Harvard historian Niall Ferguson threatens suit over bad review

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Niall Ferguson, a historian who teaches at Harvard, has responded to a negative review of his book “Civilization: The West and the Rest” with an angry letter and by saying, “Don’t force my hand by forcing me to put it in the hands of lawyers.” The long review, threaded through with analyses of Ferguson’s previous works and related histories, was written by Pankaj Mishra and appeared in the Nov. 3 issue of the London Review of Books:

Ferguson himself is homo atlanticus redux. In a preface to the UK edition of Civilisation: The West and the Rest, he writes of being seduced away from a stodgy Oxbridge career, early in the 2000s, to the United States, ‘where the money and power actually were’.... Ferguson, setting aside his expertise in economic history, emerged as an evangelist-cum-historian of empire. He was already arguing in The Cash Nexus, published a few months before the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, that ‘the United States should be devoting a larger percentage of its vast resources to making the world safe for capitalism and democracy’ – if necessary by military force. ‘Let me come clean,’ he wrote in the New York Times Magazine in April 2003, a few weeks after the shock-and-awe campaign began in Iraq, ‘I am a fully paid-up member of the neoimperialist gang.’...


Which gang you belong to may be at the heart of the conflict arising between right-leaning Ferguson and left-leaning Mishra. In a letter to the editor that the London Review of Books printed Nov. 17, Ferguson writes:

It is not my habit to reply to hostile book reviews, but a personal attack that amounts to libel is another matter. Pankaj Mishra purports to discuss my book Civilisation: The West and the Rest, but in reality his review is a crude attempt at character assassination, which not only mendaciously misrepresents my work but also strongly implies that I am a racist.... The London Review of Books is notorious for its left-leaning politics. I do not expect to find warm affection in its pages. Much of what I write is simply too threatening to the ideological biases of your coterie. Nevertheless, this journal used, once, to have a reputation for intellectual integrity and serious scholarship. Pankaj Mishra’s libellous and dishonest article brings the LRB as well as himself into grave disrepute.

It’s worth noting that being perceived as racist might particularly rile Fersugon, who is married to the Somali-Dutch writer and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. But Mishra, in a reply to Ferguson’s letter, maintains that he does not see Ferguson as a racist:

Ferguson is no racist, in part because he lacks the steady convictions of racialist ideologues like Stoddard. Rather, his writings, heralding an American imperium in 2003, Chimerica in 2006, and the ‘Chinese Century’ in 2011, manifest a wider pathology among intellectuals once identified by Orwell: ‘the instinct to bow down before the conqueror of the moment, to accept the existing trend as irreversible’.

That wasn’t enough for Ferguson. “If he won’t apologise for calling me a racist, I will persecute him until he does,” he told The Guardian on Nov. 25. “”The basic insinuation [I am making] is that Mishra either did not read my book properly or if he did he was reckless. I find it staggering that the LRB is standing by him. I spoke to the editor Mary-Kay Wilmers and said: ‘Don’t force my hand by forcing me to put it in the hands of lawyers.’”


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-- Carolyn Kellogg