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Letters

Vol. 33 No. 22 · 17 November 2011

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Watch this man

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 (LRB, 3 November).

Mishra begins by insinuating a resemblance between me and the American racial theorist Theodore Lothrop Stoddard. Stoddard, the author of The Rising Tide of Color against White World-Supremacy (1920), was an out-and-out racist, a firm believer in ‘Aryan’ racial superiority, an opponent of unrestricted immigration and a Nazi sympathiser. Mishra describes my book The Pity of War as ‘Stoddardesque’. He goes on to say that my 2003 book Empire ‘belonged recognisably to the tradition of … “white people’s histories"’ and asserts that the book ‘celebrated … pith-helmeted missionaries’. Of my new book he says that I sound ‘like the Europeans … who “wanted gold and slaves"’ and that I feel ‘nostalgia for the intellectual certainties of the summer of 1914’.

As those who know me or who have read my work can attest, Mishra’s insinuation that I am a racist could scarcely be further from the truth. Unwittingly, he sabotages his own argument by quoting my words in Civilisation: ‘By 1913 … the world … was characterised by a yawning gap between the West and the Rest, which manifested itself in assumptions of white racial superiority and numerous … impediments to non-white advancement. This was the ultimate global imbalance.’ This is hardly a ringing endorsement of white supremacy. Mishra might also have quoted this passage from the same book:

The idea that the success of the United States was contingent on racial segregation was nonsense. It was quite wrong to believe, as [George] Wallace did, that the United States was more prosperous and stable than Venezuela or Brazil because of anti-miscegenation laws and the whole range of colour bars that kept white and black Americans apart in neighbourhoods, hospitals, schools, colleges, workplaces, parks, swimming pools, restaurants and even cemeteries. On the contrary, North America was better off than South America purely and simply because the British model of widely distributed private property rights and democracy worked better than the Spanish model of concentrated wealth and authoritarianism. Far from being indispensable to its success, slavery and segregation were handicaps to American development.

I could with ease cite many more passages conveying my own contempt for theories of racial difference. Indeed, the central theme of my book The War of the World – which Mishra does not mention – is the immense harm done by such theories in the 20th century. At the very least, Mishra owes me a public apology for his highly offensive and defamatory allegation of racism.

Not content with libelling me, Mishra also systematically misrepresents my new book, falsely alleging a whole series of omissions. He claims that in Civilisation I disregard ‘Muslim contributions to Western science’; in fact, I discuss them in some detail. He asserts that I ‘offer no evidence’ for my claim that China was very far from being economically neck to neck with the West in 1800. In fact, the point is footnoted and the work of two Chinese scholars, Guan Hanhui and Li Daokui, clearly referenced; I also provide Angus Maddison’s figures for per capita income. Mishra alleges that ‘Asian leaders and intellectuals’ are ‘mute here as in all Ferguson’s books’ and that I do not discuss their growing awareness of Western predominance. In fact, I devote three pages each to the Ottoman and Japanese responses to Western ascendancy. Gandhi is quoted at length. He is no more ‘mute’ here than in Empire or War of the World. Mishra says I don’t mention the genocidal policies pursued by the Belgian rulers of the Congo: in fact, they are referred to twice. He claims that I do not discuss how Western innovations, when ‘imposed on societies historically unprepared for them, could turn literally into killers’. Yet my discussions of the use of modern artillery in Chapter 2, and railways and ‘eugenics’ in Chapter 4, do precisely that.

Mishra also writes, gratuitously, that I am ‘immune to … humour and irony’. This is clearly his problem, not mine. He completely misses the point that the term ‘Chimerica’ coined by myself and Moritz Schularick in 2006 was from the outset – as the original article made clear – a pun on the word ‘chimera’, because we (correctly) regarded the post-1998 Chinese-American economic relationship as ephemeral, as well as detrimental to global stability. My remark that Philip Bobbitt’s last book would be ‘read with pleasure by men of a certain age, class and education from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to London’s West End’ was scarcely intended as unalloyed praise. And the irony was surely unmissable in the line about my membership of the ‘neoimperialist gang’. Or does Mishra imagine that Max Boot and I meet in New York to compare pith helmets?

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.

I am, I repeat, owed an apology.

Niall Ferguson
Harvard University

Pankaj Mishra writes: Niall Ferguson’s strenuous attempts to distinguish himself from Stoddard – which make him flag his differences with, of all people, George Wallace – are misplaced. Hardly anyone is a racist in the Stoddardian sense today, even if they raise the alarm against Muslim ‘colonisers’ of a ‘senescent’ Europe, or fret about feckless white Americans being outpaced by hard-working Asian-Americans. 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’.

Ferguson’s tendency to say whatever seems resonant and persuasive at any given hour is again on display in his response to my review. ‘Chimerica, despite its name,’ he asserted in 2007, ‘is no chimera.’ He now tells us that the word was always meant to be a pun. And that he hadn’t offered ‘unalloyed praise’ to Philip Bobbitt’s book when he described it as ‘simply the most profound book’ on American foreign policy ‘since the end of the Cold War’.

Faulted for insisting that the Scientific Revolution was ‘wholly Eurocentric’, he points to his discussion of the Muslim contribution to science in the first centuries of Islam. Charged with uncouthly dismissing Kenneth Pomeranz’s classic study The Great Divergence, he now unearths a footnote which actually refers to an unpublished paper by two obscure Chinese scholars. He also misrepresents my argument about the devastation caused by his beloved ‘killer’ apps in non-Western societies; I referred specifically to apparently benevolent ‘apps’ like property rights rather than actual ‘killers’ like artillery.

Needless to say, Ferguson’s few (and mostly pejorative) references to Gandhi don’t compensate for his suppression of Asian and African voices in his books. More revealingly, he thinks that two vaguely worded sentences 15 pages apart in a long paean to the superiority of Western civilisation are sufficient reckoning with the extermination of ten million people in the Congo. I am guilty, however, of failing to find the ‘surely unmissable’ irony in Ferguson’s cheerleading of ‘neoimperialist’ wars.

Elephant Tears

As I write, thousands of protesters are marching on the headquarters of Goldman Sachs, yet why should they bother if, as James Macdonald casually asserts, ‘there is some reason to believe that Goldman’s heyday may be over’ (LRB, 3 November)? It’s a strange thing to say of a firm that along with its employees and their relatives donated $1,013,091 to the president’s election campaign, more than all but one organisation in the country – the University of California, which employs more than 150,000 to Goldman’s 34,100. The McCain campaign only got $240,295 from Goldman and its people, placing it fifth among Republican donors, behind Merrill Lynch, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup and Morgan Stanley. Goldman is still the place where someone like the former White House general counsel Gregory Craig goes to work when he feels he’s done enough to serve the public. Macdonald writes that ‘it seems unlikely that another Goldman executive will be appointed treasury secretary any time soon,’ but maybe having Mark Patterson, one of its former lobbyists, as Timothy Geithner’s chief of staff will do. Sure, as Macdonald points out, Goldman’s share price is down and it has posted its second quarterly loss since it went public. As a result it has set aside only $10 billion for its annual bonus pool, down from $15 billion last year, so the average bonus an ordinary staff member receives will only be $293,255. In the face of such austerity, it is a wonder the bankers aren’t outside their office protesting too.

Maureen Ames
Washington DC

Mont Blanc and back

Will Self is no doubt right that the elderly Connolly was no great walker; but during one of the several visits he paid to ‘Sligger’ Urquhart’s chalet above St Gervais in the early 1920s, the youthful Connolly and Lord Balniel walked across the Col de Voza to Courmayeur, met their Italian guides, climbed Mont Blanc, reached the summit at dawn, and walked back to the chalet by way of Tête Rousse, where they left their guides, a round trip of around 30 miles, including the highest peak in Europe (LRB, 20 October). It wasn’t an untypical exploit.

Alan Ryan
Princeton University

Here in SE17, where in the dead of night Big Ben is often audible, Will Self could nonetheless, setting out after breakfast, and walking much of the time through the extensive parkland of this side of London, easily reach ‘open fields’ in time for lunch at the 14th-century inn that heralds their proximity; this, thanks to a quirk of the Green Belt that has preserved a slither of near Devonian farmland between the conurbations of Bromley and Croydon, no trace of either being visible from it. This was the start of the Sixth-Form Walk conducted every summer holidays in the 1960s by my history master, then president of the Surrey Paths Preservation Society, who had hiked with Hilaire Belloc before the war from his home village, Warlingham, in Surrey proper, down Titsey Hill and all the way over the Downs to Ditchling Beacon and finally the sea. This is still possible, though by our time the Sixth-Form Walk had been curtailed into an amiable country pub crawl – and alas many of those will no longer be found to quench Will Self’s thirst.

Steven Misander
London SE17

Defend yourself!

Joanna Biggs is on to something (LRB, 20 October). The false economy of limiting or delaying access to legal advice is obvious to most legal practitioners. I am a junior criminal barrister. In the criminal courts, where legal aid is becoming more difficult to obtain, cases are adjourned repeatedly as attempts are made by those with limited means to secure financial assistance. Courts allow such adjournments because those forced to litigate in person are, unsurprisingly, oblivious of the rules that facilitate the proper administration of justice. They are dependent on benevolent tribunals to take the time to explain what is happening. Without legal advice they often find it difficult to distil the issues and focus on what is relevant. Everything takes longer. More important, one would think, the risk of injustice is obvious. A defendant who knows nothing of the rules of evidence cannot adequately defend himself in a criminal court. An adversarial system demands parity of arms or it ceases to be a means of achieving justice.

Alex Di Francesco
London EC4

Not So Affordable

The government’s plans for council housing are even more insidious than Ross McKibbin suggests (LRB, 20 October). The plan is to encourage an acceleration in ‘right to buy’ purchases and funnel the capital receipts into ‘affordable housing’ – i.e. homes that have to be rented at 80 per cent of the market rate. That isn’t a meaningful alternative to private rented accommodation in most areas of the country. Furthermore, the money won’t necessarily be invested in the areas it came from. In Nottingham it probably means, based on the figures I’ve seen, the loss of ten social homes to be replaced by one ‘affordable’ home, probably in London.

Alex Ball
Nottingham

Ross McKibbin thinks there is a ‘Tory policy of paying off the debt in a single parliament’. If only that were possible. The ‘Tory policy’ (actually a coalition policy) is rather more modest: to eliminate the deficit by the end of the parliament: that is, to ensure that by then the debt has at least stopped growing.

Thomas Roe
London NW3

Ich bin bei dir

To say, as Robert Crawford does, that Peter Porter ‘had a fondness for … well performed classical music’ is to underestimate his love and knowledge of music (LRB, 6 October). Porter’s last collection, Betterthan God, alone has, among other musical allusions, a poem about Haydn’s last completed collection of string quartets (Op. 77), a poem about Stravinsky and, in ‘The Violin’s Obstinacy’, references both to Schumann’s encroaching madness and to the hearing affliction which Smetana incorporated into his First String Quartet (‘the E of deafness’).

‘An Exequy’ not only refers to Henry King’s poem but in its final line quotes Bach’s funeral motet BWV 228. This isn’t ‘just clever stuff’. Like a knowledge of the original King, a knowledge of the Bach (and, in particular, of the text of the finale chorale) adds a further layer of meaning – and a heartbreaking poignancy – to Porter’s poem.

Douglas Jarman
Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire

Robert Crawford says of the ‘measured yet unexpected conclusion’ of ‘An Exequy’: ‘The German words spoken in the last line may not be wholly comforting: they beckon the guilt-ridden man into death.’ This is correct if we assume that the inverted commas around ‘Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir’ signal direct speech. However, they could also be quotation marks. In Isaiah 43, Jehovah reassures his people: ‘Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine … Fear not: for I am with thee.’ So this is not only a beckoning from Hades or a world-weary invitation to a Christian Hereafter, but also an Old Testament blessing.

Regula Hohl Trillini
University of Basel

Roosevelt’s Republicans

R.W. Johnson writes that Franklin Roosevelt ‘never relied on Republicans’ (LRB, 20 October). This may have been true in Congress, where Democrats had huge majorities. But his administrative appointments showed bold bipartisanship. Three key men in his first 1933 cabinet – Harold Ickes at Interior, Henry Wallace at Agriculture and William Woodin at the Treasury – were nominally progressive Republicans, though Wallace and Ickes had voted for Al Smith in 1928 and Ickes had voted Republican in only one presidential election in the previous 25 years. Yet Ickes stayed in the cabinet until 1946 and Wallace was FDR’s vice president from 1941 to 1945.

In June 1940, following Hitler’s sweeping victories in Europe, FDR startled the nation and wrong-footed Republicans by appointing Henry Stimson secretary of war and Frank Knox secretary of the navy. Both men had taken tougher positions on the war than FDR, and Knox had even advocated that the US navy convoy munitions to Britain.

After 1938 FDR repeatedly tried to purge his own party of conservative, racist Dixiecrats and launch a new liberal Democratic Party which would have included Ickes, Wallace, the progressive Republican mayor of New York City Fiorello La Guardia and even Wendell Wilkie, his Republican opponent in the 1940 presidential election. The conservative Dixiecrat-Republican coalition which controlled Congress in that period scotched the strategy: had it succeeded the consequences for US politics in the postwar period would have been intriguing.

Patrick Renshaw
Sheffield

Round Is Better

John Lanchester’s preference for the values of Rugby Union over an allegedly less ethical football omits the sheer brutality of Rugby Union, a game in which punching, brawling and worse are not only normal, but normally go unpunished and even unremarked (LRB, 20 October). What would have a player dismissed and banned in a football match passes without comment in the sport of gentlemen, even though it is outside the laws of that game just as it is in football. This is sometimes excused by pointing to the physicality of rugby: but as casual brutality is much less normal in Rugby League, Union’s more civilised cousin, even that fig-leaf is not available.

Justin Horton
Huesca, Spain

Boxer & Bennett

Stringalongs: Mark Boxer and not Alan Bennett (LRB, 22 September)?

Tim Russ
Mitchell, Cornwall

Alan Bennett first; then Mark Boxer.

Editor, ‘London Review’

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