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The personal is political is professional? Niall Ferguson, libel and the LRB.

NB: You can read Pankaj Mishra’s review and the associated letters on the LRB website here.  

Since I read Niall Ferguson’s letter in the LRB of 17 November 2011, in which he refers to a negative review of his book Civilization as “a personal attack that amounts to libel,” I have been trying to put my finger on precisely what it is that bothers me so much about the matter.

Well, in a sense, that is glaringly obvious. It’s that term “libel,” and its use by an academic historian (which, as Tisch Professor, Ferguson is). In fact, when I stand back and try to view the whole exchange with as much detachment as I can muster, that is the one element of the thing which strikes me as genuinely “off.” Not the critique of Ferguson’s work offered by Pankaj Mishra and absolutely not Ferguson’s rebuttals of his individual points—to which Mishra has, I think wisely, restricted his response to that same LRB letters page—but the application of a word like “libellous” to a review that, I believe, does not merit the term. Mishra’s review is unequivocally negative, but it focusses entirely on Ferguson’s work, his public self-representation and his statements about history and the order of things; in other words, his professional and not his personal self. If that qualifies as libel, historians all over the world should be seeking legal advice.

Now, of course, you can say that this is all very well on my part; I wasn’t on the receiving end of that review, and it really is a stinker. And oh, what a stinker it is: Mishra takes Ferguson’s work apart in such detail that it takes several readings just to absorb the many ways in which he finds it lacking. I am not a fan of Ferguson’s approach myself—I tend to agree with Mishra’s critique—but neither am I surprised that Ferguson should disagree, even angrily, with a review which aims fundamental criticisms not just at Civilization but at the projected historiographical basis of a broader portion of his work, not to mention drawing some extremely unflattering comparisons. Of course he disagrees. To state the completely bleeding obvious, he and Mishra have strongly differing perspectives on an intensely important question, the question of imperialism; the mere fact of their having an argument about it is not nearly as interesting as the broadsheets seem to believe it is, but the argument itself is very interesting, and necessary. These are things that matter. The strength of feeling on both sides is hardly surprising.

Introduce the allegation of libel, however, and we are no longer in the realm of fair and equal debate. To contest a review is one thing, and Ferguson does contest Mishra’s review and does so thoroughly, as is his prerogative. And yet to characterise it, at the same time, as libellous and demand an apology might be seen to imply that, while Mishra’s criticisms are fair game for argument, Ferguson’s own publicly-held views—to which Mishra’s review responds—are somehow not.

If this case goes to court—if Ferguson sues Mishra and wins, or perhaps even if he doesn’t—we are faced with a situation in which disagreement can seriously be represented as defamation. That ought to trouble people on any side of the historical debate at hand.

Kirsty Jane McCluskey is a PhD student in History at Queen’s University, Belfast.  For her own (far tamer) review of Civilization, click here.


9 comments on “The personal is political is professional? Niall Ferguson, libel and the LRB.

  1. annebrooke
    December 6, 2011

    Fascinating commentary, Kirsty – if the case does go to court, it should indeed disturb us all …

    Anne
    xxx

  2. Hilary
    December 6, 2011

    Excellent analysis – thanks for this, Kirsty. I was disappointed in the personal turn that this debate took, when it could have been such a fascinating intellectual set-piece without that tactic. There is little enough passionate disputation today – a reasoned debate between these two could have captured attention in a wholly positive way.

  3. KatieR
    December 6, 2011

    Good piece Kirsty.

  4. John
    December 6, 2011

    A very interesting debate highlighted by a very thoughtful review. I can see that the idea of historians resorting to libel threats is in general negative for the profession. In addition, I agree that Ferguson has overreacted. On the other hand, in the one specific case of imperialism might it not be a good thing for all the crimes connected with it to be paraded at length in the media? Surely, a libel case between the two individuals might involve the media being forced to report the details of the practices of imperialism which could be beneficial as neo-imperialism continues in our own century. As long as Ferguson lost, a repetition of this type of behaviour by a historian would be unlikely. Many thanks as ever, John.

  5. kirstyjane
    December 6, 2011

    Thank you all very much for the kind comments — and I am especially glad yous liked this one, because it was a tough one to write. John, I do wonder — if this *did* end up in court, could it perhaps be the history world’s Simon Singh case? Could that be the brightside to a disturbing action? I’m not optimistic about how the press might cover it, since the coverage so far has been (to my eye) largely — and more than a bit sneeringly — about the very fact of two academics having an argument, but I agree that whatever the outcome, this debate really should raise some very significant questions about the subject matter and, more generally, the practice of history and of critical thought.

  6. elizabethashworth
    December 6, 2011

    What you say is insightful, Kirsty. It is the subject that is being debated which is interesting rather than the personalities involved. People will always have differing viewpoints and hearing their views helps us to focus our own thoughts on difficult matters. It seems a shame that such discussions should be taken too personally.

  7. Pingback: Ferguson and Mishra « Kirsty Jane McCluskey

  8. hrileena
    December 10, 2011

    I don’t understand where the libel is in Pankaj Mishra’s review. Niall Ferguson has written these things, and unless he’s denying this indisputable fact, I don’t see how there can be a libel. One is allowed to disagree with the published work of an academic, even object to it, without being accused of libel, or at least that was my understanding of the situation.

  9. Kate Macdonald
    December 12, 2011

    I’m with kirstyjane on this one. I was appalled at NF’s responses, because they’re so self-important. Libel isn’t at issue here: it’s someone daring to disagree with him in such detail and at such length that is cheesing NF off, and now he’s throwing legal threats around as if he’s been accused of something that really matters, like theft or murder. It’s an academic book, for heaven’s sake: how many people are likely to read it? How many real reading, normal non-academic people are going to care about Mishraj or NF’s points of view? I do wish NF would realise that if the world is watching this spat it’s for the entertainment value of academic sluggery. And perhaps that’s the point: he just wants the attention.

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