacks in the works of an historian as eminent as Ferguson are just kind of sad and pathetic, especially when tacked onto commentary of Marxism/Communism.

Ferguson is also adept at the fine art of quoting out of context.  For example, he attributes the following quotation to Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author:

Will the West, which takes its great invention, democracy, more seriously than the Word of God, come out against this coup that has brought an end to democracy in Kars?…Or are we to conclude that democracy, freedom and human rights don’t matter, that all the West wants is for the rest of the world to imitate it like monkeys?  Can the West endure any democracy achieved by enemies who in no way resemble them?

Sure, Pamuk wrote these words. However, these words are those of the narrator of his fine novel, Snow. They are not the words of Pamuk himself.  But Ferguson kind of forgets to tell us that in his book.  These words are the epigraph to Chapter 5, “Consumption” (Consumption is one of the “killer apps” we in the West invented, but have now been “downloaded” by the East, seriously, that’s Ferguson’s language). And Pamuk’s words here are meant to be mocking.  But when you know the context of the quotation, well, then they mean something quite differently, don’t they?

And so once again, Ferguson, who actually makes a pretty good, if unoriginal argument in Civilization, shoots himself in his rhetorical foot and one is left wondering just how seriously he can actually be taken.

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§ 6 Responses to The Problem With Niall Ferguson

  • John Matthew Barlow says:

    It really is unfortunate, he does himself more harm than good with his attitude. Also doesn’t help that he ends off the book with a borderline racist rant against Islam, to say nothing of his curious fascination with Jews throughout the book. There are a series of footnotes that point out how allegedly successful Jews are at pretty much everything that reads a lot like classic anti-Semitism, though I seriously doubt that’s how Ferguson meant it.

  • Steve Garrett says:

    Listening to Fergusons’s Reith lectures I was left with the impression of a powerful but incredibly narrow mind with substitutes dissection for understanding combined with an instinctive demeaning of any thinking which is not in line with his own – a path to intellectual suicide and the most dangerous kind of sad but arrogant ignorance (the kind that is unable to have any sense of perspective on it’s own limitations). This man’s narcissistic need to be ‘right’ – reflected in his sneering put downs of his questioners – is the kind of fascistic certainty that comes from a need to ‘win an argument” rather than to learn, and should not be confused with ‘intellect’ in any meaningful sense of the world.

  • John Matthew Barlow says:

    Steve,
    Thanks for the comment, you’ve said in much more blunt terms what I think of Ferguson. He is incapable of pondering dissent from what I’ve seen of his media performances and is utterly convinced of his own righteousness. What is most depressing, however, is that he has managed to scale to the highest heights of academia whilst being a small-minded bully. Cheers.

  • […] now it is no secret that I think Niall Ferguson is a pompous simpleton.  I give the man credit, he has had a few good ideas, and has written a few good books, most […]

  • […] meltdown.  Or when he said John Maynard Keynes was a bad economist because he was gay.  Or when he attacked Gandhi in his Civilization: The West and the Rest.  Then there’s that book in general, with its […]

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