Speaking of Niall Ferguson

The Washington Monthly did an excellent, ultimately sympathetic portrayal of Niall Ferguson a few years back that is well worth reading. It sums up the general “conservative intellectual” thing quite well.

His influence comes from his dramatic, sweeping intellectual style, whose theme is, more or less, “Everything you thought you knew about history is wrong.” Ferguson’s genius is for counter-conventional thinking, urging radical reinterpretations of topics that everyone else had pretty much considered settled. Ferguson is out of sync with the academy in style, politics, and manner, but he has been a useful intellectual prod, the appeal of his radical theories forcing mainstream academics to refine their own thinking. Read Ferguson for any real stretch of time, and you begin to imagine what it might have been like had Andrew Sullivan chosen as his topic the entire breadth of human history.

[….]

Perhaps more than anyone else, Ferguson was responsible for inserting the notion of a formal American empire into the public debate. Professors of imperial history around America started turning to his texts. Washington hawks from Richard Perle to Dinesh D’Souza to Bill Kristol drew on Ferguson’s ideas and arguments to help make the case not only for the war in Iraq but also for a revolutionary, if vaguely articulated, new role for America in the world. Within two weeks of arriving in the United States in the fall of 2002, to take up a teaching post at New York University, Ferguson had been summoned to Washington twice, once each by the Departments of Treasury and State, where he explained his convictions to policymakers; in Foggy Bottom, he met with Colin Powell–rarified company for a young historian.

To be sure, Ferguson says some frankly stupid things during the course of the article. But I do think some of what happens with so-called conservative intellectuals isn’t their fault. They’re bound to be contrarian (because other intellectuals are liberal) so the Hiatt/Slate/Peretz industrial complex will drool all over what they write. And the Republican party is always looking for someone with academic credentials to give its crackpot ideas a veneer of respectability. I’m sure it’s easy to be seduced by all of this.

69 replies
  1. 1
    Breezeblock says:

    I have Fergie’s book “Virtual History”, which I have yet to read (don’t ask).

    Shall I still read it? I probably will, but it might be 2017 before I get to it.

  2. 2
    Derelict says:

    [H]is dramatic, sweeping intellectual style, whose theme is, more or less, “Everything you thought you knew about history is wrong.”

    Another way to state it might be, “Since the actual facts of history tend to refute my own deeply held ideological convictions, it must be the facts that need adjusting.”

    Any wonder why he fits right in with Republicans and is considered one of their leading intellectual lights?

  3. 3
    Phantomist says:

    I’m sure it’s easy to be seduced by all of this.

    I don’t see Clown Shoes tagged.

  4. 4
    Ash Can says:

    I dunno. Crap in a pretty package is still crap.

    But I do think some of what happens with so-called conservative intellectuals isn’t their fault. They’re bound to be contrarian…

    Or they could be (gasp!) intellectually honest, even if it means putting them (double gasp!) in agreement with so-called liberal intellectuals.

    Contrarianism makes my ass tired.

  5. 5
    matoko_chan says:

    from the CAS thread….

    Manzi’s new schtick as NRO’s Token “Conservative” Scientist is to use sciencey buzzwords to cloak Stupid Conservative Failmemes.
    See this epic classic on how the same invisible hand of the market that just punched working Americans in the face is going to fix the Econopalypse of greed that Wall Street has evolved into.
    Here he uses a gloss of genetic algorithms to justify creationism.
    But my favorite example of Manzi’s profound intellectual prostitution comes when he invokes evo theory of cooperation as a possible social cohesion model for market regulation, without EVER acknowledging that the benefits and social capital only accrue to WITHIN group members.
    There is a reason that only 6% of scientists are republicans.
    I fully expect to Jim Manzi get a chair at the Discovery Institute.
    I used to relly like Manzi….but now I am forced to admit that he is just as much a cancer on the scientific community as Palin is a cancer on the body of politics.
    Some populist memes are just stupid and unworthy of “equal time” in the political arena. Manzi’s time would be better spent in educating his base, instead of trying to legitimize Fail Paradigms with sciencey buzzwords. It is part of the whole republican populist schtick….those smart elite intellectual people just dont respect you…but we can use Big Science Words too!

    This is the analog of Breitbat’s attempt to Take Back Hollywood…Take Back the Media…..Take Back Government……Manzi and Ferguson are just attempting to Take Back Science and Take Back History.
    The simple truth being that the Complex Adaptive System of American culture has moved on, changed state, and can’t be dragged back into the Stone Age the Age of White Patriarchy.
    Evolutionary Theory of Culture 101.
    lawl.

  6. 6
    Norbrook says:

    To be fair, I’ve run into similar issues when talking to other liberals. I’ve lost track of how many seem to think that various achievements “just happened,” or that the passage of a given law in the past creating a program had everything in it that exists now. They don’t want to accept that the initial law was flawed, had to be modified extensively afterward, and there was a lot of backroom deal cutting to get it passed. Just like today.

  7. 7
    Prattlehorn says:

    I have no time for reporters whose spellchecker obviously doesn’t fucking include “rarefied.”

  8. 8
    Alex S. says:

    “I’m sure it’s easy to be seduced by all of this.”

    Just ask Michael Barone.

  9. 9
    Cerberus says:

    Wow, that article was a tongue bath.

    It’s not “brilliant” reimagining, it’s dull tired lies and being invited to the right parties and being behind the twisted rationale behind the Iraq War doesn’t make him bold and a visionary, it makes him an exploitable hack.

    The whole calvacade of “conservative intellectuals” pretty much continue to show that as long as “conservatism” refuses to use reality to form its opinions, there really is no such thing as a conservative intellectual, only men in nice suits who paid their way through college without learning anything.

  10. 10
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    Within three minutes, he’d lost the liberals in the crowd, arguing, improbably that the problems in Iraq proved that America ought to be more of an empire, not less of one. A bald-headed scholar from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace asked him whether the United States ought to be morally willing to slay thousands of Iraqis to stabilize Iraq. Ferguson retorted, “Perhaps you would wish Saddam back in power; that’s the implication of what you’re saying.”

    What’s not his fault now?

    I wasn’t sure what you meant by that part, but any notion that this is someone who was thinking only in non-specific or theoretical terms which were misappropriated by people like Kristol should be put to rest by the above.

  11. 11
    Vico says:

    Ferguson is an intellectually dishonest shill. Why bother to come up with excuses for him?

  12. 12
    Shalimar says:

    I’m not sure I understand American imperialism. I get that they want to take everyone’s resources by force. But we’re a democracy, so doesn’t that mean taking over other countries by force would eventually extend the vote to lots of non-white people? Isn’t that a bad thing for Republicans? Wouldn’t it be better from their point of view if we just invented flimsy excuses and went in every decade or two to steal the resources (i.e. the Iraq model), without all of this pesky empire bullshit?

  13. 13
    burnspbesq says:

    Must we (speak of Niall Ferguson, that is)?

    Can’t we speak of Craig Ferguson instead?

  14. 14
    Atheane says:

    They’re bound to be contrarian (because other intellectuals are liberal) so the Hiatt/Slate/Peretz industrial complex will drool all over what they write.

    Or they could be honest, upstanding, decent fucking human beings, and try to be right, and not give a fuck what the Hiatt/Slate/Peretz industrial complex thinks. Of course, then they wouldn’t be wealthy, or famous, or read all over, or on TV. They might be moderately popular filthy hippie bloggers, but that would be about it.

    The darkest depths of hell are reserved for people who, in times of extremity, took a long damn look in the mirror and then decided to do whatever the hell they had to do to make themselves a buck. You take a look at the numbers and decide more people are going to want to fuck you if you are loudly and publicly getting lots of people DEAD who your intellectual ass will never even MEET? Wow, you’re right up there with the guy who runs out to the White Hen to get Satan a Slurpee.

    At least if they sincerely believed their bullshit, I’d have some respect for their convictions. Doing it to suck up to Fred Hiatt doesn’t earn you a medal in my book.

    Schmucks.

    A.

  15. 15
    Lee Hartmann says:

    check out
    http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/.....son-e.html

    for a rather less flattering view of N.F.

  16. 16
    Mike in NC says:

    Republican party is always looking for someone with academic credentials to give its crackpot ideas a veneer of respectability.

    That’s why they can point to a sociopath like Sen. Tom Coburn and still say, “Hey, the guy’s got an MD so he must be some kind of genius!”.

  17. 17
    Woodbuster says:

    I loved the way that Krugman has sliced and diced Ferguson in the recent past. It was rather like I have always imagined the verbal debate between Obama and Bush II would end – although W is too stupid to realize what the end result would be.

  18. 18
    Joey Maloney says:

    @matoko_chan:

    Take Back Hollywood…Take Back the Media…..Take Back Government……Manzi and Ferguson are just attempting to Take Back Science and Take Back History.

    Yup. Take them back to the 15th century, or thereabouts.

  19. 19

    Perhaps more than anyone else, Ferguson was responsible for inserting the notion of a formal American empire into the public debate.

    Noam Chomsky? Gore Vidal?
    Teddy Roosevelt? Rudyard Kipling?

  20. 20
    Anya says:

    Ferguson is the classic British right. He is an intellectual hustler. They retail their accent and tailor their message to the less luny segments of the American Right, where the money is. You can sense the disdain they hold for the religious right and the lunatic right, but the target is clear. It’s a lucrative career move.

  21. 21
    kid bitzer says:

    @19–

    yeah, i was going to say that it’s no accident that ferguson uses a british accent to sell imperialism.

    “you see, my boy, the british empire was the greatest that the world has ever known. but now you have outdone us. now it is your turn to carry on our grand tradition, and rule the darkies of the world. take up the white man’s burden! have done with childish days!”

    it’s win-win for all sides–the brit gets retrospective justification for their past sins, plus a place at the table of the new hegemon, and the right-wing yanks get a lot of big words and a fancy accent telling them that they are morally superior.

  22. 22
    GregB says:

    Stop it. The Burkean bells are deafening.

  23. 23
    Brian J says:

    That article from the Daily Mail that detailed his marital infidelities mentioned that he “worked” for Obama at some point during the 2008 campaign. If he’s going to work for the big Islamofacist Socialist Devil, he can’t be that conservative.

  24. 24
    Crusty Dem says:

    Every academic has learned, whether as an intellectual exercise or through necessity (if not both), how to make a counterfactual argument that will stand up to mild, ignorant examination. Only a few enjoy it enough to make a full career out of being a glorified liar.

    Niall Ferguson is a member of that group, in high standing.

    And because of the combination of hard work and intelligence required to destroy these types of arguments, and the “what you thought you knew is wrong” is so appealing to the media, he’s guaranteed of being a media darling for many years to come.

    Fucking tool.

  25. 25
    tc125231 says:

    Ferguson’s thinking, from what I have read, comes from the childishly self-promoting “look at me!” school of contrarianism.

    The lack of sophistication associated with his grandiose economic pronouncements is laughable.

    His presence in the highest reaches of academia demonstrates that promotion due to political correctness is clearly a viable career strategy on the right.

  26. 26
    Jamey says:

    Ferguson still spends less time promoting his books than Andrew Sullivan, so: Ferguson +1.

  27. 27
    Betsy says:

    I found this article about Ferguson more enjoyable. Partly because I’m so amused that a *historian* is getting the full gossip-rag treatment.

    I would pay a lot of money to find out who the historian was who declared, “He has the kind of face you want to punch.”

    It also greatly amuses me that a newspaper granted a source anonymity for the sole purpose of declaring he wants to punch a guy. A compelling case for the necessity of anonymous sources, indeed.

  28. 28
    schrodinger's cat says:

    Can’t really take him very seriously, he is such an unabashed apologist for the British Empire.

  29. 29
    John Cole says:

    The problem is modern conservative “intellectuals” aren’t about discovery or the enlightenment of man or the appreciation of the arts or the advancement of science and technology, they are about the preservation of the status quo, justifying inequality, attacking legitimate sciences, and, when feeling really ornery, scouring Catholic theology looking for a reason to launch an invasion and then torture the population.

    It really boils down to tax cuts, bombs, and controlling your sex life. Everything else is a fools pursuit for these assholes.

  30. 30
    Crusty Dem says:

    @John Cole: Don’t forget the compulsion for wealth and endless self-promotion. These assholes really live it up (Betsy’s article says Ferguson made 5 million pounds last year).

  31. 31
    valdivia says:

    @Betsy:

    thanks for that link. what a dick!

  32. 32
    Montysano says:

    Ferguson retorted, “Perhaps you would wish Saddam back in power; that’s the implication of what you’re saying.”

    Well, dude… yeah, sort of. I wish we’d never gone there, I wish we hadn’t attacked a sovereign nation for no good reason. Anyone with any intellectual honesty would have to consider that Iraq might indeed be better off with Saddam still in power (i.e. never been attacked by BushCo).

  33. 33
    JMC in the ATL says:

    All I needed to know about Ferguson, I learned from Felix the Cat.

  34. 34
    douglas says:

    Not only is Ferguson economically illiterate (see his dispute about fundamental facts with Krugman) but he speaks with the phoniest accent I’ve ever heard. He sounds like a working class Scot who’s aping an upper class accent really badly. I must have a bad character, but that’s even more irritating.

    He could only be taken seriously here, where people are unfamiliar with British accents.

  35. 35
    Andrew says:

    I liked The Pity of War, and as someone who reads a lot on WWI, found it to be fairly interesting and persuasive.

    But Ferguson seems to think his research in one specific area entitles him to grand pronouncements on everything. And he extrapolates wildly, applying some lesson from the past into some eternal ideology. So, for example, though he is perfectly right to believe that WWI was a tragedy and that the postwar era was worse for many than the empires that preceded it, he then simplifies that down to “empire = good,” and the idea that world was a much better place before WWI because of the presence of large empires.

  36. 36
    EthylEster says:

    @tc125231:

    Ferguson’s thinking, from what I have read, comes from the childishly self-promoting “look at me!” school of contrarianism.

    good one. his recent PBS series on how the US made bad choices and screwed up the world economy was one long exercise in “Don’t forget: I’m very smart.”

  37. 37
    georgia pig says:

    @Montysano: That’s the stock-in-trade of hacks like Ferguson, the false dichotomy, and it’s tip-off to the fact that he’s not just innocent dupe of the Hiatt/Slate/Peretz industrial complex, but an aspiring member. Knowing what a hollow shell his regime was, Saddam very likely would not have been around by now irrespective of what we did. Either that, or there were any of a number of ways he could have be deposed without requiring violation of international law by the US. This is the classic end-justifies-the-means rationalizing that is the core of neocon whoredom. Ferguson’s contrarianism is just another flavor, i.e., I’ll pull some cockamamie theory out of my ass to justify doing something that more evidence-based thinking would argue against because I want to do something that evidence-based theory won’t let me do, i.e., be a popularized historian that gets all kind of pussy and rakes in the bucks. No ethical theorist would let his work be vulgarized like Ferguson does.

  38. 38
  39. 39
    Betsy says:

    @valdivia:
    My pleasure. Plus, I remain pissed off at him for fucking up a dear friend’s job hunt this year. He’s on her committee, and he didn’t send out her recommendation letter until literally more than a month after the deadlines, despite her sending increasingly desperate requests and universities to which she’d applied asking where the letter was. We can’t know, of course, but it is entirely possible that is why she didn’t get any interviews this year.

    But you know, he was busy taking his mistress to Henry Kissinger’s dinner parties. So clearly it is unreasonable to expect him to fulfill his basic professional obligations to his students.

  40. 40
    asiangrrlMN says:

    @Betsy: Very juicy, Betsy. I found myself wondering about the feminist girlfriend. Why is she with him? But I digress.

    @burnspbesq: I’m with you. I would much rather chat about Craig Ferguson than about Niall. At least Craig makes me laugh.

    @jeffreyw: Damn you. Now I want fish and chips.

  41. 41
  42. 42
    asiangrrlMN says:

    @Betsy: Wait, that was him? Prick.

    P.S. So, do I start chanting U-S-A right now, or do I actually have to wait until we score a goal?

  43. 43
    No Joy in Mudville says:

    @Prattlehorn:

    Careful writers don’t depend on spellcheckers, which are notoriously limited.

    Both “rarefied” and “rarified” appear in the dictionary with “rarified” a secondary variant. That means it is acceptable (well, maybe not to you) but less common. Personally, I would opt for “rarefied,” but I wouldn’t consider “rarified” wrong.

    If I could find a reporter today whose only — or most serious — failing was to choose rarified over rarefied, I’d be ecstatic.

  44. 44
    Betsy says:

    @asiangrrlMN:
    Mmmhmm. Re: his feminist lady friend, I don’t know much about her, but I think she’s at the American Enterprise Institute or some conservative think-tank like that. My impression (and everyone feel free to point and laugh correct me if I’m wrong) is that she’s a pretty libertarian feminist – opposed to female genital mutilation, state-sanctioned violence against women, and whatnot, but not feminist in the way most American progressive feminists are.

  45. 45
    asiangrrlMN says:

    @Betsy: Betsy, ah, ok. Got it. Still, he’s a wanker. Can’t overstate that fact.

  46. 46
    someguy says:

    Had Andrew Sullivan been a historian rather than a journalist, he’d have raised serious questions about the parentage of Queen Elizabeth I of England, rather than Trig Palin and more current irrelevancies. Sullivan would still be just as much of a jackass. The most serious, intelligent, relevant conservative thinkers, even at the height of their powers, can’t out think a potato. Or a potatoe, or potatow, as the great Dan Quayle put it. No doubt they fear eugenics and death panels precisely because they know that improving the breed by removing teh stoopid would erode their power base. That conservative thought has any traction in a democracy is strong testimony to the mind-bending stupidity of the voters.

  47. 47
    asiangrrlMN says:

    OK. Gotta go find my foam finger so I can be properly obnoxious for the hockey game. My laptop is on the fritz, so I won’t get to join in on the BJ fun (I’m assuming there will be a hockey open thread). Sniff sniff.

    U-S-A!

  48. 48
    Max says:

    Hockey time! Go USA!

    p.s. sweet jesus how I miss sunday football.

  49. 49
    Cat Lady says:

    Don Cherry?! Where do you even get an outfit like that?

    That is all.

  50. 50
    DougJ says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim:

    What’s not his fault now?

    I concede that he said some very stupid things in the article.

  51. 51
    colleeniem says:

    Where is the hockey open thread?

  52. 52
    bago says:

    @someguy: Defending Andrew here, I think his zeal about parentage comes from the hypocrisy of a woman who thinks birtherism is legitimate, yet refuses to reciprocate. That and she’s an icky girl, also.

  53. 53

    @someguy:

    No doubt they fear eugenics and death panels precisely because they know that improving the breed by removing teh stoopid would erode their power base.

    Hell, if we removed teh stoopid we’d be removing them. Conservatives are lazy, stupid and completely incapable of anything approaching original thought. Look at the American South, the most conservative region of the United States. What major advances of the 20th century came out of the South? Automobiles? Nope, that was Henry Ford in Michigan. Electricity? Nope, that was Steinmetz in New York and Edison in New Jersey. Aviation? Well the first airplane did fly at Kitty Hawk, but after a while the Wright brothers went back to Ohio, and the field was pushed along by guys like Bill Boeing in Washington state and the Lougheed brothers in California. Motion pictures? Hollywood, California. Nuclear power and weapons? Well Oak Ridge was just a production facility selected because of the cheap electricity. All of the smart people who made the Manhattan project happen came from the northeast, Chicago and California. Electronics. That was done in the northeast. Computers, software and the internet? The northeast, California, Oregon and Washington state.

    Conservatives are worthless, lazy, cowardly and stupid, if we had a eugenics program in this country they’d be the first ones to be sterilized.

  54. 54
    El Cid says:

    I like how in the review, the author mistakes loudly and boldly proclaimed arguments from Ferguson as being stronger than counter-arguments, because, you know, that’s how it works.

  55. 55
    mclaren says:

    Contrarian time:

    Nope, you’ve all got it 100% wrong. In what sense is Niall Ferguson a “conservative”?

    Prior to the global economic collapse, Ferguson wrote articles warning about the historical record of global economic collapses. That’s not what conservatives were doing back in 2004 and 2005. They were calling for more market deregulation, they were predicting “Dow 36,000.”

    Ferguson describes America as an empire and he also keeps pointing out the suddeness with which empire have collapsed throughout history. Once again, that’s not a typical American conservative position. The American conservatives have made predictions exactly the opposite of Ferguson’s — to wit, that America is unique in history, exceptional, that the American empire can expand without limit, that America needs to double down and invade Syria and Iran, and so on. Once again, exactly the opposite of what Ferguson has been saying.

    The evidence appears to show that Niall Ferguson is a contrarian Brit a few of whose assertions were taken up American neocons and twisted and stretched out of context. Ferguson’s thesis that Britain should have stayed out of WW I could be directly applied to the runup to the Iraq War of 2003, and could easily be used by liberals as support for the claim that America’s invasion of Iraq was a bad idea and a giant historical blunder. The fact that no liberals have yet done this reflect more on their apparent lack of understanding of the nuances of what Ferguson has been saying than on any purported inherent “conservatism” in Ferguson’s claims.

    If you study Ferguson’s articles and books, he has a consistent track record of pointing out that empires collapse unpredictably, financial bubbles burst without warning, and superpowers who enter into regional wars risk destroying themselves.

    None of those claims can remotely be described as “conservative” political positions in the American political spectrum.

    Sorry, you people are 100% dead wrong. You’re misreading Ferguson. He has nothing to do with American conservatism. His only sin (if indeed we can call it that) is that a few of his claims were taken up and twisted out of context by American conservatives, and he was polite enough to go to Washington when the neocons in the drunk-driving C student’s White House asked him there.

    Ferguson can no more accurately be described as a “conservative” merely because some of his claims were warped and twisted out of context by the neocons than Adam Smith can be correctly characterized as conservative merely because a few of his ideas were taken wildly out of context and twisted and mauled to fit the far-right intellectual agenda.

    If I were teaching a course in intellectual history, you people would all get an F. You need to sharpen up your reading comprehension and go back and re-read Ferguson’s books and articles.

  56. 56
    El Cid says:

    I would more broadly take issue with the notion that Ferguson has actually contributed greatly to any discussion.

    Admittedly, though, I’ve read a number of actual scholars of British and other imperial history, so bland and quite common arguments about empires and their courses are less interesting to me.

  57. 57
    Uloborus says:

    @mclaren:
    I *don’t* know Ferguson, and what I’m reading here and in links does suggest he traditionally suggests that things break down at every moment. That is not a conservative position, absolutely.

    However, conservatives since Bush II (Heck, earlier, but now they’re all-in) have not even paid lip service to consistency. If the man is passionately defending the invasion of Iraq and suggesting that the empires pre-WWI were the reason things were better then, wouldn’t that suggest that his beliefs are in line with neoconservative imperialism and the idea that the empire must one day fall is merely a detail neither of them thinks is important enough to fight over?

    If his basic premise is inconsistent with recent neoconservative beliefs, and he is being used to promote them, how is he reacting to that? Does he act to further support that usage, or does he contradict it? Those are also important questions to ask.

    As you can see, I am highly suspicious. I also admit that I am hearing one side of an issue that I’m very unfamiliar with and don’t have time to research myself enough to answer these questions. But those are the questions that immediately leap to my mind that would make the difference in which side of this issue I’d settle on.

  58. 58
    EthylEster says:

    @someguy:

    Had Andrew Sullivan been a historian rather than a journalist…

    If he had been straight rather than queer, HE probably would be dating Miss American Enterprise Institute feminist.

    BTW the righties love her because of her involvement with the Theo Van Gogh affair.

  59. 59
    EthylEster says:

    @Wile E. Quixote: Conservatives are worthless, lazy, cowardly and stupid, if we had a eugenics program in this country they’d be the first ones to be sterilized.

    Yeah, recall the Monty Python Twit Olympics sketch. All upper class morons…the so-called bluebloods who have been intermarrying for too long.

  60. 60
    Anya says:

    @EthylEster: The righties love her because she says all the things that they wish they can say without being called racist. She makes bigots conferrable with their own bigotry.

  61. 61
    Batocchio says:

    @John Cole:

    We’re bombing brown people over there so we don’t need to give them health care over here.

  62. 62
    tyrese says:

    Must we (speak of Niall Ferguson, that is)?
    Can’t we speak of Craig Ferguson instead?

    Craig Ferguson is the best thing that ever happened to late night tv, ever.

  63. 63
    Viva BrisVegas says:

    @burnspbesq:

    Must we (speak of Niall Ferguson, that is)?
    Can’t we speak of Craig Ferguson instead?

    Craig Ferguson is a great TV historian. Try to catch The Dirt Detective sometime.

  64. 64
    inventor says:

    I was not familiar with Niall Ferguson until I read his article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. I though it was one of the most vacuous things I’ve ever read. Apparently there are no long term consequences….to anything.

    And de-regulation had nothing to do with the financial collapse…but Obama’s spending will certainly lead to our doom in the next few weeks.

    I thought to myself, “what a hack”. I am seriously reconsidering my subscription.

  65. 65
    DougJ says:

    @mclaren:

    I don’t have the link but I read a New Yorker article in which he described himself as a Thatcher supporter. He may have also used the word “conservative” to describe himself.

    I agree with some of what you’re saying, though, and I think it dovetails with my last paragraph. Ferguson (and lots of others like him) aren’t conservatives in the Beck/Palin/Bush sense of the word, but they end up getting in the bed with those types because they like the money and the attention.

  66. 66
    DougJ says:

    @mclaren:

    Also:

    He has nothing to do with American conservatism. His only sin (if indeed we can call it that) is that a few of his claims were taken up and twisted out of context by American conservatives, and he was polite enough to go to Washington when the neocons in the drunk-driving C student’s White House asked him there.

    I think you’re being a bit too kind. But what you’re saying is along the lines of what I said (truth be told, I think I was being too kind as well).

  67. 67
    Nancy Irving says:

    ““Everything you thought you knew about —– is wrong.”

    This is also what cult leaders (and wannabe gurus of all types) tell their new recruits.

  68. 68
    mclaren says:

    @Dougj: I think we’re roughly in agreement here.

    We need to bear in mind that a Brit calling himself a “conservative” means something quite a bit different from an American calling himself a conservative. European conservatives would qualify as center-left in America, while the American tea-partiers and neocons would frankly be regarded as somewhere to the right of the British National Front — which is to say, batshit insane, in Britain.

    If people want to criticize Ferguson, I think they should criticize him for the arguments he makes rather than the ones that Benjamin Wallace-Wells incorrectly claim he makes. The article sounds damning…until you read what Ferguson actually says.

    “Within three minutes, he’d lost the liberals in the crowd…” “This was too much for even the conservatives in the audience. (..) Ferguson had pulled off that rarest of Washington double plays, alienating liberals and conservatives alike.”

    Not typical American conservative behavior.

    “[Ferguson] He fully admits how poorly the American mission in Iraq has gone but says this only proves his ultimate point. Had President Bush been willing to see the United States’ role in the world as essentially imperial, Ferguson argues, he would have understood the depth of commitment, the hundreds of thousands of troops and tens of thousands of civil administrators, needed to really turn Iraq into a democracy. The failures in Iraq don’t, for Ferguson, mean that the project of American empire was deeply misguided; rather, they affirm that an imperial attitude is the only one that might have done the job in Iraq.”

    This is almost certainly correct. If America wanted to make a go of the Iraq invasion in 2003, then it should have used many many more troops and it would have needed to insert an even large civil administration force, along the lines of the British Raj. We can do a back-of-the-envelope calculation to guesstimate the total number of troops America would have needed in 2003. The British occupied Iraq in 1920 with 120,000 troops, but at that time Iraq had a population 2.85 million. Scaling up to Iraq’s 2003 population of roughly 25 million, we find that America would have had to send in at least a million ground troops and probably at least three times that number of civil administrators.

    That makes a total of four million U.S. ground personnel, at a minimum, if America had wanted to do the job right, in the way that the British Raj did it in India. That number is almost certainly low, moreover, because the British occupation of Iraq ultimately failed. America would almost certainly need more troops per capita than the Brits used, and more civil administrators.

    The notion that America even back in 2003 would have tolerated a national draft that sucked up four million people to send to Iraq is patently absurd, so Ferguson is really saying “In order to do it right, you Yanks would have needed to send millions of more personnel than was politically possible, so it was never on in the first place.”

    And in fact the article quotes Ferguson as saying exactly that.

    Ferguson is awfully specific about this. America, he argues, must refit its military to undertake decades-long occupations of foreign nations. It must export settlers, who bring Western values to the rest of the world. It must add a branch of government, the equivalent of the India Civil Service, to provide civil administration to conquered territories.

    However, Ferguson recognizes that this is politically and financially impossible:

    …America’s ill-preparedness, both emotionally and structurally, to take on an imperial role was clearly evident before we invaded Iraq–and Ferguson was perfectly aware of it. He published a series of op-eds on the eve of war raising concerns that America was prepping too few troops and seemed to be planning for too short a stay.

    Ferguson defended the moral nobility of overthrowing Saddam — that’s hard to argue with. It was morally noble. The problem is that just because some foreign policy move is morally noble doesn’t mean we ought to make it. For example, the population of Yemen practice female cricumcision — should America invade Yemen to stop that despicable practice? It would be morally the right thing to do, but that doesn’t mean we should do it.

    Again and again, Benjamin Wallace-Wells seems to lose sight of the nuances in Ferguson’s thinking. Just because Ferguson defended the moral underpinnings of the Iraq war doesn’t mean Ferguson believed we should have invaded with the inadequate forces and lack of civil administrators we had.

    In his just published book, Colossus, Ferguson…fully admits how poorly the American mission in Iraq has gone but says this only proves his ultimate point. Had President Bush been willing to see the United States’ role in the world as essentially imperial, Ferguson argues, he would have understood the depth of commitment, the hundreds of thousands of troops and tens of thousands of civil administrators, needed to really turn Iraq into a democracy. The failures in Iraq don’t, for Ferguson, mean that the project of American empire was deeply misguided; rather, they affirm that an imperial attitude is the only one that might have done the job in Iraq.

    Note the phrasing here — Ferguson points out that a massive commitment of U.S. troops and civil administrations (millions upon millions of them, surely requiring a draft) “is the only one that might have done the job in Iraq.” Might have done the job. A national draft requiring calling up many millions of Americans — which is politically and financially impossible in America today — and Ferguson points it might have done the job. Not quite the ringing endorsement of neocon dreams of power that Benjamin Wallace-Wells makes Ferguson’s arguments out to be, is it?

    Ferguson isn’t just some deluded neocon warmonger, and let’s take a look at his recent essay “Complexity and Collapse” to see that:

    “If empires are complex systems that sooner or later succumb to sudden and catastrophic malfunctions, rather than cycling sedately from Arcadia to Apogee to Armageddon, what are the implications for the United States today? First, debating the stages of decline may be a waste of time — it is a precipitous and unexpected fall that should most concern policymakers and citizens. Second, most imperial falls are associated with fiscal crises. All the above cases were marked by sharp imbalances between revenues and expenditures, as well as difficulties with financing public debt. Alarm bells should therefore be ringing very loudly, indeed, as the United States contemplates a deficit for 2009 of more than $1.4 trillion — about 11.2 percent of GDP, the biggest deficit in 60 years — and another for 2010 that will not be much smaller. Public debt, meanwhile, is set to more than double in the coming decade, from $5.8 trillion in 2008 to $14.3 trillion in 2019. Within the same timeframe, interest payments on that debt are forecast to leap from eight percent of federal revenues to 17 percent.”

    Once again, hardly a William Kristol clone. While none of the American conservatives seem to have a problem with endlessly increasing U.S. military expenditures, Niall Ferguson seems well aware that America’s current levels of military spending are unsustainable.

    The substantive criticisms of Ferguson’s arguments are, by and large, ones that Benjamin Wallace-Wells never makes:

    [1] Ferguson is overly fond of jejune contarianism. You get the sense that he often takes a position simply to shock other historians. That’s infantile and often poorly thought out, as in Ferguson’s absurd claim that WW I would have gone better if the Brits had stayed out. France would surely have gotten involved, and the conflict would have dragged on longer. America would still have gotten involved due to Germany’s unrestricted U-boat warfare, but WW I would have wrought more devastation and dragged on even longer than it did. Ferguson here is being contrary merely to get attention, like the kid in kindergarten who smears paste on himself.

    [2] Ferguson dodges and weaves without ever really coming down on either side and telling us what he actually believes. He’s fond of those British “on the one hand…but one the other hand” dithering-and-dallying boffin-speak divagations. Ferguson never actually confronts the stark fact that more than a million Iraqi civilians died as a result of the 2003 American invasion.

    [3] Ferguson seems to believe repeats exactly, rather than just rhyming, and he’s also guilty of selective data-picking and example-choosing. For instance, the single biggest argument against the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was the failed 1920-1925 British invasion of Iraq, done with more Imperial troops per capita Iraqi population and a much bigger global empire at the time. If the Brits failed, with their massive armies of civil administrators and their world-girdling army, what chance do the Americans have?

    [4] Ferguson constantly strikes out beyond the area of his expertise into realms in which he frankly knows little. Ferguson started out as an expert on the political economy of Germany. When he talked about Europe in the 17th and 18th and 19th century, particularly when he talks about European finance and politics in that period, he comes off as authoritative. As he expands his reach beyond that realm, he becomes progressively less credible.

    The article doesn’t seem sympathetic at all to Ferguson. It smells like a smear, and many of Benjamin Wallace-Wells’ snide asides (“It is unpleasant, if compelling in a train-wreck kind of way, to watch what can happen when such a dynamic mind veers dramatically off-track; he can take a lot of people crashing into an intellectual ditch with him.”) simply contradict what Ferguson actually says, which is far more nuanced, and often advocates a policy position precisely the opposite of what Benjamin Wallace-Well claims Ferguson does.

    Let me close by pointing out that I have no particular love for Ferguson. He seems like an opportunistic Thatcherite upper-class twit who latched onto U.S.war fever in 2003 and rode it to popular and academic success. That’s contemptible. The fact that he rode to success by cleverly treading the ridge between casting America as the new British empire and warnings based on historical examples, and that Ferguson did it with the skill of a mountain goat, doesn’t increase my respect for him. Niall Ferguson seems to me to bear the same relationship to serious historians that a 3-card-monte dealer bears to a serious game of 5 card stud poker.

    That said, it’s simply not accurate to dismiss Ferguson as another Perlman or Wolfowitz or William Kristol or Norman Podhoretz. Ferguson made (and continues to make) substantive points that have nothing to do with the rah-rah Project For A New American Century warmongering of American conservatives like Ramesh Ponneru and that whole crowd. Those people are, frankly, batshit insane, and pervasively ignorant of history.

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    tc125231 says:

    @mclaren: I did not call him a conservative. I called him a “childishly self-promoting” contrarian whose economic pronouncements are laughable in their ignorance.

    Try reading what is written, pal.

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