Notes From the Margins…

Niall Ferguson – a man of our time

  • November 27, 2011
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I have never read any of Niall Ferguson’s books and I hope I won’t have to.  But I have read his articles and the occasional interview and I have always found him an insufferably pompous, arrogant,  self-regarding prat (eg. ” the real point about me isn’t that I’m good-looking, it’s that I’m clever” – I mean, what kind of jerk says something like that?) .  Ok, I can already hear you scholars out there telling me to think about the ideas, not the man, but Ferguson’s ideas, at least the ones that come through the media,  do not make me inclined to look much further, and the man is so obnoxious it’s difficult to get past that.

In any case there are a lot of great historians to read, and there is no way I am going to spend  my time – unless for some reason it should become unavoidable – reading another book about how wonderful the West is and how imperialism wasn’t that bad after all.  I did enough of that when did my A’ levels and my History degree, and hip getting-down-with-the-youthspeak drivel about ‘killer aps’ and ‘downloading civilisations’ doesn’t make me want to do it again, thank you.

Nor am I inclined to give much credence to a historian who takes Bat Ye’or’s ludicrous and ahistorical Islamophobic fantasy/conspiracy theory ‘Eurabia’ seriously.  Ferguson has written of Ye’or that ‘ “future historians will one day regard her coinage of the term “Eurabia” as prophetic. Those who wish to live in a free society must be eternally vigilant’.

So are the Muslims taking European civilisation then?  Ferguson, unlike Ye’or, won’t say this outright.  In a typically slick article entitled ‘Why Eurabia?’ in 2004, Ferguson writes how

[stextbox id=”alert”]In the 52nd chapter of his  Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon posed one of the great counterfactual questions of history: If the French had failed to defeat an invading Muslim army at the Battle of Poitiers in AD 732, would all of Western Europe have succumbed to Islam? “Perhaps,” speculated Gibbon with his inimitable irony, “the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.”[/stextbox]

Ferguson then goes on to point out that

[stextbox id=”alert”]When those words were published in 1788, the idea of a Muslim Oxford could scarcely have seemed more fanciful. The last Muslim forces had been driven from Spain in 1492; the Ottoman advance through Eastern Europe had been decisively halted at the gates of Vienna in 1683. Today, however, the idea seems somewhat less risible[/stextbox]

Why is it ‘less risible’?  Because of the usual Eurabian fantasies: Europeans aren’t having enough children, whereas Muslims are; Europeans don’t go to church, whereas Muslims are hyper-religious.   All of which could lead to a ‘creeping Islamicization of a decadent Christendom’.

So now Europe is ‘Christendom’ once again?   Of course Ferguson offers other possibilities, to show how open-minded he is, before concluding on a Spenglerian downbeat note

[stextbox id=”alert”]Still, it is hard not to be reminded of Gibbon—especially now that his old university”s Center for Islamic Studies has almost completed work on its new premises. In addition to the traditional Oxford quadrangle, the building is expected to feature “a prayer hall with traditional dome and minaret tower.”  When I first glimpsed a model of that minaret, I confess, the phrase that sprang to mind was indeed “decline and fall.”[/stextbox]

What is truly repellent about Ferguson however, is his willingness to act as a propagandist for the US/Western wars of the moment and then subsequently pretend that he was some kind of wise, detached observer when these wars screw up.  Take his ‘counterfactual’ entitled ‘The Great War of 2007’. Written in January 2006, Ferguson’s conceit speculated that future historians would look back on 2007 as the year in which a global conflagration erupted in the Middle East,  culminating in a ‘devastating nuclear exchange in August 2007’.

The origins of this confrontation,  seen from the vantage point of Ferguson’s hypothetical  future, stem from the West’s failure to launch pre-emptive air strikes to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.   But there was more:

[stextbox id=”alert”]

A second precondition of war was demographic. While European fertility had fallen below the natural replacement rate in the 1970s, the decline in the Islamic world had been much slower. By the late 1990s the fertility rate in the eight Muslim countries to the south and east of the European Union was two and half times higher than the European figure.

This tendency was especially pronounced in Iran, where the social conservatism of the 1979 Revolution – which had lowered the age of marriage and prohibited contraception – combined with the high mortality of the Iran-Iraq War and the subsequent baby boom to produce, by the first decade of the new century, a quite extraordinary surplus of young men. More than two fifths of the population of Iran in 1995 had been aged 14 or younger. This was the generation that was ready to fight in 2007.



Never mind the fact that Iranian youth have been in the frontline of the opposition to Ahmadinejad.   In Ferguson’s view this demographic shift ‘ not only  gave Islamic societies a youthful energy that contrasted markedly with the slothful senescence of Europe. It also signified a profound shift in the balance of world population. ‘

Driven by this ‘youthful energy’, which Ferguson clearly equates with an irresistible streak of  Islamic fanaticism – future historians will conclude that Ahmadinejad was attempting ‘to give Iran the kind of power North Korea already wielded in East Asia: the power to defy the United States; the power to obliterate America’s closest regional ally’.

Historians will also conclude that ‘Under different circumstances, it would not have been difficult to thwart Ahmadinejad’s ambitions. The Israelis had shown themselves capable of pre-emptive air strikes against Iraq’s nuclear facilities in 1981.’

The same thing could have been done in 2006, according to Ferguson’s historians, since ‘Similar strikes against Iran’s were urged on President Bush by neo-conservative commentators throughout 2006. The United States, they argued, was perfectly placed to carry out such strikes. It had the bases in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan. It had the intelligence proving Iran’s contravention of the Non-Proliferation Treaty’.

Unfortunately, ‘the President was advised by his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, to opt instead for diplomacy. Not just European opinion but American opinion was strongly opposed to an attack on Iran.’

And that, in Ferguson’s view is why  ‘the Great War of 2007’ happened.   Never mind the fact that Ahmadinejad’s ‘wipe Israel off the map’ quote was a mistranslation, or that there was (and is) no clear intelligence indicating that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, or that Israel has so many nuclear warheads that any attempt to attack it would be suicidal.   Never mind the fact that even conventional ‘pre-emptive’ air strikes on Iran would probably kill hundreds of thousands of people and ignite a firestorm of violence across the Middle East and beyond.

For Ferguson, Iran is not a state pursuing its own strategic interests, but a suicidal terrorist state led by an antisemitic madman who is impervious to rationality, and whose over-breeding population may be equally irrational.   In effect, Ferguson was providing a pseudo-historical rationale for an ongoing propaganda campaign to launch an aggressive war, using every conceivable stereotype and cliche from the Zionist/neoCon/Tony Blair playbook.

A year later, Ferguson was still banging the drum in an article entitled ‘One strike and Iran could be out’, while insisting that his original counterfactual was ‘not intended to soothsay but to  alert readers to the seriousness of the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program — and to persuade them that the United States should do something to stop it’.  ‘Doing something’, to Ferguson, still meant US air strikes, from aircraft carriers ‘that would be the launching platforms for any major air offensive against Iran’s nuclear facilities’.

Ferguson’s writings are littered with this kind of thing, such as his observation that If one adds together the illegal immigrants, the jobless and the convicts, there is surely ample raw material for a larger American army.’

He supported the Iraq war and his only regret about the mayhem that followed was that the Bush administration didn’t ‘commit sufficient manpower and resources’ to the occupation.   And he still wants more of the same.  In a recent Guardian interview he declared that

[stextbox id=”alert”]It’s all very well for us to sit here in the west with our high incomes and cushy lives, and say it’s immoral to violate the sovereignty of another state. But if the effect of that is to bring people in that country economic and political freedom, to raise their standard of living, to increase their life expectancy, then don’t rule it out.[/stextbox]

As Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair can attest, Brits who say this kind of thing  in the United States can  go a long way – it’s our gravitas donchaknow. Ferguson has said that he went to live in America because that is where ‘the money and power actually were’.   You could look on that as a statement of his professional orientation toward financial history – or the philosophy of a man on the make who knows where he can most likely make a killing.

Now Ferguson is threatening to use his own power and money to sue Pankaj Mishra and the London Review of Books for supposedly calling him a racist. Mishra didn’t actually do this, though he did suggest in his review of Civilisation for the LRB that Ferguson reflected anxieties that belong to the same tradition as the white supremacist Theodore Lothrop Stoddard, the author of  The Rising Tide of Color against White World Supremacy(1920).

Fair enough, you might think, considering Ferguson’s persistent obsession with Muslim demographics and Europe’s ‘senescence’ and his suggestion – never fully articulated out of course – that these supposed demographic shifts automatically translate into (Islamic) cultural power.  Take his observations, in a lecture delivered on ‘the end of Europe‘ to the American Enterprise Institute (naturally) that

[stextbox id=”alert”]All around Europe are countries whose birth rate is more than twice the European average.  The trouble is that nearly all these countries are predominantly Muslim. Not only that, but there is a country that now has a very plausible claim to European Union membership: Turkey.  The arguments against Turkish membership–and the Turks have been pressing for some form of membership since the 1980s–are getting weaker and weaker. The only argument left is that fundamentally Europe is a Christian entity. Its cultural roots are different from those of Ottoman Turkey, and Europe is a latter day secular version of Christendom.[/stextbox]

For Ferguson this means that

[stextbox id=”alert”]The reality is–and it is perhaps the most striking cultural phenomenon of our times–that Western and Eastern Europe are no longer in any meaningful sense Christian societies. They are quite clearly post-Christian societies. In the Netherlands, Britain, Germany, Sweden, and Denmark, fewer than one in ten people attend church even once a month.  Europeans inhabit a post-Christian society that is economically, demographically, and culturally decadent.[/stextbox]

This vision of Europe’s impending downfall may not qualify Ferguson as a  ‘racist’ (Mishra doesn’t say that it does), but it certainly embodies anxieties and attitudes that Stoddard and many others of the same period would undoubtedly have understood – and which are still common currency in Europe and the United States.

In any case writers should have to put up with a bad review, even if they disagree with every word of it.  Some  might write outraged letters to the publication concerned, as Ferguson has already done, and the matter would normally peter out.

But rich men love the British libel courts  and Ferguson doesn’t like criticism.  He has said  thatLife is long, and revenge is a dish that tastes best cold. I’m very unforgiving‘.

I hope that Mishra and the LRB don’t capitulate and apologise to this  contemptible bully.  Didn’t Ferguson himself argue that ‘ those who wish to live in a free society must be eternally vigilant’?   But the British laws are designed to favour the powerful, and the LRB may not risk court – as Ferguson well knows.  And if they apologise,  it won’t prove that Ferguson is or is not a racist, it will merely confirm that he is another pathetic little rich man with a huge ego, who uses his wealth to silence people who say things he doesn’t like.





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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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