Friday, November 4, 2011

A Television Don in Newsweek

RWA1 linked on Facebook tonight to this article by the economic (?) historian (?) Niall Ferguson, with the endorsement "Ferguson is a good historian, and the analysis rings true." I'd heard Ferguson's name before, thanks probably to his infotainment PBS and BBC tie-ins, but till now I hadn't read anything he'd written and knew nothing about him.

The Daily Beast piece doesn't inspire much confidence in Ferguson's judgment. It's a bunch of bloated generalizations, which I recognize as dubious but mostly am not knowledgeable enough to dissect in detail. His praise for East Asian (especially Korean) education, though, betrays serious ignorance on his part.
Ask yourself: who’s got the work ethic now? The average South Korean works about 39 percent more hours per week than the average American. The school year in South Korea is 220 days long, compared with 180 days here. And you don’t have to spend too long at any major U.S. university to know which students really drive themselves: the Asians and Asian-Americans.
The analysis rings false. Ferguson thinks that a society which overworks its citizens is a good one! On education, too, he confuses quantity with quality. The Korean education system is based on rote memorization, not creativity or inventiveness, influenced by the Confucian examination system that ossified Chinese (and Korean) culture for so many centuries. Korean kids waste many hours in cram schools preparing for entrance exams to the universities, where they then cut back drastically on study in favor of anti-American demonstrations. (I'm exaggerating somewhat for comic effect, but it is true that Korean college students played a major role in bringing down the US-backed dictatorship that tyrannized South Korea for decades. Nancy Abelmann's Echoes of the Past, Epics of Dissent [California, 1996] is a good introduction to the subject.) American-trained teachers are frustrated by the difficulty of getting Korean students to speak up in class, and many Korean parents send their children to the US so they'll go to schools where they may learn to think. And, of course, the Asian and Asian-American students who come to study at American universities are self-selected, not representative of their entire cohort. Only someone completely ignorant of Asian educational reality, to say nothing of the realities of immigration, could have written what Ferguson wrote there.

So I did some preliminary searching and found this review essay on Ferguson's work from the London Review of Books, which details the shortcomings of his historical perspective; this quick-and-dirty takedown by a blogger, for those who find the LRB heavy going; this critique of Ferguson's take on the downfall of Mubarak by, of all people, the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg (how fascinating to find a hardcore Israel supporter who thinks Ferguson went too far); and this critique by Dan Hind at al-Jazeera English. I learned that Ferguson thinks that Charles Murray (co-author of The Bell Curve, to describe him as neutrally as I can) is a serious authority, and that he is notorious for pronouncements like:
If one adds together the illegal immigrants, the jobless, and the convicts, there is surely ample raw material for a larger American army.
The kindest thing I can say about Ferguson, based on this article, is that he's a traditional blood-and-soil racist. Less kind is Michael Lind, the fence-sitting is-he-a-conservative-or-is-he-a-liberal pundit. I have my doubts about him, but he seems to have Ferguson's number in this polemic from Salon. (I'm not linking to some British newspaper profiles I read on Ferguson as celebrity; you can find them easily enough. He seems to be a pretty conflicted and insecure fellow, not that that excuses his sloppy history.)
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.
I posted some of this as a comment on RWA1's link, and he protested that wanting to preserve his culture doesn't make Ferguson a racist. Insofar as that's true -- racism often casts itself as the defense of culture -- it only shows that RWA1 doesn't know what racism is. (But then, I knew that: he doesn't recognize it even when it's going off in his face like a trick cigar.) And that's leaving aside the fact that Ferguson bailed out of his "culture" to come to the US where he could look good by comparison with the local Right intelligentsia. (But really, Michael: Will and Kristol and Buckley only look like heavyweights compared to Beck, Coulter, Jonah Goldberg, and the rest of the Right's punditocracy.)

Somehow I seem to have lost my notes for History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past (Knopf, 1998) by Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree and Ross E. Dunn, which had some relevant information on history as a university-level discipline before the 1960s. It had some chilling stuff about the "Anglo-Saxon" academic establishment of those days, which was furious at having their ivied halls sullied by Jews, Slavs, and G.I. Bill rabble, which made me wonder what sort of environment RWA1 faced as a history major in those days. Evidently he identified with them; a common enough pattern, like German Jews who thought they could assimilate to the Herrenvolk. I guess I'll just have to type it in again; so I'll leave off here.

P.S. Here's what I was looking for. History on Trial, page 54:
Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA) in 1962, President Carl Bridenbaugh lamented the changes he saw occurring in the academic world. Himself from Protestant Middle America, Bridenbaugh deplored “the great mutation” in Clio’s profession that was occurring as the post-World War II GI Bill ushered into the undergraduate and graduate programs people who could not have gone to college in the Depression. “Many of the young practitioners of our craft, and those who are still apprentices,” Bridenbaugh lamented, “are products of lower middle-class or foreign origins, and their emotions not infrequently get in the way of historical reconstructions. They suffered from an “environmental deficiency” because they were urban-bred, rooted in the Old World traditions of their parents’ homelands, and therefore lacking in the “understanding … vouchsafed to historians who were raised in the countryside or in the small town.…They find themselves in a very real sense outsiders on our past and feel themselves shut out. This is certainly not their fault, but it is true.”

Almost everyone who heard or read Bridenbaugh’s references to urban, foreign-born outsiders, mutants tarnishing a noble profession, understood that he was talking about Jews. This was far from the last lamentation about the wholesale change in the recruitment of historians in a period of extraordinary growth in higher education. Bridenbaugh’s discomfort was shared widely because before World War II the history profession had been drawn overwhelmingly from the ranks of middle- to upper-class white Protestant men.
But you see, Bridenbaugh wasn't saying anything racist -- he was just trying to defend his culture.