Jacob Heilbrunn

Is Niall Ferguson an "Imperialist Scumbag" or a Brilliant Historian?

[amazon 1846142733 full]Niall Ferguson has been provoking controversy in England for several decades. He first achieved notoriety in 1999 with his book The Pity of War, which suggested that it would have been a good thing if the Germans had been permitted to take over Europe during World War I. Britain, to preserve its empire, should have stayed out. Since then, Ferguson, who grew up in Scotland, has demonstrated remarkable fecundity, emulating A. J. P. Taylor not only in his zest for polemics but also in his productivity. But the criticism of Ferguson has become increasingly pronounced in recent years. It centers on a simple question: was it a good thing for Britian to be an empire in the first place? And, by extension, should America behave like one as well?

At a moment when the Obama administration has announced that it will now station more troops in the Persian Gulf, it is not merely an academic question. Quite the contrary. It cuts to the core of America's capability, or pretensions, to remain a global superpower. In a recent blog post, I contended that America may not be an empire in the classic sense, but it thinks imperially. Andrew Sullivan responded by suggesting that "neo-imperial: all the attitude and cost, and none of the alleged benefits" may be the most apposite way to describe the phenomenon.

Ferguson has begun to take a dark view of the West's future. To read his book Civilization—which I reviewed for the United States Studies Centre—is to realize that he sees a sinister Muslim threat jeoparadizing Western freedoms. He sees the West as under siege—an old theme. He denounces western "pusillanimity." But if anything has gotten America into trouble, it is the unbridled belief that democracy can be exported anywhere at the point of a gun. Hubris, not cowardice, has been the problem. He seems to view America with mixed affection and exasperation, though England is his real bete noire. In a bitter interview in the Guardian, for example, Ferguson made no secret of his desire to live in the U.S. and say goodbye to all that when it comes to England. America is open, the land of opportunities; England cloistered, riddled with atrabilious left-wingers:

"No, they love being provoked by me! Honestly, it makes them feel so much better about their lives to think that I'm a reactionary; it's a substitute for thought. 'Imperialist scumbag' and all that. Oh dear, we're back in a 1980s student union debate." But didn't Ferguson himself admit that his conversion to Thatcherism while a student at Oxford in the 80s was motivated chiefly by delight in taunting student union lefties?

"Well, of course, yes, it was partly that," he concedes. "But that was the 80s, and I was young. I'm not a punk Tory any more, we have come a long way since then, it's now 2011. I don't really care about those people any more. The debate that I'm interested in having is with seriously smart people about how we design institutions in the 21st century that will genuinely address problems of poverty and educational underachievement. Now that's an interesting debate to have, but very few people in this country are interested in having it." Warming to his theme, he cites one reviewer of Civilization who clearly hadn't even read the book before attacking it. "You know what?" he says crossly. "There's a lot of intellectual shoddiness in this country. My interest in my work now is not to wind up British lefties; I couldn't care less about them, not really. I couldn't care less about how they feel. So the problem is not that I like to wind them up. It's that they like to be wound up by an imaginary rightwing historian who satisfies all their emotional needs."

But is it imaginary? In the current issue of the London Review of Books, Pankaj Mishra vivisects Ferguson's Civilization: the West and the Rest. Mishra's brilliant critique centers on Ferguson's nostalgia for the days when Britannia ruled the waves. He likens Ferguson to Tom Buchanan in the Great Gatsby, nibbling on the edges of stale ideas that pass for hard thought. It is not a flattering comparison. Ferguson, who does not suffer detractors gladly, is sure to be enraged by the review, which goes on to posit that he has his finger, more often than not, to the intellectual winds:

"Western hard power," Ferguson blurts out in Civilisation, "seems to be struggling"; and the book exemplifies a mood, at once swaggering, frustrated, vengeful and despairing, among men of a certain age, class and education on the Upper East Side and the West End. Western Civilisation is unlikely to go out of business any time soon, but the neoimperialist gang might well face redundancy. In that sense, Ferguson’s metamorphoses in the last decade – from cheerleader, successively, of empire, Anglobalisation and Chimerica to exponent of collapse-theory and retailer of emollient tales about the glorious past – have highlighted broad political and cultural shifts more accurately than his writings. His next move shouldn’t be missed.