Michael Lind launches broadside against Niall Ferguson at SalonHistorians in the News
Michael Lind is Policy Director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation and is the author of "The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution."
The right-wing British historian Niall Ferguson seems to have conquered America: pushing his latest perishable book, "Civilization," this one based on the trendy and quickly dated conceit of the six (or is it seven?) "killer apps" of Western civilization; writing cover stories for Newsweek; debating foreign policy on TV with Zbigniew Brzezinski; and pouting and snarling his way through a debate about economics with Paul Krugman, Jeff Madrick and Bill Bradley. If you missed his Chicago lecture on the imminent decline of America, then at least on YouTube you can still catch him warning before the 2008 presidential election that "Islamic jihadists" and "Europeans" were hoping that John McCain would lose. Recently, it was announced that Henry Kissinger has made him his official biographer, perhaps in the hope that Ferguson, who thinks that the Kaiser should have been allowed to crush Europe, will be equally kind to Kissinger’s reputation. Time magazine in 2004 named Ferguson one of the 100 most influential people in the world, which might help to explain the condition of the world.
"The Elite Turns Against Obama," screamed a recent headline in the Daily Beast.
According to former New York Daily News gossip columnist Lloyd Grove, the evidence that "the intelligentsia" was turning against Obama consisted of a panel at the Aspen Institute, where the right-wing New York Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman agreed with Ferguson that the Democrats are hurting America. Ferguson, described as a "dashing Brit" by gossip columnist Grove, praised Republican congressman Paul Ryan’s scheme for abolishing Social Security and Medicare, a plan so callous and unpopular that other Republicans have scrambled to distance themselves from it. The Dashing Brit then told the assembled plutocrats that unemployed Americans are lazy: "The curse of long term unemployment is that if you pay people to do nothing, they’ll find themselves doing nothing for long periods of time." On an earlier occasion he created a stir when he compared Barack Obama to the lascivious cartoon character Fritz the Cat, because, he said, both are "black and lucky."
What accounts for the attention lavished by the American media on a huckster as vulgar and shallow as Niall Ferguson? His accent surely is part of the explanation. Only a combined lack of personal and national self-confidence can explain the way that America’s publishers and producers -- many of them insecure, upwardly mobile social climbers -- will fawn over a mediocre British pundit or pop historian whom they would completely ignore if he were Tony Zacarelli from Long Island or Fred Huffernagel from Oregon. Little has changed since the Midwesterner Jay Gatz, to be taken seriously on the Anglophile East Coast, had to change his name to Gatsby before he could qualify as "dashing."
Ferguson is the most prominent of a number of British conservative intellectuals and journalists who have found more sympathetic audiences in the U.S. than in their own country, where their enthusiasm for Victorian imperialism and Victorian economics stigmatizes them as cranks. His Old World accent and reactionary politics might not have been sufficient to earn Niall Ferguson his cisatlantic celebrity, were it not for the demise of American intellectual conservatism, chronicled by Sam Tanenhaus and others. The mass extinction of America’s intellectual right at the hands of anti-intellectual Jacksonian populists like the Tea Partyers has created a lack of native conservative thinkers with impressive academic credentials who are willing to dash to a TV studio at a moment’s notice. And in an era when the conservative movement is symbolized by lightweights like Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter and Jonah Goldberg, rather than William F. Buckley Jr., George Will and Irving Kristol, even Niall Ferguson can be mistaken for an intellectual.
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